The Media Homeless Project: Is it working?

Let's see: Hundreds of stories later, the voters passed a terrible anti-homeless law and the people who won't fix the problem got elected to office. What are we doing wrong?

Back in June, at the instigation of Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper, more than 70 media organizations put out hundreds of stories on the homeless crisis in San Francisco. “We intend to explore possible solutions, their costs and viability,” the letter announcing the project stated.

I signed on. We were part of the Homeless Project, I always thought it was a good idea; the more we can talk about the crisis, the more we might be able to get the city to do something about it.

But I was also nervous from the start: The way the news media in this city cover homelessness is often disturbing. People who don’t have a place to live are routinely dismissed as drunks and drug addicts, criminals and losers who just don’t want to get a job.

A passed-out, unnamed homeless person creates an image of drunks and drug addicts
A passed-out, unnamed homeless person creates an image of drunks and drug addicts

So now we are back, doing this again. Dec. 7th is Part Two. And I think it’s fair to look back at the past six months and ask: Has this done any good?

Let’s see: In November, San Francisco elected a person who is among the harshest critics of homeless people to the state Senate. The voters approved a nasty, stupid anti-homeless law that even the Chronicle opposed. Then they rejected a sales tax to fund homeless programs after the mayor abandoned it – so the existing plans for homeless services have to be cut back.

A conservative majority that supports market-rate housing as a solution to the problem won control of the Board of Supervisors.

So: After all of this news media attention, which has won a bunch of awards, the situation is by any objective analysis even worse than it was in June.

What happened? What did we all do wrong?

Let me offer some suggestions.

 

Homelessness is not a typical daily news media issue. I have been in this business for 35 years, starting with a daily paper (the Hartford Courant), moving on to a weekly (the Bay Guardian) and now back with a daily. I have been to at least 50 awards programs, dinners, and conventions where we recognize each other’s work (and pick up plaques that impress the boss).

And here’s the kind of “impact” story newspapers like:

Public Official X (or, much less often, Private Corporate Crook X) gets exposed by a reporter for something that is illegal or politically fishy, and is forced to resign.

Public Agency Y (or, much less often, Private Corporation Y) gets exposed by a reporter for cheating or wasting your tax money (or wasting shareholders’ money), and someone is fired.

Public Worker Z (or, much less often, Private Worker Z) fails to act properly, something bad happens, and someone is fired.

Something bad happens, and Public Agency A (or, much less often, Private Company A) is exposed for failing to put in place or enforce policies that could have prevented said tragedy. Someone is fired, or some politician introduces a bill to fix the policy failure, who then gets lauded along with the reporters.

(Carole Migden, who served on the Board of Supes and in both the state Assembly and Senate, used to joke with me: “All I have to do is read a story in the Chronicle and call them and tell them I will introduce a bill, and I get my picture on the front page.”)

A terrible tragedy happens, the news media exposes it (and community pressure forces City Hall (or another level of government) to take action.

(That is what is happening now with the Ghost Ship Fire. Journalists are exposing the fact that the Oakland building inspectors didn’t crack down on an unpermitted living situation and unpermitted parties. They are demanding that the officials involved be held accountable and that laws or policies or practices be changed. A few are actually saying that a lack of affordable housing and arts space is a deeper issue, but they are drowned out.)

I’m not saying any of those things are wrong. Investigative reporting by mainstream and alternative media outlets has brought to light tens of thousands of minor, serious, and atrocious situations and forced public officials to act. I am all in favor.

But the traditional media approach doesn’t work for something like homelessness in San Francisco. And the overall story approach of this project has never gone in the direction that would actually make a difference.

All the stories about human tragedy, about City Hall waste or City Hall initiatives, all the discussion about “solutions” gets you nowhere unless you are willing to dig deep into the structural reasons that about 8,000 people are living on the streets of San Francisco – and they are broad, and complex, and involve villains who are a long way away from the immediate picture.

There is a necessity to look at deep issues that defy normal news media coverage.

We have to start saying things like this:

Homelessness in America cities is a direct result of the demolition of federal funding for housing that started with Ronald Reagan – but was never restored by Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. And Rep. Nancy Pelosi was once the head of a party that controlled both houses and the White House – and she never made a serious move to bring that money back to cities. Not one story in this project has held her accountable. None of the presidential candidates talked about urban housing this year; none of the debate moderators, or political reporters covering the race, made it an issue.

Some of San Francisco’s most prominent people and corporations are part of the problem. There would be fewer homeless people if Airbnb hadn’t devastated the local housing stock. The mayor, his pal Airbnb investor Ron Conway, and Assemblymember David Chiu played a major role in protecting the tech company at the cost of thousands of housing units.

The biggest single cause of homelessness in San Francisco is not substance abuse or a refusal to seek help. It’s eviction. The city spends tens of millions of dollars a year taking care of people who have lost their homes, which could have been saved for a tiny fraction of that.

Homeless people aren’t a “problem;” they are victims, refugees. We as a society have failed them. Neoliberalism, public austerity, the massive concentration of wealth at the top … these are causes of this failure. There was a time when public assistance — call it “welfare” or whatever you want — paid enough to put a roof over people’s heads. Now (after, by the way, some journalists in the 1980s decided that exposing welfare cheats made for good copy) we pay so little that nobody can even afford and SRO room.

The biggest cause of evictions isn’t the Ellis Act, although that’s part of the picture. Right now, the biggest cause of evictions, and the housing crisis in general, is the tech boom and the displacement that comes with the mayor, by policy, attracting tens of thousands of highly paid new workers to the city, most of them moving here from somewhere else, before the city had any clue how to house them.

San Francisco has actually placed a lot of homeless people in housing. Nonprofits have built a fair amount of affordable and supportive housing. But every time we find someone a place to live, another person winds up on the streets. This is why homelessness never seems to get any better.

Here’s a story idea for all of us to work on: Survey 1,000 homeless people, and find out how many wound up on the streets because of a no-fault eviction. Then go find the landlords who did the evictions, causing homelessness, and put their pictures on the front page.

How about the swing-vote Democrats who killed Ellis Act reform in the state Assembly Housing Committee?  If any of the news media talking about the problem pinned any of it on them, I haven’t seen it.

 

We know how to address homelessness. It’s a complex problem, but the solutions aren’t rocket science. Even the Chron, to its credit, pointed out how solutions can work. It’s not so much money that a rich city like SF can’t make it work.

But we also need to start with the Hippocratic Oath of Housing: First, do no harm. We need to stop allowing landlords to throw people out of their homes. Then we need to force the people who have benefited greatly from the boom to pay for the costs they have incurred on the city, raising large sums of money for social housing. We need to spend the money it takes to provide acute and long-term mental-health services.

And we need to stop electing politicians who scapegoat homeless people for their own ambitions (and in this past election, the Chron pretty much endorsed all of them). We need to stop portraying homeless people as criminals, drug addicts, and anti-social.

After the Chron wrote a nice piece explaining what is needed, the paper never forced elected officials to say: Yes, we will do this, starting now. Instead, the Chron’s entire political lineup in November was people who refuse to address the problem, defy even the paper’s own reporting, and still get away with it.

I’m not just picking on the Chron — much of the local news media has failed to educate the public about the real causes of homelessness, the real solutions, and the people who are responsible. If we had done a better job, Prop. Q would have failed, Wiener would not be in the state Senate, the anti-homeless, pro-free-market crew would not control the Board of Supervisors, and the mayor would be leading an effort to profoundly change the local economy.

But that’s not happening. We keep writing and broadcasting, and nothing seems to get any better. Maybe we need to change our tone.