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“Homelessness just isn’t sexy…”

May 4, 2011

Perhaps...perhaps, not...

Several years ago, working in another city on the West Coast I was talked into a meeting with representatives of a large bank. The agency I worked for at the time was trying to solicit funding for various social programs that were in financial trouble. So, I found myself there to talk about working with the homeless, but before I got two minutes into a short presentation on the work I was involved in, I was interrupted…

“We don’t do homeless programs. Homelessness just isn’t sexy enough for what we try to do with our charitable work.”

No shit, true story.

I remember that comment like it was said to me only moments ago, and on that afternoon my supervisor held her breath, but I held my temper and kept my job.

Reflecting this, Kevin Fagan of the San Francisco Chronicle, writing for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity comments on why poverty is so seldom covered by the print news media.

He writes:

“Between 2003 and 2006, photographer Brant Ward and I were the only newspaper team in America covering homelessness full-time. During those years, I learned, as never before, just how valuable it is to have weeks and months to get to the bottom of each situation we explored. Homeless people have mountains of dysfunction, tragic history, criminal behavior, or just plain bad luck trailing behind them, and sorting through that – and the labyrinthine governmental and non-profit world designed to help them – takes the effort of a spelunker crawling through caverns with a candle.

Telling the stories we did then, such as the saga of a colony of junkies living on a traffic island in downtown San Francisco, or the success of a program in New York for severely mentally ill street people, took enormous effort and time that would have been impossible if we were pulled back and forth between daily assignments. I still manage to produce this type of detailed report. Just last month Brant and I reported on people sleeping in San Francisco’s demolished transit terminal, and this month we produced a piece on housing vouchers for homeless veterans. But with the exception of episodic reports on surging topics, such as foreclosures or census reports, the number of intensive stories on poverty in the media everywhere has declined since my homelessness beat days. It’s not hard to see why. With the cutbacks at every newspaper in America, we are all working more quickly and prolifically than before. And even though my newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, still nurtures reporting like mine, we in this industry all have to choose projects more carefully than in the not-so-long-ago old days of bigger staffs—which makes it all the more important to take on these issues whenever we can.

The national conversation surrounding poverty is convoluted and heated, and only with objective and thorough journalistic attention will the public and decision makers ever be informed enough to move ahead proactively and intelligently. It’s always been worth the effort. And it’s worth that effort more than ever today.”

And that’s why so often it is left to us…admittedly writing flagrant opinion pieces with set agendas on blogs like this one, about what we’ve seen and experienced, or the more balanced articles in community papers like Central City Extra or SF Public Press to do just what Mr. Fagan feels should happen more, write about poverty and homelessness.

If people don’t tell the stories…all the amazing moments witnessed, as well as the tragedies, could be lost to a city that turns its quick focus to the next band, art show or restaurant, forgetting what they had to walk past to get to the next cultural experience.

Many times, I’ve sat back in my office or been out in the alley smoking a cigarette thinking about something I just heard or saw, wondering if it might have an effect on the callous, perhaps stimulate some lost sense of compassion so beaten out of them while trying to make their own ends meet, take care of the kids, nervously read the newspaper, both searching out and trying to avoid any news on the potential end of what remains to their comfortable lifestyle, so cultivated over the years.

The fear is everywhere…and sometimes, I’m afraid too…

But there’s always somebody who’s got it worse and sometimes those are the stories we need to know about, to put things in perspective and maybe inspire us to do our part, help out…the guy passed out with the needle in his arm didn’t start out that way, and all the people waiting in line to eat at Glide, you think ten years ago this was part of their plan? Five years ago? Last year?

Probably not…

So, help out those less fortunate…write about them…or at least, the next person who asks you for change? Look them in the eye to let them know you see them as a human being, even if you don’t reach into your pocket.

Help out however you can, whether it’s sexy or not.

Have a nice day

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