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Monday, April 12, 2002. On April 8, KQED devoted its monthly Media Salon to an examination of images of poverty in the media, asking, “What do people need to know about poverty? What stories need to be told? What can you do?" The following remarks by Jennifer Friedenbach were part of the introduction to the discussion. Friedenbach is a member of the Coalition on Homelessness and occupies the legal advocacy seat on the San Francisco Local Homeless Coordinating Board.

Images of Poverty

“The media must hear these voices”

By Jennifer Friedenbach

I want to talk today about poverty. I also want to talk about a by-product of poverty, homelessness – its roots, its causes, and its portrayal in the media.

We have the largest number of people living on the streets since the Great Depression. Why?

First off, when the federal government decided to "get out of the housing business," massive cuts to federal housing for poor people occurred. The government cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 80 percent, basically destroying it. When funding for HUD was the lowest, in 1983, we opened our very first homeless shelter in San Francisco. Today 62 percent of U.S. housing subsidies go to households earning over $100,000 a year. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, we have torn down thousand of units of low-income housing and replaced it with just a portion of the number of original units.

Folks with disabilities also lost their disability benefits in 1980: all had to reapply, thanks to a poorly conceived change in the Social Security law. Folks with mental health disabilities who could not navigate the bureaucracy lost their benefits. When this happened again a couple years ago, 200,000 people nationwide lost their benefits, and here in San Francisco, a couple of thousand lost them.

We also have seen other public cash assistance cut more than 20 percent overall in the last fifteen years. Our community mental health system has been decimated, thanks to Prop 13 and realignment: we have lost half of our board-and-care facilities here in San Francisco. In the last couple of decades, workers have met with a job market that is based in the service sector – for unskilled workers this means low wages and no health benefits.

I could go on.

What little existed of a social safety net for poor people in our country has been so shredded that the poorest among us – the low-wage workers, the un- and under-employed, disabled people, seniors, veterans, single-parent families, people of color – have now ended up on the streets. As things get worse for poor people every year – more oppression, less opportunity – we are creating a permanent underclass. A class of people who have something in common: they are poor, they are without housing – and they are now demonized in the media.

The Coalition on Homelessness has been engaged in a full-time struggle for economic and social justice for poor and homeless people for more than fourteen years. During that time, we have organized parents and single adults receiving welfare against cuts and other brazen immoralities; we have organized addicted parents and their children against the inequities of the substance-abuse treatment system, and mental health consumers for access to treatment that could save their lives. We have struggled for and created permanent housing. We have called for living-wage jobs. We have worked for reforms in just about every bureaucracy that is set up to serve poor people.

During this time, we have seen how the broader images that our society creates around poor people dictates how poor people live. These images ensure the continuation of whatever oppression disenfranchised peoples are suffering from. Whether we are talking about welfare moms, drug addicts, homeless people, immigrants, people with mental illnesses – each and every one of them is blamed and demonized by our society for being where they are. For needing assistance. For being poor. For being homeless. Our society calls them welfare queens, welfare cheats, deadbeats, homeless bums, crazies, loonies, dope fiends, junkies. You can read it in the Chronicle or watch it on Sixty Minutes. The constant is a separation between us and them, good and bad, deserving at Christmas and undeserving in the spring, when the programs poor people depend on get cut. If you see the media as a reflection of broader societal values, then judging by local mainstream media, you can only come to one conclusion: our society believes that people choose to be homeless.

Our society – where only the strong survive, where if you work hard you will make it, where you can be whatever you want to be. Where individualism and self sufficiency are valued above all other values. Above a collective spirit. Above equality. Above justice. What we have done in effect has been to shift the blame from the structural issues in our society that have created poverty and homelessness to the individual human being. Thus letting each and everyone of us off the hook. Certainly letting our policymakers off the hook.

Our job at the Coalition on Homelessness is to turn this around. To slice through the imagery that creates a comfortable seat from which rulers oppress. We cannot turn it around without the presence of an independent consciousness – an independent consciousness that is the oppressed person’s viewpoint.

That is what we do. We create spaces thorough which poor people's voices can reclaim their own images. Can create change. Can solve their own problems. We do not create voices. The voices are already there. We simply make sure those voices are heard. Loud and clear.

These voices are not being reflected in the mainstream media. Corporate interests in seeing homeless people "pushed out of sight" are certainly covered. We had four months straight of coverage in the Examiner and the Chronicle about "The Mess on Market Street" and "Criminals Control 6th Street." How it was hurting tourism. The Chronicle – from the editorial board to columnists to reporters, all chimed in – using the word “homeless” in the same sentence as "trash,” “urine,” and “defecation.” Reporters even used such phrases as "the streets are littered with the homeless." They were talking about human beings.

KRON did a "documentary" on homelessness, which included such sensationalist images as people shooting up and police politely knocking on tent doors to ask homeless people if they needed any help. They felt comfortable violating confidentiality. They said an individual refused treatment, when he was not offered any. They said that people don't receive help because the Coalition on Homelessness magically gets their tickets dismissed and therefore they do not get hooked up with services. Even though the thousands of $70 tickets homeless people get for being homeless are infractions that send them to traffic court, where they are never offered services. Never in this coverage did they talk about the thousand or so people on the waiting list for substance-abuse treatment, the systemic causes of homelessness, the nature of addiction – how it is a disease, how difficult it is to get and stay clean when you don't have a place to live. How the trauma of homelessness itself affects addiction disorders. None of that. Just a basic theme: Homeless people negatively impact us by their very presence – they refuse services that are offered to them.

The issue of homelessness isn't exactly a popular one. Politicians scapegoat homeless people for not going away, then insist that their homeless people came from somewhere else. The media vilifies homeless people for having no place to call home; society marginalizes them for how they look. Other people avoid looking them in the eyes, walk around them on the street, and refuse to even see them as human beings. Police criminalize them for being poor, confiscate their meager possessions, chase them from place to place, deprive them of their sleep, and arrest them. These broader societal attitudes even transcend the way our services are provided. Systems set up to serve homeless people refuse to treat them with dignity. When homeless people speak out, they are deemed "non-compliant" and "denied services." They are infantalized and then denied employment except for the most low-paid and menial of jobs.

When we add to that the portion of homeless people – the most visible ones – who are mentally ill and medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol, we have probably the most vocally despised members of our society at large.

These broader societal attitudes are reflected in our policymakers decision making. Thus, these populations are ignored by our politicians or trodden on when it’s time to win votes.

The untold stories. There are so many. Over half of those seeking mental health services in San Francisco last year never received them. There are over a thousand people on the waiting list for substance-abuse treatment every day in San Francisco. Free methadone maintenance takes months to get, and there are no more publicly funded medical detoxes in the city. And try staying sane and clean while living on the streets. Yet it takes years to get subsidized housing in San Francisco.

We believe at the Coalition on Homelessness that homeless people are adults: they know exactly what they need and they, as a community, not only can create solutions to homelessness but do create those solutions.

The state of homelessness is completely taken for granted in this, the richest country in the world. We can turn to other countries, with less resources than we have, and see that they have managed to have guaranteed housing, guaranteed income, and health care for everyone who needs it.

Real solutions to homelessness, which include housing, treatment, childcare, and livable incomes, can only come from the same people who are affected by the lack of solutions – the people who are living on the streets. The media must hear these voices, allow these voices to speak. The context of poverty and homelessness must be present. Today, in just about every story on homelessness, this context is missing. While some stories around Christmas may cover homeless people in a positive way, they are mostly of the feel-good charity sort that never fit the individual into a broader structural context. Responsible media stories must dig deeper and must at least be inclusive of the many voices for justice.