SF Homeless Project Roundup: A Review of San Francisco’s Media Blitz on Homelessness

by TJ Johnston


Is there “no bad publicity” for homeless people? A man reads the newspaper on the sidewalk. Photo by Zervas/Flickr

Up to 10,000 homeless people counted. Over 70 news-gathering organizations. One week.

Recently, an ambitious media project to examine the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to homelessness was launched, filling dozens of minutes in broadcast airtime, hundreds of column inches in print and gigabits per second in bandwidth in the last week of June.

And when it was first announced, this grand experiment almost fumbled.

That announcement in mid-May came in a New York Times story, where unhoused people on the streets were labeled as “clumps of humanity” who frightened other people away. The image from that ill-chosen metaphor was reinforced when San Francisco Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper recalled a time when she accidentally breached a homeless couple’s tent in the Financial District, and bawled them out during their lovemaking session. She told the Times that they sicced their pit-bull terrier on her and her child. Critics said that this anecdote is only one of many conflating the overall crisis with individuals discomforted by homeless people’s visibility.

Earlier this year, she pitched the idea to other editors, and the Chronicle took the lead in this enterprise that would include 70 media outlets. Plenty of people were distrustful of the paper that employs columnists C.W. Nevius and Debra Saunders, both of whom have histories disparaging homeless people in their commentaries, and whose editorial board champions sit-lie laws and crackdowns on homeless encampments.

The Chronicle’s comparison of the project to a science experiment probably didn’t help, either. Nor did its front-page editorial at its series’ conclusion calling for more muscular enforcement on homeless people’s activity.

In the week of the project’s rollout — which fell between the city’s Pride Parade and the Fourth of July holiday weekend — the diversity of outlooks and voices became apparent. Homelessness was explored from a variety of vantage points — from housing policy and public health frames to personal perspectives of those on the “front lines.” Rarely in such a compressed period of time has homelessness coverage taken so many angles. Print, television, radio and online media pooled their resources; each format delivered segments using its unique strengths.

The project posted — and continues to post — several stories on its Medium-hosted site, SFHomelessProject.com. The Coalition on Homelessness, which publishes the Street Sheet and is dedicated to the cause of preserving the rights of unhoused and low-income housed people, has also curated some of these stories on its Facebook page, called “SF Homeless Project Media Blitz — Articles Worth Reading.”

The Coalition recognizes the media organizations’ efforts to further the public’s understanding on poverty and homelessness. As a paper covering homelessness and related social justice issues year round, the Street Sheet studied the coverage with more than a passing level of interest. Here, we present a selection of noteworthy stories from the project, in no particular order.

HISTORY OF HOMELESSNESS

In beginning to understand the scope of homelessness in San Francisco, it helps to develop a historical sense. CBS San Francisco pieced together a time capsule in a segment that aired on June 26. Footage jumped from 1978 to present day, including commentary from former mayor Art Agnos and Paul Boden, Executive Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.

Homeless activists agree that the modern era of homelessness in the U.S. started in the late 1970s, with the first wave crashing shortly thereafter.

“Between ’79 and ’83, we lost billions and billions and billions of dollars in affordable housing,” Boden said. “That’s going to lead to homelessness.”

In 2006, Boden’s Advocacy Project published a report that pinpointed cutbacks in the federal Housing and Urban Development Department’s budget as the precipitating event. By 1983, the federal government defunded affordable housing spending by 77 percent and hasn’t come close to restoring to pre-Reagan era levels, according to the report.

Despite audiences’ prevailing belief that homelessness is largely self-inflicted, the mainstream media — including the Chronicle — eventually began acknowledging the U.S. government’s role, among other factors, in creating mass homelessness. Kevin Fagan’s coverage in the Chronicle, for all its neo-Dickensian portrayals of his unhoused subjects, usually includes this key background information.

More damning evidence of the federal government’s willful neglect is in the SF Weekly’s cover story. Chris Roberts wrote at length on how Ronald Reagan’s economic policies — first as California’s governor, then as U.S. president — accelerated the rate of poverty. The Reagan Administration’s decisions to shred the safety net that were in place since the Great Depression resulted in the homelessness of millions. It helps to remember that this was the man who told ABC News in 1984, “The people who are sleeping on the grates … are homeless, you might say, by choice.” Homeless advocates say this was a telling moment of the times.

Since the Reagan era, other executive decisions, such as Bill Clinton’s “ending welfare as we know it,” were fueled by maligned images of poor and homeless people, and shot poverty rates upward.

Every administration’s response to homelessness and poverty since Reagan could be characterized as human rights failures, judging by Roberts’ article. It noted that the U.S. wouldn’t sign off on at least six international treaties declaring housing as a human right.

The history of homelessness in the South of Market neighborhood figures heavily in a 1,700-word feature from Timeline. Long before the recent crop of yuppies started moving into new, market-rate housing and began complaining on Nextdoor.com, the district has been a center of homeless migration since the Gold Rush days of the mid-19th century, according to staff writer Meagan Day.

“Ever since the tracks were laid, SoMa has been on the wrong side of them,” she wrote.

South of Market housed factories, laundries and single-resident occupied hotels with itinerant workers flocking to the neighborhood. Soup kitchens, shelters and other charitable organizations appeared.

Vintage photographs — including those from the Depression era by no less a documentarian than Dorothea Lange — are laid side by side of contemporary street scenes. The contrast is stark.

SOUND, VISION AND DATA

Words and numbers alone can only go so far in describing the scope. Sometimes, sounds and images can help — and so can infographics.

Mother Jones showed readers, using seven handy charts and graphs, that 1 in 200 San Francisco residents lives without a roof. How does the last population count compare with previous ones? There’s a bar graph showing just that, and it compares among homeless subgroups, such as shelters, transitional housing, jails and hospitals. Another chart compares homelessness rates in the 15 largest U.S. cities — spoiler alert: San Francisco’s unsheltered rate ranks among the highest, following only Los Angeles and San Jose.

In fever-chart form, accompanying data over four decades show the “usual suspects” contributing to rising homelessness rates: Stagnant wages combined with rises in living costs, as well as cuts to welfare and affordable housing.

More data visualization can be found in the Chronicle’s weeklong series. Maps of San Francisco over a three-year span display clusters of 311-phone homeless complaints growing annually.

Also, charts measuring the City’s homeless population vary from source to source. The official San Francisco homeless count figures leveled out over the last eight years, with the latest from 2015 being 6,686. But City Human Services Agency officials admit that the agency’s biennial census derives lower figures, mainly because it’s a point-in-time count performed on a single night in the wintertime. But another City agency tracks its numbers year round.

The Department of Public Health’s Coordinated Care Management System usually tallies more than the point-in-time count. The system in 2015 recorded 9,975 people — a downtick of nearly 12,000 eight years prior — based on how many times homeless people accessed medical, mental health or substance abuse services.

Youth draw focus in a photo series from California Sunday Magazine that stands out among the project’s visual representations. One album is dedicated to the things homeless youth carry with them, a combination of necessities and mementos. Another follows lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the city. Audio interviews are also included.

The voice of homeless youth is given a microphone, thanks to YouthRadio. Vrndavana Hines’ recollection of his first night of homelessness at age 13 originally aired as a KQED Perspective. YouthRadio added illustrations to Hines’ audio narration and turned the piece into a graphic short story. Panel by panel, the story takes us through his travails living as a homeless throwaway teen, while at the same time concealing his difficulties from those close to him.

An interactive piece from Buzzfeed enlightens readers by putting them through a “Choose Your Adventure”-type simulation called “Can You Find a Place to Sleep Tonight?” A scenario casts the viewer as a low-income mother of two leaving immediately after a domestic dispute. What would you do if you have only $20 and your child just started kindergarten, but your sister in Sacramento could take you in? See where the choices take you.

MEASURING MEDIA IMPACT

Any media undertaking on a given topic would invite the press in practicing some form of self-analysis; when an enterprise such as the SF Homeless Project involves 70 news organizations, some reflection by the Fourth Estate is inevitable.

The news site 48 Hills specifically critiqued the Chronicle, the project’s lead, and how its coverage shaped public dialogue. Editor Tim Redmond submitted headlines as examples of less-than-sympathetic treatment of homeless people. He also gauged the level of “noise and vitriol” in the Chronicle’s articles about homelessness by grading more than 100 of its stories, columns, and editorials on a 1-to-5 scale. Accounts associating homelessness with “drugs” and “filth” scored lower, while more balanced stories received a higher rating.

The Chronicle got an overall 2.8 score. A separate analysis rated C.W. Nevius’ columns a 1.8.

In another 48 Hills piece, Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia took aim at the mainstream media in general. The Poor Magazine editor found the Chronicle an easy target, with its history of editorial stances fomenting anti-homeless sentiment and criminalization. According to her, the collaboration was “mostly media of the land-stealing (or land-owning) or corporate class who would like to see us in jail, ‘swept away’ or out of sight completely.”

Sensitivity to people experiencing homelessness is key to improved coverage: That was one of the lessons imparted when the San Francisco Public Press covered a June 10 briefing in the runup to the media blitz.

In a list of “eight simple rules,” panelists at the briefing suggested studying historical trends in homelessness, such as the slashing of affordable housing and welfare programs mentioned earlier in this article. Among other takeaways from the Public Press story were recognizing housing impacts on mental health and primary care, as well as racial disparities within the homeless population and criminalization policies that target them.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

“Putting a human face” on homelessness is every bit a cliché as it sounds, but it’s one that is grounded in truth.

An abundance of personal profiles and first-person accounts was spread among numerous outlets. In addition to the accounts by California Sunday and Youth Radio, the SF Homeless Project linked several individuals’ stories on its home page.

Also, the Stories Behind the Fog blog allowed readers glimpses into the personal lives of unhoused residents, including domestic violence survivor Queen, ex-carpenter Tony and Alabama transplants Ben and Cristina. The blog is an outgrowth of the documentary feature “Moses,” which is expected to be released next year.

Contrary to popular belief, homelessness is not always something exported to the city à la the Joad family from “The Grapes of Wrath.” Central City Extra ran a profile on Robert Guerrero III, a third-generation San Franciscan who was born and raised in the Mission District, and is now living at the Navigation Center in the neighborhood. When he became homeless in 2014, Guerrero lived in a tent on Shotwell Street, two blocks away from his old family home.

ONGOING COVERAGE

A few stories weren’t originally conceived as part of the project. Some, like the San Francisco Examiner’s package on June 29, were just part of its ongoing coverage that coincidentally hit print that same week.

The Examiner’s cover story on Homeward Bound almost took one year to reach fruition. The story on the City’s controversial bus ticket program raised the question of whether sending people out of town qualifies as housing them. The paper’s On Guard column followed recent developments on the City’s removal of — and failure to store — homeless people’s property from encampments. Plus, a story on dueling ballot measures regarding homeless encampments broke the day before and made print the following day.

This story was originally published in Street Sheet on July 15, 2016.