The San Francisco Chronicle spearheaded a blizzard of coverage in June 2016 on homelessness which included 70 news outlets by its own count, calling it the “S. F. Homeless Project.” And after a week of homeless-focused stories, the San Francisco Chronicle put an editorial on its own front page endorsing the status quo: more money for “services”, of course, and good luck with that. But the rest sounded pretty familiar; stricter tracking systems for the use of “services”, more enforcement of anti-homeless laws, and continued street sweeps of tent cities as a way to “ensure that the people who are offered this array of assistance are no longer afforded the option to flout the law with impunity.”
Flout the law with impunity. It sounds like a cool dance step you pick up in a hip hop class. But it’s the smear out of almost every Bay Area news outlet and the snarl on the face of almost every politician in close concert. It’s the best-known song about the housing crisis, and it helps to consider that some people benefit from homelessness. The average rent in San Francisco is $4,500 a month, which has a lot more to do with the creation of homelessness than drug abuse, mental illness, or the rest of the red herrings the Chronicle loves to flog combined.
There’s a clear mechanism in play at the San Francisco Chronicle, a mechanism recognizable nationwide. Chronicle reporters repeatedly savage the poor on the street for being in the way, for being messy, for inevitable and natural behavior such as defecating, etc. They continuously stoke animosity toward people on the street year round, promulgating deceptive but popular mythology, like the idea that homeless people prefer to live on the street. A few reporters, Kevin Fagan and Heather Knight in particular, manage to sneak relevant factual information into an article, but the Chronicle’s main focus has always been how hard San Francisco and its politicians work to end homelessness and how much money is wasted–whoops, spent in the process. The implication is that spending more money is not the answer — these poor people just need a strong incentive to change their attitude.
This is really handy for the San Francisco politicians who need a popular boost in the next election. Nobody ever loses votes in San Francisco for kicking around the poor. It doesn’t matter if the last anti-homeless law was a stupid, unenforceable, unconstitutional, counter-productive embarrassment even to a hard-working police officer — here comes another one! No need to honestly re-prioritize the budget if you can unveil another pointless, unenforceable anti-homeless law. People who pay attention can see where extremity meets levity; the towering pile of laws which make it illegal to pee while acres of handy dough shows up for the yacht race.
The new horsecrap anti-homeless law benefits the politicians who get public applause for doing something about the issue of homelessness whether its counter-productive or not. Then as the new pointless program with the cute name (Care Not Cash, etc.) hits the wall the Chronicle never does the story about why the program was a piece of …pointlessness. They do the story blaming the poor. Followed by the story about the next pointless program with the new cute name and the new well-meaning director standing next to the next politician who needs a pre-election boost in the papers.
Who benefits from homelessness? Property owners do. Landlords do. Most law is bought and paid for by property owners to benefit property owners who are giddy with the fact that they can legally increase their rent from $800 a month to $8,000 a month because some tech guy will just pay it. The American system of voting, after all, began in this country not just by excluding African-Americans and women — you couldn’t vote at all if you didn’t own property.
Berkeleyside put a picture of a man sleeping on concrete up on their website, apparently something from an archive. He had a sleeping bag pulled over him with his bicycle and backpack close by. He had no liquor bottle or beer can anywhere near him, but the photo was captioned “sleeping it off” as though he were drunk– as though one could pretty much assume anybody sleeping on the sidewalk was probably drunk or sleeping off a drinking binge.
That’s how assumptions are made in the Bay Area, and it doesn’t take long after unemployment, eviction, or serious illness uproots a life for people to begin making them. In a way, Berkeleyside’s editors did us all a favor by illustrating on a Monday, before their coverage for the S. F. Homeless Project began on Wednesday, that the tradition of stereotyping homeless people caught up in a planned and predictable housing crisis would continue to be honored.
It was an ominous beginning to a week of perhaps good journalistic intentions. But what ensued was no substitute for analyzing the numbers, something most publications find it politically convenient to omit. Developers, after all, are the deep pockets in town, often the primary producers in showy campaigns for anti-homeless laws such as the anti-tent law currently being promoted for November’s ballot by San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell, who coincidentally is running for re-election. Nothing positions a politician better for re-election than another unconstitutional anti-homeless law if the voting public, often honestly thirsting for a practical solution to decades of housing crisis, is fed enough daily, hostile anti-poor screeds by an obedient press.
Nobody went to jail on Wall Street for tipping the world into economic chaos. And not everybody who lost their jobs, homes, families, and health after the crash in 2008 ended up on the street. But it’s odd how little of that economic earthquake affected policy, both on and off Wall Street.
The Chronicle’s Heather Knight and Kevin Fagan are two journalists who are occasionally given space enough to write about the fact that the current policy on tent cities and street dwellers nationwide — jailing and chasing people in circles — is more expensive than simply providing and paying for housing. But such paragraphs, usually buried in the back pages, are no match for the flashy regular columnists whose stock in trade is emphasizing the horror people experience having to actually see others in need.
Powerful emotional experience is certainly part of persuasion. But it’s a curious kind of journalism that see-saws wildly between two opposing views of the inevitable poverty created by a planned housing crisis: the emotional toll on those who have to walk by visible poverty on the one hand versus the humanity of the human beings caught in the cross-fire of a political climate which hasn’t taken a practical approach to housing for decades.
“These people are human, many of them, on the streets and deserve to be recognized as such,” — Michael Krasny on KQED’s Forum program after a discussion of homelessness 6-29-2016.
People don’t mean to sound like idiots on live radio. But if Michael Krasny, the respected host of the Forum show on KQED radio can do it, perhaps it has something to do with lacking practice, not of hosting radio but of navigating a subject in which portraits of sympathetic poor people substitute for exposés of expensive, counter-productive, but politically popular policy.
We need to keep firmly in mind that there’s money in homelessness. Right now just about none of that money is being challenged and channeled to address community needs. Just about nobody is talking about real rent control, or linking rents to the minimum wage. Just about nobody wants to promote a tracking system for the wealthy to make sure they’re making appropriate choices with the profits they’re making off the rest of us. The developers have managed to monetize poverty, a feat that makes even the savviest tech guy buying Mission district property salivate–can I make an app for that?
The S. F. Homeless Project was a magic act poised to capitalize on already committed funding to create the illusion of political change without having to actually manifest any. Those who work in print know that the impressive front page editorial for Sunday’s Chronicle entitled “A Civic Disgrace”, the culmination of the week’s collected study and focus which re-committed to the status quo, was written well ahead of time.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The absence of political and moral will is the real obstacle to change. If a city had the will to address the housing crisis it would never allow developers to dedicate precious square footage to anything other than meeting community needs. Developers, after all, can go build luxury housing all over the world in places where their dollars are welcome. But the raw math of the status quo — allowing developers to chew through all the honestly affordable housing in neighborhood after neighborhood on the off chance they might leave behind a couple of units affordable to the new poor, the $80,000 to $100,000 a year crowd– is not only not sensible, it is not sustainable.
Playing games with high-end pet products, or cosmetics, or clothing are things investors and entrepreneurs can experiment with without necessarily ripping a culture to pieces. But playing games with housing, a human necessity, should be criminal. A community slowly and systematically robbed of spaces to live, spaces to make art, spaces to worship, spaces to gather, places to recreate let alone places to live has a deep poverty of leadership. The few reporters who notice need to write about that deficit, which is the real story.