Bramson: Pop culture doesn’t know anything about life on the streets 
George Villanueva, a homeless resident, said he keeps warm at night with donated jackets and sleeping bags as well as with his own electric heater. Photo by Jackie Contreras.

How are we portraying the situation of homelessness in the United States? Over the course of a year, a recent study by the Center for Media and Social Impact looked at 150 episodes of 50 television shows, and 5,703 news articles published by 12 news outlets to investigate this very question.

The results of this report showed overwhelmingly that these sources primarily rely on stereotypical and inaccurate depictions of homelessness, while heavily misrepresenting the causes of why people end up unhoused and also dramatically oversimplifying how to end homelessness.

Making matters worse, over 80% of the homeless people on the nightly sitcoms and melodramas were really nothing more than disposable props, only showing up for one episode, with few speaking lines. These people were talked about as the lead characters walked by them on the sidewalks, but never actually had the chance to tell the real story of how they ended up there.

This lack of voice for those who actually have first-hand knowledge of their own situations has long been a troubling issue in the broader public discourse. While progressives, conservatives, NIMBYs, and YIMBYs rage about the source of our housing crisis, the people who are impacted historically get very little say in the policies and programs that are cooked up to help end the perceived problem. As a result, the proposed fixes tend to pander to masses, often missing the mark and leaning too heavily into the charity or criminalization tropes that have led us so far astray.

And the stakes are now being raised by loud windbags who really know the least.

A flurry of diatribe from uninformed think pieces claim those living outside have been a part of the destruction of cities and failed gubernatorial candidates spent their numbered days on the campaign trail going so far as to place the ruin of western civilization at homeless people’s bedraggled feet. But what if — instead of the sound bite or quick quip to raise social media status and improve book sales — these same folks spent their energy uplifting the knowledge and experience of those who had actually been through the hardships?

The reality is it’s not hard — and often extremely beneficial — to listen to people who have experienced homelessness and allow their voices to inform solutions. Here in Santa Clara County we have multiple groups, including a Lived Experience Advisory Board — consisting of members with current or past experience of homelessness who are working to evaluate the system of care and to make recommendations for improvement. By elevating this type of expertise, we’ve already started to see better outcomes in current programs and the development of more informed opportunities in the future.

One way or another, we’re going to keep telling these stories. Why not spend the time listening to the people who know them the best so we can get it right?

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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