Have you noticed how often homelessness and poverty are crowding your news media feeds lately?
It’s everywhere from Nextdoor to the nightly news to your local paper. Evictions, encampments, unemployment, affordable housing developments, community responses, failures and new reports. And without question, there is a growing fascination with finding the headline grabbers that scrutinize and dissect the lives and conditions of our most vulnerable neighbors.
At its best, this intense focus can sometimes lead to real change. In Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Evicted, the author follows the lives of families living in Milwaukee to truly understand a system of economic exploitation that is devastating countless people every year. He won a Pulitzer for this book and helped to promote eviction policy reforms that are going on right now throughout the country. This worked so well because Desmond took the time to understand every aspect of the issue and then put together an articulate argument that we must do something better.
Unfortunately, this book was the exception, not the rule, when it comes to covering the issue of poverty. The headlines today are mainly about trash, blight or crime, and the fault is almost always generously lathered on those who have the least. For instance, when is the last time you read a story about rampant drug use in a market rate development? I’m guessing you don’t have an answer, but I’m sure you can list all of the issues at a nearby affordable housing site.
By the way, that’s not because there are any more problems there compared to any other apartment building. We are all just allowed to know the intimate details of the conditions of poor people in a way that would be inappropriate and unacceptable for anyone else. And for some reason we make the decision to shine the light brightest and apply the most pressure on those who are already struggling to make it. And when there’s problems, we decide to turn the volume up to 11.
Sometimes this leads to action, but not often. And the clickbait nature of coverage today — whether it’s from a brave and nameless keyboard warrior or a deadline-driven, under-resourced, ink-stained wretch — means much less depth and almost no follow-up. The words so easily placed on the screen get plenty of attention initially, but end up only further stigmatizing and stereotyping folks, making the case for greater empathy that much harder.
All this isn’t to say we shouldn’t have a robust dialogue about critical policy issues impacting people living outside, families uncertain of how to pay the rent and frail seniors just barely hanging on. There’s considerable value in elevating these issues, bringing concrete analysis and hearing real stories about the impact. The more we learn about our options to make our community a better, more inclusive place for all, the better our chances will be about seeing that work through.
What we can’t keep doing is making poverty a sin, poor people the problem and our unhoused neighbors the villains of our collective story, no matter how many likes, followers or retweets it might bring.
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.