Experts urge deep understanding of homelessness issues

By Jon Funabiki

Today’s homelessness crisis can be traced back to the 1970s when the federal government cut housing projects and welfare programs at the same time that jobs in manufacturing industries vanished, leaving people to “live or die on the streets” of cities like San Francisco.

“Homelessness is a relatively new phenomenon that has not always existed,” said Stacey Murphy, research director for the California Housing Partnership Corporation. “It is not an inevitable feature of the American landscape. It emerged in the late 1970s and ‘80s as the product of very specific socio-economic and policy shifts.”

This was one of the big lessons offered by experts during an all-day briefing about homelessness issues organized by Renaissance Journalism and the Lab for Community and Media for Bay Area journalists. The event was held June 10 at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco as part of the SF Homeless Project, an ambitious campaign by local news media outlets. Under the plan, participating news agencies have pledged to jointly focus attention on the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis in hopes of stimulating action by government agencies, nonprofit groups and others. Their stories will be published or broadcast on and around June 29.

The briefing was organized by Venise Wagner and Laura Moorhead of the San Francisco State University Journalism Department. They have been working with Renaissance Journalism to try to stimulate improved news coverage of the issues faced by vulnerable communities – people of color, immigrants and the poor—who live in the region.

We asked Murphy and 20 other government officials, nonprofit leaders and health leaders to explain the root causes and systemic issues that have contributed to the crisis, the needs of the people who are homeless and the actions that can potentially alleviate the situation. The journalists were told:

  • The news media should report not just the flashpoints that create headlines, but the deeper issues that contribute to the crisis.
  • There is a greater need for more supportive housing programs, which provide both shelter and services, and increased coordination among government agencies and service providers.
  • The population of those who are homeless is aging—many are 50 years or older—and that African Americans and people of color are disproportionately affected.
  • Cities are increasingly adopting laws—such as those that ban sitting or resting on sidewalks— that essentially criminalize people who are homeless.

The speakers also asked journalists and the public to offer compassion to people living on the streets.

“We often hear people speaking in a voice that’s completely lacking in compassion … talking about people who are homeless like they are less than, somehow. That I find disturbing and it makes me deeply sad,” said Jeff Kositsky, executive director of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s newly created department of homelessness. “Look somebody in the face and smile at them. Show some radical compassion for the people who are brothers and sisters and sons and daughters who are on the street.”

About 50 journalists attended the briefing, and another 90 were able to view the proceedings on the web thanks to the ITVS OVEE streaming system. Recordings of the proceedings are now available on YouTube:

Part 1 – Housing

Part 2 – Government & Rights

Part 3 – Public Health

Part 4 – Solutions Journalism