Did you know…that homelessness is the 800 pound gorilla in the (news)room?

Posted on August 11, 2010

Although homelessness is not a frequent topic in the news, its shadow haunts many of our headlines.

On any given day, it is unusual to see even one brief mention of homelessness in the local news. In today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, for example, the most popular articles focused on Ted Stevens, pop tarts, sex abuse, and high-speed chases. A targeted search using “homeless” as the key phrase comes up empty.

On NBC 12, the top headlines feature Amtrak discounts, the opening of Richmond’s first charter school, and the investigation results of a deadly police standoff. Again, a key phrase search comes up empty.

Items about homelessness are slightly more frequent in the South Hampton Roads area. Yesterday, on Wavy.com (the news channel serving that area), there was one item about the approved installation of “donation meters” along the Virginia Beach board walk, a measure designed to address the issue of panhandling.

A Google search of top national news items results in the tirade of the JetBlue flight attendant, Ted Stevens, flooding in China & Pakistan, and the trade deficit. If you narrow the search, only two items come up for today’s date; one about homeless camps “sprouting like mushrooms” in Santa Cruz, and the other about the death of a proposal to build a large housing complex for the homeless in the Dallas area. This summarizes the number of items appearing across the national radar.

Even more comprehensive national news outlets such as NPR only infrequently mention the issue of homelessness, and it is often buried under other “more timely” issues. For example, on the day that the federal homeless plan was released (June 22), it was necessary to wade through fourteen other articles covering topics such as cleaning oiled birds, the guilty plea of the New York car bomb suspect, and the Rolling Stone article about General McChrystal before locating the announcement by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

It’s no wonder that people experiencing homelessness are frequently referred to as “invisible.” Their daily struggles are not newsworthy, and very often, when they do appear in the news, the reports have an unpleasant connotation that seems to support the overall perception that “the homeless” are dangerous drug-addicted mentally ill criminals who are too lazy to work and feed off services supported by tax payer dollars. 

On the other hand, multiple items appear in the local and national news every single day regarding subjects such as unemployment rates, unemployment benefits, job creation, underemployment, home foreclosures, affordable housing, health care accessibility, disability & mental health coverage, budget cuts for social services, quality of education, access to education, the cost of college tuition, etc.

Although homelessness is not the explicit focus in any of these headlines, its shadow lurks on the edges of all these issues in a conspicuous but unspoken way, because these factors, especially when combined all at one time, play a critical role in the housing crises of both individuals and families.

And ultimately, we care about unemployment, health care, and affordable housing because of the specter of widespread homelessness that hangs over all these issues, threatening the very foundations of our society.

So the next time you pick up the paper and read the latest news regarding foreclosures, unemployment rates, or health care legislation, remember that, whether we acknowledge it or not, housing as a fundamental human right is at the core of every headline.

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