For the past year, the media has levied a war against the homeless with increasing fervor. Primetime Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently concluded his five-part series “American Dystopia,” which sought to investigate the rampant problem of homelessness in San Francisco. The result was a grim association of the homeless with lawlessness and liberal appeasement to drug fiends and hostile vagrants.
This indictment of homelessness is disheartening, not because of its content, but more so due to its framing. Those experiencing housing insecurities are often labeled as junkies, transients and filth.
This compelled me to investigate how the media in Louisiana, a state particularly vulnerable to wealth inequality and poverty, covers the topic of homelessness. The reporting on this subject within the past five years is rather bare, so the more egregious and misleading examples will be discussed in this article.
First, let’s be clear. Homelessness is not the problem itself, but rather a symptom of the gross inequity of which our economic and political systems are contrived. However, nearly every instance of reporting on the homeless in Louisiana seeks to convince the audience that it is the problem that either desperately needs to be fixed or is currently being fixed.
Three pieces published last fall from the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, all written by Caitie Burkes, condemned the homeless with a clever proxy, touting Baton Rouge’s “panhandling problem” as a threat to downtown businesses. The first of which explicitly claims that “Homelessness is not the issue—it’s when people feel unsafe when someone is harassing them for a dollar.”
The endeavor of creating the “panhandler” as a distinction, separate from the homeless population as a whole, is a privileged pursuit. Doing so establishes a false binary. There’s the unobtrusive homeless person, and then the panhandler, a clever and often hostile con man who misuses your dollar to fuel his vices.
Generalizing a homeless person’s circumstances, whether intended or not, strips away realistic moral considerations towards their situation.
The second piece on the matter makes a shallow empirical claim that “panhandling is on the rise.” Burkes points to an increase in panhandling arrests, citing 11 arrests made from 2008 to 2009, as compared to 19 arrests within the year leading up to Sept. 23, 2019.
Not only is this blatant cherry-picking, but it misconstrues the fact that this data only represents a rise in policing. I will not dive into the merits of policing the homeless, but I firmly believe that any increase in policing marginalized groups enables predatory policing against those groups.
This is exactly what Burkes’ third piece on panhandling prescribes as a solution: “to strengthen ... current ordinances related to public space management, aggressive panhandling, disorderly conduct and ‘sit and lie’ policies.”
Ironically, strengthening local ordinances might be the most aggressive aspect of this whole situation. These pieces make thinly veiled attempts at addressing this issue with a semblance of compassion but instead are likely designed to protect and ensure real estate and business interests.
To bring things back home, the handful of articles published in Lafayette media outlets covering homelessness are less belligerent in nature but still carry an air of ignorance and insensitivity.
The Acadiana Advocate in April 2015 unconvincingly claims Lafayette is “grappling with the issue of transients,” without ever acknowledging the issues that these “transients” (a word that automatically excludes people from being a member of our community) are grappling.
In November 2019, the Acadiana Advocate reported that “shielding Acadiana’s homeless” is coming at a “steep cost.” This article, like many others, puts the burden of homelessness on churches and nonprofits, framing it as a matter to be resolved by charity instead of policy.
And yet, the stakes of structural inefficiencies and harmful rhetoric is largely ignored.
I have active plans to cover and advocate for our homeless population in the future, but for now, I hope I’ve provided a glimpse of how seriously out-of-touch and apathetic media can be towards those in our community who need the most help.