The media has a large role in forming public perceptions of social issues, such as homelessness. This is not inherently good or bad, it’s simply the way it is. However, it becomes unfortunate when the media chooses to perpetuate negative perceptions or false information, rather than educating the public.
Take for example this article published yesterday. Reports on jobs for homeless persons always catch my eye as there is a popular misconception that people simply need jobs to end homelessness, not realizing that for most at this point in their life, jobs are a number of steps up the hierarchy of needs; hence the focus on housing first, rather than employment first, medication first, or any other such model. So what were three things that made me cringe in reading this article?
- A shelter that defines its mission as “to rehabilitate the homeless”. There is so much in the language of that phrase that is pejorative. The definition of ‘rehabilitate’ fits in terms of it being good if people could have their former privileges and health back, but ‘to rehabilitate’ is something that is done to people. It’s as if ‘we’ can somehow fix ‘them’. And of course, I have talked previously about my beef with the term ‘the homeless’.
- They quote a man saying, “It’s not really a choice for all of us who are on the streets.” This implies that homelessness is actually a choice for many who are on the street, which perpetuates a common stereotype. However, research on preferences for housing has found that either 0% or less than 1% (depending on the location of the study) of homeless people choose homelessness. He should instead have said, “It’s not a choice for any of us to be on the the street.”
- The article is reporting on an event that promotes jobs first, rather than housing first. All the research from the past 10 years has demonstrated that for long-term success (ie. not returning to homelessness) people need stable living accommodations first. Setting people up with employment who do not have stable housing is often setting them up for failure, which may be reflected in the 50% success rate the article mentions.
It seems that before we can use the media to educate the public, we first have to educate the media.