A mixed bag of media on homelessness

WEB_Homelessness

It’s been a rough year for Melbourne’s rough sleepers; and not all of it due to the cold snap Victoria faced this winter. Much of it has also been about a media portrayal of homelessness that left people living on the streets even more vulnerable and at risk of harm and abuse than usual. LANIE HARRIS and CATHY BEADNELL explain.

Melbourne’s mainstream media put a spotlight on homelessness this year, although most of this was focused on the city’s ‘rough sleepers’.

A City of Melbourne May 2016 survey identified 247 people sleeping rough on one night alone in the CBD. While this highly visible form of homelessness accounts for only 5 per cent of all homelessness in Victoria, it offers time-strapped journalists a quick story and often, a sensational headline.

Most people who are homeless, or at risk of it, remain hidden from public view, living in overcrowded dwellings, rooming houses, caravan parks, or crisis accommodation, sleeping in cars or couch surfing. It is estimated more than 20,000 people live like this in Victoria. More than 30,000 people are on public housing waiting lists.

However their stories are rarely told or investigated, and so while people who sleep rough on our streets make up only a sliver of all those who are homeless, it is this stereotype that comes to people’s minds when they think of people facing homelessness.

Even when a media story is not about rough sleeping, it is common for photo editors to marry an article about other forms of homelessness with an image of someone sleeping on the street or holding a cardboard sign.

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People sleeping rough in the CBD at the time of these articles reported feeling unsafe and vilified, with some saying they faced increased verbal and even physical attacks from people accepting the media stories of ‘aggressive beggars’.

Media coverage of homelessness is a mixed bag. Some journalists take a serious and considered approach to the systemic issues at stake, while others only seem interested in victim-blaming to secure the front page.

Unfortunately, the recent mainstream media focus on rough sleeping has tended to a hyperbolic style of journalism, reinforcing old myths and stereotypes. A series of articles in one of Melbourne’s most widely read newspapers in May attacked people begging and sleeping rough in the CBD. The first of this series made the front page, and ran with photos of people clearly distressed and likely suffering a mental health episode.

This kind of negative reporting further marginalises and denigrates people experiencing homelessness, and compounds the community’s poor understanding of its systemic causes, which can include complex, entrenched and interrelated issues including child abuse, family violence, poverty, lack of education, unemployment and mental health issues.

People sleeping rough in the CBD at the time of these articles reported feeling unsafe and vilified, with some saying they faced increased verbal and even physical attacks from people accepting the media stories of ‘aggressive beggars’.

While there has long been concern from people within the homelessness sector about negative and stigmatised media reporting, the May coverage was a watershed moment.

A group of rough sleepers mobilised in the City Square, protesting across several weeks to condemn negative and demeaning portrayal of street homelessness, and demanding long-term housing and public respect.

Homelessness workers continued to support people sleeping rough in the CBD through a terribly cold and harsh winter, while spokespeople worked to shift the public conversation from ‘why are rough sleepers causing trouble?’ to ‘why is a lack of affordable housing forcing people to live on the street?’ People from homelessness and related sectors – including government departments, universities, local charities, consumers and peak bodies – met to form a response to the negative media reporting.

They developed a communique outlining concerns around sensational and negative media coverage of homelessness and established a working group to help journalists improve reporting standards. This recognises there are many journalists and outlets in both traditional and online media who report on social issues in an ethical, informed and constructive way. Part of any strategy that aims to influence media coverage will identify the good stories and provide positive feedback to journalists and editors.

The Homelessness Communications Network started a new social media campaign, Operation Bounce, to recognise and reward informed, positive media reporting of homelessness. By promoting and publicising selected stories through social media platforms, newsletters and internal communications, Operation Bounce aims to boost the profile of quality journalism.

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If anything is going to change then the media can’t regurgitate this garbage about the homeless being all the same, and all being bad. I’m so angry about that. There are so many degrees to homelessness. But perhaps you have to experience it to understand.

At the end of the day a wide range of news outlets inform the community about the structural causes of homelessness, and offer sound solutions. The mainstream media wields significant power in public and political arenas. Public attitudes significantly affect social policy development and implementation, holding the potential to either help solve issues like homelessness, or further marginalise some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Working together, we hope to influence these attitudes and reporting to support people facing the many complex issues around homelessness.

Perhaps it is fitting to give the last word to Kevin, an advocate who has himself faced homelessness, and summed it up in an August 2016 edition of The Saturday Paper: “If anything is going to change then the media can’t regurgitate this garbage about the homeless being all the same, and all being bad. I’m so angry about that. There are so many degrees to homelessness. But perhaps you have to experience it to understand.”

Image provided courtesy of CHP, which featured it on the cover of their May 2012 edition of Parity.

 

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