The most cited reason for homelessness in Buffalo and Erie County is lack of affordable housing. This is not isolated to Buffalo. Cities around the country face affordable housing crises. In New York City, someone working at minimum wage would need 3.4 full-time jobs to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent. In Buffalo, the average wage earner makes $9; the wage necessary for housing to be affordable is $11.85. This leads many to choose between paying their rent or paying for food, rescinding necessary savings and leaving them one or two steps from homelessness.
However, lack of affordable housing is often left out of the mainstream dialogue. Instead, homelessness is equated with laziness, lawlessness, and chemical dependency.
As one example of the nature of this dialogue, The Times-Picayune, an award-winning newspaper in New Orleans that was heralded for its outstanding coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, published an article yesterday on the “problem” of “vagrants” in Washington Square Park. Read it here.
The article was accompanied by several photographs of adult men referred to as “vagrants” napping on benches in Washington Square Park.
It is troubling to see this kind of sensationalist journalism coming from what is otherwise a reputable city newspaper.
The article is troubling for the following reasons:
1) It feeds off of mainstream stereotypes of the poor.
The author of the article notes: ‘With a lack of police patrols since Katrina, the park has seen an increase of illegal activity, said Daniel Bugg, who has lived in the neighborhood for about six years. He said people, usually homeless, are increasingly drinking, doing drugs, sleeping on the park’s benches and begging for money.”
The homeless here are portrayed as chemically addicted trespassers who have found sanctuary in the park because there is a less of a police presence. The assumption here is obvious: that they are residing in the park because they want to, they choose to be homeless. As one resident stated: “It’s become a place for people who don’t have jobs or alcoholics who are sleeping in the park”. Or another resident ( with a much more offensive tone) : “I’m tired of seeing drunken bums urinate in the shrubbery and listening to them shout obscenities at the top of their lungs.”
This is all assuming, of course, that the “vagrants” referred to here and pictured in the article are even homeless to begin with. Yet another stereotype emerges of the “appearance” of homelessness: a dirty, smelly old man. This myth, however, has been long debunked, as almost 50% of those experiencing homelessness are families ( with 1.35 million children).
2) The article portrays the homeless as criminals
One of the more disturbing photos accompanying the story was of a man carrying a knife, which he said was “protection” from those sleeping in Washington Square Park. The author interviewed residents who are spear-heading a campaign to make Washington Square Park “family-friendly” once again through an ordinance making it illegal to sleep in public places. This is a clear example of “quality of life” laws that seek out ways to make the poor disappear.
There is a question that goes unasked throughout the entire article:
Why have some chosen to reside in Washington Square Park after Katrina?