Update: They listened to us, and did a follow up story in which they interviewed my boss at the Homeless Alliance. I personally would argue that it’s not a great story, but kudos to them in talking to advocates this time.
Emailed to email@example.com.
To the Station Manager:
On October 21, I was working at the Buffalo-Niagara Convention Center with representatives of nearly all the other homelessness alleviation service providers (75+!) in the Buffalo area. It was a great event, with 700 homeless and poor individuals attending so that they could get needed services such as medical care, hair cuts, housing information, legal services, HIV/AIDS testing, dental services, and a hot meal. I was supervising a team of Daemen College social work students who were surveying homeless people about their experiences. Most of these students described the experience as “eye-opening” and “not what they expected”. You see, homelessness is misunderstood. Most people resort to stereotypes when they think of homeless people, and actually talking to those experiencing that circumstance opens their eyes.
I work for the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, a research and policy organization that takes a systemic, bird’s eye view of homelessness in Erie and Niagara Counties. It is our business to know about homelessness, about the services available to help them, and to make sure they are helping clients. This means asking them – which we were doing at Project Homeless Connect.
It was an extraordinary and infuriating disappointment to see this story – and even more so to see that you deleted the comments of anyone who has more expertise than a prejudice-informed opinion on the subject. In fact, the logistics of finding an expert on the subject of homelessness – who are homeless people and homeless service providers – was easier than it is 364 days of the year. But your reporter could not be bothered.
I moved back to Buffalo in March. Now I know not to rely on your news station for anything fair or balanced.
So you are aware, most of the pan handlers are not homeless. We know this because homeless outreach teams connected with them – and do so repeatedly – but most have addresses and are housed. This is something your reporter would have discovered if they fact checked their article. The term “vagrant” is considered offensive by most people with an education, and your reporter would have been wise to omit it. Surely you wouldn’t refer to Italian or Indian immigrants as WOPs, right? It’s similar. A night of jail costs approximately $125 per night and makes it harder for someone to leave homelessness, as they have a criminal record in addition to a lack of housing. Permanent supportive housing costs $50 per night and actually gets people off the streets. All of these would have been known had your reporter researched their article beyond interviewing a rich downtown resident.
If your reporter was nervous about talking to someone who is homeless, I can assure you that walking up and being polite will be as successful as it would be with anyone who has a stable residence. I do it. I suppose that was the most disappointing part of the article – watching someone with a platform neglect to do the simple things I do on a daily basis, disparaging the city residents who are the most dis-empowered and have the least ability to defend themselves.
Please reconsider your coverage of homelessness in the future. My office is more than happy to provide any background information that you need to contextualize and give nuance to your reports, so you can avoid further embarrassment to your professional integrity in the future.
(address, job title, and contact info)
This is important because prejudice-filled opinions of homeless people are used to justify criminalizing the behaviors they need to survive. For more on this, read No Safe Place. When news agencies report as if homeless people are animals, dehumanizing legislative practices are easier to pursue and acquire an ill-informed air of virtue. Beyond that, downtown is for all Buffalo residents, not just the rich ones.
UPDATE: Here is the response I got. This was the canned response sent to everyone who emailed WIVB.
I am responding to your email regarding our coverage of the Main St. businessman complaining about vagrants and panhandlers loitering outside businesses and apartments.
I completely understand your sensitivity to the issue, but our reporter provided a clear and balanced story on the issue.
The interview subject is a respected homeowner and business owner in the area. He is far from the only person maintaining the opinion he presented in our story. Several other residents and workers shared similar opinions with our reporter before the interview, during the interview, and after the story aired. They were not willing to go on camera however, because it is a sensitive topic, and they feared a backlash such as you voiced in your email.
If you read the comments posted under the story you will see many other viewers hold the same opinion.
We specifically used the term “vagrants” because we were uncertain if all the people described by our interview subject were, in fact, people who are commonly called “homeless” in modern vernacular. Webster’s Dictionary describes a vagrant as:
One who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support. A wanderer, a rover.
In only one sentence during our report did the reporter use the term homeless and that instance referenced the city’s efforts to assist them:
“A BPD spokesman says the detail to address vagrant people includes the main street and downtown area and does include foot patrols.
Police work with outreach agencies to help the homeless get the help they need.”
Every year, WIVB broadcasts several stories on homeless advocacy. I assure you we will continue. In this particular instance our report told an often unspoken view of the issue.
Our television station takes its role in the community seriously. Our mandate is to discuss all sides of controversial issues. That coverage provides an opportunity for public discourse that hopefully results in actions that improve the lives of all the people who live in our community.
That is why I appreciate hearing from you and respect you for taking the time to communicate your thoughts.
Here is my response:
I am aware this is the same response that you send to everyone.
How unfortunate that you did not have the cultural awareness beyond your dictionary for the term “vagrant”. This would have been easily remedied with more research. It’s also too bad you didn’t look into how those police patrols work, how frequently the police meet with homeless outreach workers (here’s a hint: not very frequently).
It’s hardly courageous to take the normative opinion, that homeless people are a problem, claim it is unspoken and broadcast it. It is not an unspoken opinion – it’s the one most people have. You did not present all sides. All sides includes talking to the disparaged population. You clearly don’t get it. This is a shame.
Feel free to contact the Homeless Alliance if your idea of “fair and balanced” includes all sides of a story.