Why We Can’t Address Unsheltered Homelessness Without Good Journalism

This post is part of Unsheltered, an Alliance blog series to explore the crisis of unsheltered homelessness in the United States. You can catch up on the whole series here.

If you’re watching closely today, you may notice something important. For the third year in a row, media outlets in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. are dedicating their coverage to in-depth reporting on homelessness.

This annual “media blitz” represents an important moment to consider the critical role that the media plays when it comes to homelessness.

As communities continue to grapple with rising levels of unsheltered homelessness, each of us has witnessed just how poorly informed the public can be on the issue. That’s certainly nothing new, but the urgency of unsheltered homelessness — combined with the proliferation of social media, community email lists, and the dreaded comments section for online news outlets — has given a new and constant platform for confusion and misinformation to take root.

We all have a role in correcting this. But the media’s ability to shape the issue is unparalleled. News coverage informs the public, shapes our understanding of complex issues, and influences the decisions policymakers make each day. It holds true for all issues, and unsheltered homelessness is no exception.

There’s good news on this front. Even in the face of a contracting media industry, we have recently seen the media commit unprecedented levels of focus and resources to the issue.

With this new focus, reporters are increasingly asking the right questions. They’re exploring best practice models, asking for outcomes data, and recognizing the critical influence of system-level coordination and local leadership in any community’s work to end unsheltered homelessness.

But there’s still work to do. Sometimes reporters get it wrong. Sometimes the issue isn’t the priority that it should be. And NIMBYism still consumes many an opinion page with appeals that are centered on fear and stereotypes rather than practical solutions.

What can we do?

Even if your organization doesn’t have the resources for a full-scale media relations effort, there are still actions you can take to help ensure the media stays focused on this issue:

  • Become a consumer of your local news. Read the news every day. Set up Google News Alerts. Pay attention to the reporters who have covered homelessness, and follow them on Twitter to get a deeper sense of where the issue falls within their coverage.
  • Reach out and introduce yourself. Many organizations are uncomfortable talking to reporters, but they need to know you’re there. If your organization has the ability to better shape that story, they need to know. If they got it wrong, they need to know. And if a reporter does a great job, they need to know.
  • Share the good news. We live in a digital age, and media outlets closely monitor the stories that perform best. So when an outlet gets it right, tell a friend, send it to coworkers, and consider posting it to social media. Every click counts.

The unsheltered homelessness crisis a defining challenge for many cities. There is no doubt that hard work lies ahead for those working toward its end. But without timely, informed, and accurate media coverage of the issue, the work will undoubtedly be much harder.