Homelessness Back in Vogue

The holidays are the time for eggnog, cheer and news reports of the down and out.

So right on cue, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released the results of a survey last month reporting rising hunger and homelessness on the streets of America's biggest cities. The Associated Press and several major metropolitan newspapers reported it — one piece of the traditional holiday pie of stories on the less prosperous in the richest nation in the world.

But some say with a Republican in the White House, homelessness is in vogue again after more than a decade when AIDS was the cause du jour. So has it become cool to care about the downtrodden? Have the homeless, once again, become hip?

By all accounts, homelessness has risen steadily. The Department of Housing and Urban Development says 25 percent more people are on the streets in 2002 than in 1991. The National Coalition for the Homeless puts that number at closer to 50 percent.

But the network news has been shown to do more stories on the homeless during Republican administrations. In one study by the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, the organization found more than double the number of network evening news segments on the homeless during the final three years of the first George Bush presidency compared to the first three years Bill Clinton's first term.

Ted Hayes, who runs Dome Village, a homeless camp in Los Angeles, said part of the problem has been a Democratic president for most of the 1990's. Under Clinton, homeless advocates assumed the most powerful man in the world was actively working for the less fortunate, he said.

Hayes, who has been homeless for more than 17 years, organized the Los Angeles National Homeless Convention outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000.

"They should be constantly throwing this up in the eyes of the president," he said of homeless advocates during the Clinton administration. "Why didn't they? Because there was a Democratic president. They complained under Reagan and (the first) Bush."

Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center of Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., said the national media discovered homelessness during previous GOP administrations as a way to judge how those regimes were handling the poor. It became a social barometer that is emerging once again with George W. Bush in the White House, he said.

"I think many reporters feel more outraged about a Republican government looking for market solutions to homelessness than they do about a Democratic government looking for government solutions," he said.

Too often, Lichter said, media organizations portray a false image of the homeless, often showing them as no different than those with a warm bed and two-car garage. It harms those they aim to help by ignoring problems of mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, he said.

"I think this is a case where journalists instincts are doing violence to their primary mission, and that is to tell the public the truth and let them decide for themselves," he said. The yearly rediscovery of the problem of people on American streets is journalists' social conscience, he said.

"Homelessness is the kind of issue that lets reporters wear their hearts on their sleeve," he said, "and that heart tells them the government should do something about it. When a Republican is in office, the government seems less concerned than they think should be true."

So will it be different this time around? Hayes is optimistic about President Bush, but his expectations aren't exactly high of the GOP.

"They suffer from the same delusions as Democrats do," he said.