Remember the homeless? Once, not very long ago, tens of thousands of New Yorkers slept in doorways, in corners of the subway, and in bleak city shelters. They pricked consciences, provoked annoyance, prompted outcries from politicians, and crowded the pages of our newspapers.
Actually, all of the facts above remain true, except the last. Indeed, just as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's quality-of-life campaign has banished homeless people from public spaces in Manhattan, exiling them to the nether reaches of the city, our daily papers have expelled the homeless from their purview, producing a fraction of the stories devoted to their situation a few years ago. And this astonishing diminution in coverage has helped the mayor push the homeless "out of sight and out of public mind," as the Coalition for the Homeless's Patrick Markee puts it even as the administration is embroiled in a crucial battle with advocates to overturn the city statute that bestows on every New Yorker a "right to shelter."
How steep is the drop-off in coverage? Consider these numbers: in the fall of 1988, The New York Times devoted 50 stories to the homeless, including five front-page pieces. Five years ago the Times carried 25 stories in the fall, including three front-pagers. This year the Times has run only 10 pieces in the same period; none have begun on A1, and four of those stories were about San Francisco or Berkeley. The numbers for Newsday were even starker: 88 stories in 1988, 27 in 1993, and 10 this fall.
Ten years ago the Times saw homelessness as a daily scourge. In a November 27, 1988, editorial calling for contributions to the Times's Neediest Cases Fund, the paper noted that "every day brings new stories about New York's homeless. City agencies search for humane, or at least legal, ways of moving them out of subways and other public places. Police have cleared them out of view from City Hall. Political battles are waged over the location of shelters to get the homeless off the streets. These are mainly cosmetic measures, tidying up the city by moving the homeless out of sight and out of mind.
"These are not solutions. They risk that the poor will be wiped from public consciousness and that humane policies will be endlessly postponed."
This Sunday's version of the Neediest Cases editorial is strikingly less urgent: "Some New Yorkers are homeless, and many more have shelter but lack heat, water, safety, privacy, and a sense of independence. . . . These have been prosperous times, but general prosperity has not been an antidote to the despair felt in many parts of this city."
And yet, as Clyde Haberman noted in his column in last Friday's Times, "New York's vast army of the homeless . . . is not about to decamp, no matter how much the city government tries sweeping it to remote corners so the tourists won't stumble across it as they leave their hotels." According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 23,000 New Yorkers sleep in homeless shelters each night. City reports show that the average number of adults staying in city shelters each night peaked at 9600 in 1988. But after falling for a few years, the numbers began to rise again, beginning the year after Giuliani first took office. They reached 7100 in 1997. More than 100,000 New Yorkers will have been homeless sometime this year.
Granted, the drop-off in local coverage appears to mirror a national trend. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry counted Post homeless headlines for a recent column, and found a steep drop over the last eight years. My own count of San Francisco papers and the Los Angeles Times shows shrinking column inches in those cities as well.
In the face of this turning-away, reporters and homeless advocates speak of "compassion fatigue." Haberman wonders if "maybe there isn't anything new to say." Lee Stringer, whose new book, Grand Central Winter, chronicles his dozen years as a homeless New Yorker, says that as a vendor and columnist for Street News in the mid '90s, he increasingly encountered frustration: "When the homeless ceased to be portrayed as blameless victims, people ceased to care. The image became one of people who just might have some complicity in their circumstances, and that changed the mood greatly."
Perhaps no one can take greater credit for changing the mood of New Yorkers than Giuliani. When he ran for mayor in 1993, a Times editorial on homelessness predicted with some alarm that Giuliani would "focus his energies on setting a tough tone rather than on finding credible solutions." By '97 the Times was citing some of Rudy's favorite nefarious characters in endorsing him: "New Yorkers no longer apathetically assume that they have to put up with aggressive panhandlers, squeegee men or parks full of make- shift housing encampments."
The mayor's tone has not changed. Two weeks ago Giuliani explained that "the way we have approached the homeless problem . . . is that there is no such individual thing as homelessness. People that are homeless have a specific problem that needs to be addressed. Some have problems like alcohol or drug addiction. You've got to deal with that. Some are straight, out-and-out violent criminals who are homeless and violate other people. They should be arrested, they should be taken off the street and jailed." Meanwhile, the city is doing less to deal with one of the other problems of homeless people: their, er, lack of shelter. According to HPD figures, the number of apartments for the homeless the city has produced has dropped 87 percent in the last four years.
And Giuliani has had an impact on coverage in other, more insidious ways. "One of the greatest problems that citizens including reporters have," says Steve Banks of the Legal Aid Society, "is that this administration makes it exceedingly difficult to get information for independent reporting, and has even resisted efforts in court to obtain information." The suppression of information and the choking of access to shelters and emergency centers coupled with a state in lockstep with the city, and a federal government that has "essentially abdicated oversight" has largely shut down a press corps, says the Urban Justice Center's Ray Brescia, "that is being led around by the nose by Giuliani."
Haberman, for one, takes exception to the notion that reporters are taking their cues from the mayor, though he grants the hobbling aspect of the administration's info squeeze. He also notes that coverage would follow government initiatives on homelessness which have been scarce. When, for example, the federal government announced it would investigate the bureaucratic obstacles New York has put in the way of poor people applying for welfare, the story made all the papers.
And where governmental interest has met renewed activism, the homeless have burst back into view. In Toronto, homelessness is front-page news (Toronto Star coverage has quadrupled from five years ago) thanks in part to an unlikely mix of persistent, raucous activism and a mayor who had an epiphany touring homeless facilities. No similar combination appears imminent here; still, isn't the press supposed to be shining a light when something is less visible?
Meanwhile, says Coalition executive director Mary Brosnahan, New York's papers are missing a "major battle that will have profound effects on homeless New Yorkers." That's the legal fight over whether the city can throw out homeless families or adults from shelters as punishment for missing workfare assignments or violating some other regulation. If the city beats advocates in court, the administration will have successfully undercut New York's longstanding right to shelter.
None of the dailies have covered earlier skirmishes in this battle, aside from the Post, which cheered when a round went to City Hall this summer. The upshot is that on this, as on other issues concerning the poor, says Steve Banks, "the government is essentially carrying out its policies in secret."
What Did Rudy Know?
Imagine that DC 37 director Stanley Hill had been forced to resign under scandal during the Dinkins administration. Wouldn't the editorial pages have jumped all over Dinkins, wanting to know what he knew and when about the union's corrupt contract with the city? So why has only Newsday's Robert Polner asked of Rudy Giuliani: "Did He Look the Other Way?," as the tab's Wednesday front page put it.
The Times's Bob Herbert noted this weekend that back in 1996, allegations of fraud in the union's contract vote were legion, with dissident DC 37 union chiefs Charles Ensley and James Butler "running around the city telling anyone who would listen that the election had been hijacked." That makes this Rudy quote, elicited by Polner on Thursday, a whopper: "The first time I knew about these allegations, I knew about them because District Attorney Morgenthau was investigating them."
Research: Soo-Min Oh
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.