Friday, May 2, 2008

From the Editor: Cracking It Open

by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Things got a bit heated at the Street Sense office recently.

At least three vendors – Francine Triplett, Conrad Cheek Jr. and Alicia Jones – were offended at the photo essay, “The D.C. Streets: The Other Side,” that Street Sense ran as a color spread in its April 16 issue.

The photo essay, by volunteer photographer Dan Wilkinson, was the result of many hours spent patiently cultivating sources downtown. It included an extreme close up of a man smoking crack near Franklin shelter on 13th and K streets, NW. Only the man’s lips and part of his moustache were in the frame; the focus was on his hands and on the glass pipe held to his mouth.

Francine was upset because the photograph played into a stereo-type, she said: “People already think that homeless people do nothing but drugs.” (Dan says the man told him he is not homeless and does not live at Franklin but only goes to the area to buy and smoke crack.)

Alicia said there were plenty of positive things in the city that the photographer could have focused on instead.

Other objections were that the photograph was unsuitable for children and would upset teachers and parents who use the paper as a teaching tool on social matters.

However, the same issue of Street Sense features a front-page editorial by vendor Jeffery McNeil, “Drug Use Cuts Across Class and Race,” which argues that drug addiction can’t be blamed just on the homeless or the poor. Taken together, I think Jeffery’s editorial and Dan’s photos provide an interesting counterpoint and illustrate our mission of “elevating voices and public debate.”

Other Street Sense vendors have actively helped guide our reporting during the weeks that reporter Brittany Aubin and photographer Dan Wilkinson have explored the subject of drugs and homelessness for our April 16 and April 30 issues.

“People need to know why the shelter system isn’t working and why transitional housing isn’t working,” one vendor said, pointing out how hard it is to escape addiction when drug dealers frequent the spaces right outside shelters. He wants readers to understand.

Meanwhile, Brittany has faced similar objections during her work on this issue’s cover story on the obstacles to recovery for homeless addicts. “I have consistently faced hurdles to getting information, or even maintaining a conversation,” Brittany wrote recently.

“Despite working from tips given by vendors, I couldn’t help but feel at most a reluctance, and at worst a hostility, to stories that could perpetuate stereotypes of drugs and homelessness from both home-less individuals and the advocates serving them,” she said.

It’s worth repeating that Street Sense editorial policy, laid out on page 2, is to reflect a multitude of perspectives on poverty. Street Sense does not exist to “sanitize and castrate” community issues, as Brittany eloquently says, or to project “a shiny, grateful and presentable image of homelessness.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I’ll let Brittany complete her thoughts.

“As a news outlet, I believe Street Sense has an obligation to present the fullest, most complex view of issues as possible. This cannot happen in a framework that permits only one archetype of a homeless individual,” she writes. “Homelessness should not merely be unacceptable when it happens to the ideal archetype – to the single mom, to the repentant former playboy, to the elderly woman forced from a gentrified home.”

She continues: “I have spent hours at Franklin Square Park, I have talked to city officials, I have asked vendors. I have called shelters and surveyed service providers. I have pored over studies and crunched numbers ... I do believe that it is right to communicate what I view. For many, this investigation has hurt feelings, or seemed intrusive or to have served narrow sensationalistic interests. To that, I can empathize, but not apologize. I sincerely hope that others will step forward to add the complexities of their viewpoints to my own.”

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1 comment: said...

Complexities of homelessness or mismanagement of a screwed up system?

I am a student at the University of Maryland College Park. I am very interested in poverty and homelessness so a few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I went to Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, MD. We were planning to talk to some of the staff and interview some of the residents that utilize Shepherd’s dinner service. We got there a little passed 6 pm and decided at the last minute to just get on line and get a plate of food like the residents. We sat down at different tables in hopes of talking to some of the people who eat there regularly. We were extremely surprised by what we were told. Residents are barred from the premises for 2 weeks if they ask for a second helping of food. They are barred for 1 month if they complain that they are still hungry. I asked one gentleman named Oscar if they were denied a second plate of food because Shepherd’s tries to serve so many and Oscar said “if that was the reason why do they throw out trash bags full of donated food in the dumpster right out there! I’ve eaten pies, bread and other kinds of food from their trash bags and if they catch us climbing in the dumpster they threaten to bar us from the property forever! Don't they know we are hungry?"

My boyfriend spoke to a woman named Yvette who said she was denied underwear and a clean pair of pants because Shepherd’s clothes closet was not open. Yvette said “I told that mean old woman that I bled on myself and needed clean clothing and she said I should have been there at 10 am like everybody else!” Yvette said “people who donate clothing to this place would be very surprised to know that as soon as they donate clothes and food here it is bagged up and taken right back out of here. Some of it gets thrown in the dumpster and some goes out of here in her car. When my boyfriend asked whose car Yvette said “who do you think? She keeps loads of supplies and refuses to give them out to us but people are donating those things for us not for her to hand out one at a time. How do you give a woman one tampon or one Kotex pad? I’ve seen it with my own 4 eyes and it happens all the time”. Andrea spoke openly about the clothes going out to another agency. "A volunteer who works in the back talks about the amount of clothes they send to Honduras to help the poor people over there. What about us? Aren't we poor too? Don't we need help?"

The revelations were startling and depressing especially for an organization whose mission is supposedly “to provide help to people who are homeless or in need by providing basic services, including meals, social services, medical support, clothing, and other assistance in an effective and compassionate manner.”

Do we really need another non-profit organization that says one thing and does another? Especially when it brags about its “services” and its compassion?