March 19, 2009

Homeless Tom in Sacramento News & Review

Cover of the March 19 issue of SN&R. In the top righthand corner, just beneath FREE, it reads "It's True! Oprah Stole My Story! see Race to the Bottom, page 11
Yowza. There's a piece in today's Sacramento News & Review, in a column called Race to the Bottom that R.V. Scheide writes, titled "The Oprah inside me," where I play a role.

The article begins with this august paragraph:
Tom the homeless Buddhist guy is angry, or as angry as a homeless Buddhist guy can be, which, to be honest, really isn’t all that angry. Bemused might be a better description. At any rate, Tom insists things haven’t been the same since Oprah Winfrey blew through Tent Town. I’m inclined to agree, but for an entirely different reason than his: Oprah stole my story, and I can prove it.

What happened was I had written the alternative weekly newspaper's tip line to pitch a story I thought they should write and things turned out a bit differently than what I had originally hoped.

Actually, I had several ideas for investigative news stories I hoped SN&R would pursue. The Sacramento News & Review is the second most-important hardcopy news source in the metropolis and it hadn't weighed in recently with a boffo story on homelessness, which for bizarre reasons, ignited by Oprah, has quite suddenly become a big local, national and international news-topic extravaganza.

Anyway, R.V. met me in his office last week and we chatted about issues and topics related to Sacramento homelessness generally, and what I hoped the weekly would pursue. My broadest idea for a story was one correcting the conception, that Oprah and others had presented, of a booming illicit tent community emerging in midtown Sacramento, filled with couples and families sleeping in tents after abandoning their foreclosed homes.

Just about everyone in the broad Sacramento homeless community, including homeless-aid agency workers, know that it is a myth that women and families are overwhelming the count of solo men who are homeless. Solo men [single men or men who are separated from their families] continue to constitute the great majority of homeless people and they continue to be the major source of new homeless folk in our metropolis.

There certainly are couples whom have lost a house due to foreclosure in Sacramento's Tent City, but that is rare. And there are families and parts of broken families in shelters, now, but there is not an epidemic of family homeless - yet, anyway.

Most of the news reports follow the Oprah lead and give near-tearful reports of devastated families. Today, for example, at close to 7AM, when Friendship Park was about to open, a film crew was interviewing a couple at the park gate. There was perhaps only that one couple on the scene, in the cul-de-sac, in the midst of a hundred solo men and, maybe, ten women.

Now, both R.V. and I are torn between how this homeless Sac'to story is evolving and what works in the best interest of helping homeless folk getting to where they can have happier, healthier, more-productive lives. Based on his Race to the Bottom piece, you can see that R.V.'s heart is with us homeless and that he would sacrifice a little in-your-face ugliness of the whole truth, all of it, for the narrower story that comes with benefits.

A bit of an aside: A couple short SN&R editorial-board editorials in this-week's edition were on-board with R.V.'s view of things. One, "Six Degrees," talks about the idea of "six degrees of separation" and how, whether we are ourselves suffering in the difficult economic climate or not, someone close to us surely is. That editorial ends with this thought:

It seems the wracked economy is just another reminder that we exist in a web
of humanity that has us all indelibly linked, approaching zero separation.

What to do about it? We'd better take care of each other.

In a sidebar next to the piece it says, "Go to these Web sites to find out how to donate to community members who have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn." Then, the web addresses of Loaves & Fishes, the Salvation Army, and St. John's Shelter are provided.

The second short SN&R editorial, "Tent truths," talks about how all the media hoopla presents Sacramento's tent encampment as a "national symbol of the human results of our failing economy." Here, a central snip from the piece:

If there’s a bright side to all this attention, it’s that it might help push city leaders into doing what’s right for its growing homeless population. We’ve urged the city before in this space to sanction a campground where homeless people can live without fear of being constantly rousted by police and have access to running water, bathrooms and trash collection.

We hereby repeat the request.

In the sidebar next to this editorial it says, "A Safe Ground rally to support a legal campsite for area homeless will be held on Tuesday, April 21, 2 p.m., at the Sacramento state Capitol." The rally is sponsored by Loaves & Fishes.

MY view of things differs from R.V.'s, a bit, maybe. I greatly worry that in this welling up of concern for people whose lives are undermined by the faltering economy, we risk being steared solely by our emotions without benefit of cold, hard, inconvenient facts. I also worry when general-news sources start giving the people what they might want to hear, or what may touch them most directly, instead of giving them unadulterated truths.

I would argue that because of the post-Oprah phenomena re Sac'to homelessness, the public has a skewed idea of what is going on. From international sources [ITN; (UK) Times Online; BBC; BBC radio; Germany, Japan, Australian TV; et al], national sources [NY Times; ABC News; Inside Edition; NPR; the Today Show; et al] and local sources [KCRA; News10; et al], the public is being fed a false overarching conception of what homelessness in Sacramento is like. [I'll fill in the URLs to the 'sources' later, but you readers can find where the news is coming from from this google search, in the meantime.]

I think that general-news sources should strive to give their readers a sense of what the truth out there is. That doesn't mean that general news should not sometimes be "up-close and personal," telling a specific story that might not give an overview of what is happening in a topic area, generally. But, now, because of what general news stories have been presented, the public has an absolutely wrong impression of what homelessness is like in Sacramento. They have been mislead.

The unmitigated truth is almost always - if not always - best in the longrun. Today, there is nothing much that motivates homeless-aid providers to be efficient and to provide fully-compassionate service to the people they are meant to help. Why? Because there is little risk that a prominent news provider will hold their feet to the fire and let the public in on management problems and possible financial shenanigans. And homeless people are, most all of them, so damn grateful for absolutely anything they get, they don't complain. Besides, if you get on the wrong side of homeless-aid providers you may be subjected to getting stinted help, or to be more likely than others of being 86ed from the facility.

Today, homeless-aid providers are getting an "advance to 'Go'; collect $200" card from the press, when, truly, these aid providers are way overdue for scrutiny. Maybe now is not the time for scrutiny, due to the fragility of things in light of the economic tailspin and it still being winter. But, someday, eventually ...


~C4Chaos said...

neat. go straighten out the story. and get Oprah's number while you're at it. it would be good for your future book :)


Nagarjuna said...

I agree. Get Oprah's number. And keep digging into this and other stories about the homeless in the Sacramento area. That could well be your niche, at least for the time being, and, aside from potentially benefiting the community, it might also bring profit to you personally.

Tom said...

Why thanks, C4 and Nagarjuna. I 'spose I can try to get Oprah's phone number. She's almost exactly the same age as me. Do you think I should ask her out on a date!?

Yep. This blog just might get me started as a real -- that is, PAID -- writer. But with so many newspapers laying off a big percentage of their staffs, these days, I'd say my chances of writing for $$$s aren't that good.

Probably I'd be better off to pursue a career as a Wal-Mart greeter.

Ryan Garou said...

If journalists want to do something for the homeless, they can start with some proper and thorough investigative reporting. The kind that requires them to actually get off their asses. "Look-I'm-witty-but-seriously-this-is-sad-guys" pieces riffed off to fill a column obligation aren't worth what comes off on them when street sleepers use them as TP.

If Oprah wants to help the homeless she can just stay the fuck away, and keep her whole self-enriching wealth machine (along with her army of smug upper-middle-class harridans) as far from us as possible. That is, unless she wants to leave some of that $2.7 billion she's worth behind when she visits - which I assume didn't happen when she descended on Sac.

Tom said...


The homeless story in Sac Town has spun on a dime. Very suddenly, Tent City is "notorious" and the muckymucks are consolidating against it. Sacramento needs to be identified with BUSINESS, not homelessness, it is thought [and, yeah, that's mostly right, we need business out here, for everyone's sake].

News reporters should ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS aim to write the whole truth, all of it. And the only way to do that is to GET OUT THERE and look under some rocks.

Ryan Garou said...

Looks like the media got their new marching orders from on high, then.

Tent cities are too dangerous. They're too autonomous. They might blossom into exemplary self-sustaining communities. Gotta break em up, warehouse and control the ones that will go along with it, and find a way to make the rest just vanish.

Granted, I don't know what's actually going on there, but if I had to make a blind wager I'd guess that's the reason for the turn.

Tom said...

There is a lot of "looking out for myself" going on out there, while we homeless are just tools.

There are hucksters looking to profit. [Nonprofits are for the most part unregulated as a matter of 'free speech.']

There are people ratchetting up hatred of the homeless. [One city council member talks about about the need to institutionalize the mentally ill.]

There are homeless-aid people being baldly two-faced. [Loaves and Fishes participated prominently in getting Tent City shut down this April, while also organizing a so-called 'safe ground' rally on the 21st.]

It's an on-going circus. It is HUGELY expensive to run a shelter. One estimate, given at the 3/24 city council meeting, is that a bed/bunk costs $130/night! The city could HIRE the homeless, at $15/hr, 40 hrs/wk and end homelessness in Sacramento.