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Another in a long, long series of Bee articles that purports to show homeless people up close and personal

The Sacramento Bee’s latest article on homeless people, “Faces of the homeless in Sacramento”[February 9, 2014], is good in many ways, but the Bee continues to be stuck in the mud of thinking that homeless individuals are a pathetic amorphous mass that can best be interpreted by their nannies in the homeless-services industry.

There is also this weird contagion from Loaves & Fishes newsletters that Bee writer Cynthia Hubert has that supposes homeless people are incapable of walking properly. Homeless folk do walk (or roll on bikes or in wheelchairs); what they/we don’t do is trudge or shuffle, we mostly just put one foot in front of the other, like other human beings. Hubert begins her article, “Maybe you have seen the older woman, bundled against the cold, shuffling along Folsom Boulevard …”

Ah, Cynthia: “Shuffle” is a racist code word that has been used in the past to denigrate black people. It implies laziness and a shifty character. It would not only be appreciated [by me; speaking only for myself, here] but proper for you to write about homeless people as if they are full-fledged human beings, and not by default pathetic or somehow subhuman.

The first paragraph of Hubert’s piece has three sentences, each of which describes a person. The first sentence is about the shuffling woman. The second describes a man who is “grizzled,” “filth”ily attired, and “mumbling.” Sentence three is about a lady whose prominent feature from Hubert’s perspective is that she needs dental work.

These people, whom Hubert groups together, are gathered to selectively present a pathetic picture. Hubert then describes the group in her third paragraph:

Collectively, we know them as “the homeless.” Most of us never speak to them and avoid making eye contact.
You know, Cynthia, if YOU spoke to them and made eye contact, you might have gotten their stories and used their stories in your article. But you didn’t. You used a big chunk of your column inches talking about old stuff regarding John Kraintz, who is a source and voice on many issues, BUT HE’S NOT HIMSELF HOMELESS ANYMORE [Congrats on that, John]; hasn’t been for years.

Cynthia, you should also be aware – since you describe yourself in your article as “a reporter who has covered the issue of homelessness for the better part of 20 years,” which means "more than ten years," right? – that there are homeless people, and others who use homeless-industry services, who dress and present themselves very well. They are a big part of the mix. These “stately” [don’t like that word; but I’ll use it] homeless people are absent, also, from a video that accompanies the article in the online edition, narrated by Loaves & Fishes’ Big Kahuna, Libby Fernandez, who begins by wanting to describe the “gamut” of homeless folk, but ends up, by no ill-intent on her part, to describe her rather broad sense of what “typical” homeless people are like, which is basically woebegone and afflicted with a mental, physical or spiritual malady.

Per almost always, there is a lot of selective truth in the article [and video, too], another in a many, many years’ history of Bee “what the homeless are like” stories, but the content is so skewed, with obvious, important omissions, that it greatly deceives or misinforms the public.

Fernandez says near the beginning of her video that “When we open our doors, every day, we see six hundred to eight hundred homeless guests. And each face has a story.”

For starters, the homeless people who show up first thing in the morning at Loaves & Fishes greatly varies by the time of the month. During the first week to ten days in a month the number who show up is half what it usually is BECAUSE THE HOMELESS ON DISABILITY HAVE JUST GOTTEN THEIR HAPPY CHECKS. Those “missing” homeless folk are getting happy in ways I can only guess [but can EASILY only guess]. And that six- to eight-hundred figure is the count that Fernandez often uses of those who show up for lunch, not those who show up first thing in the morning, which is hundreds fewer.  I write this because it's the truth. The truth matters if only because it is the truth. And the truth -- the whole truth and nothing but the truth -- is what you have to give people to help them best understand circumstances.

Fernandez says “And each face has a story.” That is one of those phrases that doesn’t mean anything overtly. It is something one might use to describe Okies* who just arrived in California after a long journey from the dustbowl in their Model A. It’s a weathered, bruised, gaunt and tired face. It’s unhappy; saddened, with tearing-up eyes.

Basically, “And each face has a story” is an aphorism for “They’re not one of us!” They’re alien; other; foreign; not quite human. They have smaller skulls that hold smaller brains. They don’t smell quite right. Their eyes are too close together. They write with their left hand.

I know it sounds like I’m making too much out of a simple, meaningless phrase, but I would contend that there is a whole “diminishment” terminology thing afoot here that in other guises and with other terms, has been used against other minorities – blacks, gays, Latinos, et al.

Fernandez and her friend Hubert need to knock it off. They need to see homeless people as people, first, described with the enthusiasm that would come if the article was a feature story about Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson.

I am fully 93% serious, here.

Here is something Joey [of "Ask Joey," the column in SN&R] wrote in an issue from April, 2011. I wish Fernandez and Huburt would approach things in THIS way, which is how Joey suggests we look at everybody:
The work here is to see others as they are with special gifts, unique beauty and distinctive life experiences plus shortcomings, eccentricities and unhealed emotional wounds. After opening your eyes to the truth of a person, your task is to accept that person as one (potential) expression of the Divine.
The Bee and Fernandez treat homeless people as lost and pathetic children and I am sick to death of it BECAUSE IT AIN’T THE TRUTH.

But, what the Bee prints in its “what the homeless are like” stories contains a bunch that is true, only it all comes through a gauze filter to say to readers “Yes, they are disgusting, but we should try to get over that, even though we never will.”

And Libby reminds me of the character Ingrid Bergman played in “Murder on the Orient Express”: the Swedish nun, Greta.

Greta confesses while being interviewed by detective Hercule Poirot that she is backward and condemned by God and that is why she has to take care of unfortunate, misbegotten people. Poirot’s trick [which will be important near the end of the movie] comes when, at the end of the interview, Poirot says, “When this is all over, mademoiselle, I promise that I shall make you an emolument.” It becomes clear that Greta understood the meaning of that last word and is not really backward at all; she knows what she's doing.


* I was born in Oklahoma and lived there until I was nine years of age. At that point, my family moved to California.  Thus, I am proudly an Okie and permit myself use of the word. It is just that when we left Oklahoma there was no dustbowl.


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