Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Latest Sacramento News & Review article on Homeless World is an irresponsible mess

In the recent especially thick Sacramento News & Review issue, dated September 11, honoring The Best of Sacramento 2014, an article out of sync with the issue’s theme (and certainly not part of any competition) was far from the best it could be. Its topic was homeless schoolchildren, many of whom have to struggle to get an education, which can add mightily to the anxieties and pain that come from not having a secure or tranquil home life.

The article in question is “The school of homeless knocks,” written by SNR staff writer Raheem F. Hosseini.

Cover of 9/11 issue of SNR.
I am not aware of the 'problems of homeless children' getting coverage by the Sacramento press, outside of a few articles relating to children attending Loaves & Fishes’ Mustard Seed School and articles relating to run-away children. A good article about the spectrum of things that poor, homeless Sacramento schoolchildren have to deal with to get educated would inform the public and perhaps pressure school and government leaders to make sure that all children get access to the free education through high school they are entitled to.

A prime thing the article needed to accomplish was to present a sense of the variety of circumstances that homeless families are in once the house or apartment is lost and money is tight. But rather than attempt to do that, the piece has quotes from two young-adult women who during childhood were at times homeless, That scant evidence didn’t begin to give a sense of the variety of ways homeless families struggle to get by.

Early on, the writer paraphrases a policy brief from the California Homeless Youth Project: “...more kids than ever before are hitting the textbooks and the streets.” It is unfortunate that this phrase was used since “streets” is often taken to mean people who are rough sleepers – that is, spending the night out-of-doors -- and it is unusual (though it certainly happens) that families with children do that in the county. Federal, state and local government entities and charities are especially keen on aiding families with children, providing them with adequate emergency in-doors shelter. They go a long way in accomplishing this by, very sensibly, giving families priority for funding over solo homeless adults.

The policy brief provides a sense of the diversity of ways homeless children and their parents get by. The writer should have organized and incorporated the information in his article such to best inform the public of the difficult and varied circumstances that confront homeless families.

Quoting the brief where “homeless children and youth” is defined as a part of the No Children Left Behind Act:
The term “homeless children and youth”— A. Means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence ...; and B. Includes— i. Children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement; ii. Children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings ... iii. Children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and, iv. Migratory children who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this subtitle because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii).
The article could have built on this information by having the writer discuss what homeless families go through by talking to homeless people. It is confounding to me that the print and TV press in our locality often seek office-bound suppose-to-be experts for quotes and information rather than the very people who know the haunts and hideouts of Homeless World. Writers are welcome in Friendship Park; they should just go there and strike up a conversation with a real live homeless person. Or, likely better, the writer could have gone to St. John’s Shelter or another charitable place in the county where homeless families live. Homeless people don’t bite and a great many, if not most, are very forthcoming in telling what they know.

Way, way back in the 50s, black people in America were similarly disregarded by the white media of the time when it sought information on the opinions of black people. Reporters always sought what Ebony magazine mockingly called The Official Negro Spokesman who would provide a single, unambiguous opinion that would be reported as the unambivalent opinion of black people in America. The Official Negro Spokesman was whoever was the most prominent black leader of the time. James Baldwin had the role at one point in the Sixties. Jesse Jackson was, perhaps, the last “The Official Negro Spokesman” after which white media began to accept that black people, like white people, had a vast array of things to say, speaking for themselves.

It would behoove the Sacramento News & Review to accord homeless people enough respect such to allow them to speak for themselves

In trying to relate the extent of the problem, Hosseini presented some very confused data -- some of which came from the policy brief – that he should have sorted out. I don’t think many of the SNR readers paused to set up algebra problems to figure out the meaning of the mess of numbers, which was this confounding numbers jungle:
Nearly 270,000 students, or 21 percent of the nation’s known homeless student population, experienced some form of homelessness during the previous school year in California, equaling 4 percent of the state’s student body. That’s double the national trend. 
In Sacramento County, at least 11,924 schoolchildren—equal to 5 percent of the enrolled student population—experienced homelessness last year, according to an SN&R review of data. The largest proportion—21.7 percent—was enrolled at public and charter schools within the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Questions arise: (1) 270,000 are homeless out of how many students in California? (2) What percent of all students in the nation are in California (such that I can understand if the 21% figure is alarming)? (3) What “trend” are you talking about? Do you only mean that in the nation, generally, 2% of students are homeless, whereas, in California, double that, or 4%, are? Thus, use of the word “trend” is a mistake? The 21.7 percent you mention is a percentage of what? Homeless children in the county who are in the City Unified School District (in disproportion to the rest of the county)? Thus, the rest of the county, outside SCUSC, has a very very low percentage of enrolled homeless students?

Paul Krugman manages to write two 700-word columns a week published in the New York Times on economics and deftly gets his numbers out there in a way that is clear and understandable to readers, most of whom know little about economics. He does this wholly using text; no graphs. I would hope in the future that SN&R would clear up any “numbers jungle” either with graphs or by explaining matters carefully and clearly (and as succinctly as possible).

 Beyond the article’s confused (and mostly absent) effort to lay the groundwork by explaining the circumstances homeless students find themselves in and in being clear in describing the extent of the problems, there is one very serious problem area in the article relating to an absurd position the writer takes in this supposedly objective article.

The writer seems to go along with the notion  that THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES are those responsible for conveying to district officials if they are having money or attendance problems that encumber their education.

A break-out quote in the piece reads [emphasis, mine]: "These students represent the new homeless – refugees of a rotten economy who skirt the H-word label and don’t always seek out help." Monica McRho, with the SCUSD’s Homeless Services Office, is quoted saying “There’s a lot of people that will never ask for help.” But that is insane. It is the job of the Homeless Services Office  and of the schools and school-district office to get students the aid they need. Pupils in second grade shouldn’t be required to run the gauntlet of whatever opaque bureaucracy exists to get textbooks and supplies that all their peers have.

It is apparent by the self-congratulation of school officials that they need to get up and work to take the education of children very seriously. These officials need to get educated about the importance of helping kids or they need to be replaced.

Similarly, the Sacramento News & Review needs to improve the quality of their articles such that a skanky bit of writing like “The school of homeless knocks,” doesn't see the light of day in the future. While the reporter's text is terrible, it appears, as well, that neither an editor or copy editor reviewed the piece. In the text, the reporter doesn't understand (i.e., he misuses) the words 'recession' and 'spike.'

The school districts have a responsibility TO GET THE WORD OUT about what aid is available in a way that doesn’t embarrass anybody or otherwise deter people from taking advantage of needed aid. PARENTS need to be informed repeatedly of what the schools can provide to students in need. There should be no let up in giving our precious children the best education we can.

Update 10/1/14: Got something good via email. It should help; see below.


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