Saturday, December 17, 2016

Bad writing about homelessness in SNR, year-round

Cover of 12/17/16
issue of S N & R.
The Sacramento News & Review prints an irresponsible, lazy, goofy story about something serious: the deaths of homeless people

A “news” story published near the front of this week’s SNR is a big mess. It’s lackadaisically written and it doesn’t source many of its claims. It takes a serious topic and uses it for a bad comedy routine. Matt Kramer and Raheem F. Hosseini take the blame as its authors. Others at the publication take blame for not digging in to edit the disaster.

In hardcopy, the piece is titled “Death year-round: Advocates criticize seasonal political focus as Sacramento homeless deaths remain high.”

The piece begins by telling the story of Michael Lehmkuhl, a 58-year-old man who died last January. Only, it doesn’t tell the story; Cynthia Hubert brilliantly told the story in the July 31 issue of the Bee after speaking with everyone she could and learning a great deal about events near the end of Lehmkuhl’s life  -- including the certain fact that Lehmkuhl was suffering the devastating effects of schizophrenia which led directly to his death.

There is nothing in the first five paragraphs of the Kramer & Hosseini piece to explain Lehmkuhl’s death, that mentions the vital element of mental illness. Readers are misled and mal-informed. And they are not directed to the brilliant story Hubert wrote nearly six months ago.

The last paragraph on the topic of Lehmkuhl in the SNR report is this one short dismissive sentence: “Just another homeless death in Sacramento.” Well, screw you, SNR. I suppose the sentence is meant to be forlorn, instead of dismissive, but it is inappropriate, nonetheless.

Next the SNR piece touches on the matter of this year’s annual ceremony at Trinity Cathedral about the homeless who died in 2016. Bob Erlenbusch of SRCEH is quoted in that section, thus: “In 2015, the average age for [homeless] women at their death was 47 and for men it was 49.” It would be valuable to ground that data with average death ages of the general population, thus to give readers a sense of how early in life those homeless-people death ages are. I would grant that “matching data” from national deaths would not be wholly instructive. Sacramento street people transition in and out from being homeless and it can be the case that many people “leave” homelessness altogether when they are designated as disabled or when they retire, skewing data comparisons. But there is this, from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council:
The average age of death of homeless persons is about 50 years, the age at which Americans commonly died in 1900. Today, not-homeless Americans can expect to live to age 78.
Then, there is this odd paragraph in the SNR piece:
Every year around this time, elected officials reopen their winter shelters for a few months and make compassion-lite promises to uplift their most impoverished constituents. And every year, more people fall to the margins, and perish in quiet, anonymous fashion.
It’s the middle of December. Winter shelters have been open for quite a while, and “elected officials” have little to do with it. And, I don’t think that many “impoverished constituents” pay too much attention to promises, compassion-lite or not.  As for people “falling to the margins, and perish[ing] in quiet, anonymous fashion,” it is very poetic sentiment and, doubtless, happens from time to time – just like that – but I would say that the good majority of homeless people are pretty tough. Besides, contrary to general belief, “cold” is not a killer. Disease, alcohol or drugs meshed with cold is, as is violence and a lot else.

Erlenbusch is next quoted, talking about the randomness – relating to time of the year – of homeless deaths. And there is this goofy paragraph by the SNR writers:
The deaths happen at all times of the year, divided into near-equal quarter-sized chunks through-out the four seasons. The idea that the homeless population faces a greater threat in winter – at least in terms of fatalities is a myth.
Except for the chunks – unless vomiting is in play – this goofy paragraph makes a kind of sense. Winter is cold, but, in Sacramento, especially, not deadly cold, usually.

Erlenbusch gives us some data: Five to six percent of homeless deaths in the County are the result of homicide. Here, a comparison with the general population IS given, but the match is out-of-sync, makes no sense that I can determine.
“The homicide rate is 31 percent higher for people without homes than for people who reside indoors.”
The “31 percent higher” compares to WHAT percentage for housed people? Erlenbusch does not offer an explanation of what is meant, here, or the writers chose not to print what there is. Nonetheless, the burden of having some sort of understandable comparison between what the homicide rate is for homeless people as compared to the general population is not given, as it needs to have been. The homicide rate is the topic of the story, for cryin' out loud.

Then in the last half of the news article, we slump into the issue of spending money on winter shelter versus spending money on housing-first

Happily (to my mind) Housing First seems to be the higher priority – or will be, next year. The question will be one of what procedures will be deployed. To maximize the benefits that come to those needing housing, successful Housing First leaders account for money SAVED from a city and county NOT spending enormous sums running homeless people around in circles and putting them in jail for meaningless infractions of law. Money saved from these mean-spirited police efforts can then be used to get MORE homeless folk into housing and a life that is happy and consequential.

The article ends with this, which I think is very much a bunch of nonsense:
For the time being, Erlenbusch said he will keep reading the names of those who may otherwise die unknown.
“I think that it provides a dignified service for people who are generally invisible to the housed population,” Erlenbusch said. “Everybody deserves to be remembered in some fashion, that they were here on Earth. This is a way for at least an hour to read their name, read their age, and [make them] be visible to the housed population.”
For my part, I would prefer that people never die – but they just do.  The winter solstice thing, reading the names of the deceased, is fine, of course.

But, Erlenbusch and others like him are mistaken.

People are remembered by those who really knew them, not by pretenders who want to embellish their sense of self by acting all Holier than Thou.

Homeless people die, but most had happier, headier times in the past, that won’t fade easily in the memories of family and friends.

And there's this: All, or maybe just nearly all, people who have been homeless for a spell have had periods in the lives when they were NOT homeless. They've had jobs and families and lives where  they loved the people they lived with, went to football games, taught their sons how to throw a baseball, and thought their daughter was beautiful in her prom dress.

The world, though, is mostly – almost entirely – for the living and for the future. “Onward, ho!” I say. “Forward, into the future! Let us see where it takes us!”
 ----
Update: In the online version of this story, a correction was posted at the end of the article by an editor. This:
 Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the homicide rate was 31 percent higher for homeless people than those who live indoors, rather than 31 times. SN&R regrets the error

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