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Singling Out Crime ‘Suspects’ As Homeless Is A Media Double Standard That Unjustly Penalizes The Poor

Leading with housing status for homeless people is a common trope in the news reporting business and one in urgent need of re-examining.

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

A survey of local news articles over the past month detailing crimes allegedly committed by people experiencing homelessness turns up dozens of articles that only mention the housing status of a suspect when that suspect is homeless. 

Some examples include “Homeless man charged with robbing WB store” by the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “Homeless man behind bars for reckless burning” by KLEW in Lewiston, Idaho, “Homeless man arrested for attempting to kidnap girl from pizza restaurant” by ABC News, “LAPD: Man Fatally Stabbed By Apparent Homeless Man In Random Attack” by KCAL, and “Woman punched by homeless man in Manhattan: police” by New York City’s WPIX.

In an examination of other criminal cases reported on by the above outlets, the housing status of the “suspect” was never mentioned when that person was housed. One doesn’t see, for example, “Housed man charged with robbing WB store.” Occasionally, a generalized city was used (like “Dallas man”) but this too could apply to homeless people (they do live in the cities they’re in) so there’s no coherent reason for the asymmetrical qualifier.

Leading with housing status for homeless people is a common trope in the news reporting business and one in urgent need of re-examining. In many cases, it is used as a rhetorical device to depict people experiencing homelessness as a threat to public safety, a common right-wing canard used to justify virulently anti-homeless policies and harsh policing of people perceived to be poor. 

There is one especially pernicious article that, in describing how police crack down on what appear to simply be acts of survival, shows that the people trying to survive—rather than the police—are in the wrong. The article from KLEW, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate in Lewiston, Idaho, starts with a menacing lede: “A homeless man has been charged with reckless burning after Pullman police say he started a fire the past weekend in Pullman.” This article was written about an incident that occurred in January in Washington State; that day, temperatures were just above freezing. It’s likely this individual was just trying to keep warm. According to the article, the man’s “campfire got out of control and caught his tent on fire.” That someone did not have a refuge indoors during winter in Washington, and was therefore put in this dangerous position, appears to be the real social crime. However, the article paints the man as the aggressor, noting that according to police, he “has been banned from several places around the city and aggressively panhandles.” Here, the mere act of trying to survive is portrayed as a threat to society.

The article by the Times Leader in Pennsylvania details a robbery allegedly by a person presumed to be experiencing homelessness. In this case, the Wilkes-Barre police department doesn’t just provide the narrative, it also releases a grainy surveillance photo purportedly showing the incident. The article notes that after learning of the “suspect’s” name and an address where he was said to be staying, police “went to the residence and encountered a man who matched the description of the suspect.” This line is especially troubling. Saying someone matches the description of a homeless man could be a broad net to sweep up anyone who appears houseless, or simply poor. What’s more, if this individual is staying at a residence, how do police know he is homeless? Have they looked into the details of his life or lodging? Do they distinguish between people who are houseless or just poor? This article gives off the impression that the specifics of his housing status—although featured in the headline—don’t really matter, because the bottom line is that this person lives in deep poverty.

In another case, ABC News gives a detailed account of a presumed homeless person attempting to kidnap a 6-year-old girl. The article notes that the individual “is believed to be homeless, according to detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department,” and then goes on to list his arrest record. The effect is to give the impression that this individual’s supposed homelessness is just one more example of how he constitutes a menacing presence. Never mind that the law enforcement sources for the story are never required to provide proof that this individual is houseless, and his guilt is presumed despite the fact that he has not yet been tried or convicted.

The Appeal asked Jon Haworth, the reporter who wrote the ABC News story about the alleged attempted abduction, why he chose to center the man’s presumed housing status. He responded via direct message on Twitter, “it was included because it was the information I was given by authorities (if I recall correctly) from a press release or statement.” Ultimately, he agreed it’s a conversation worth having, writing to The Appeal, “I do think a wider discussion is merited about the language and ways people are identified.” This interaction suggests two things about the practice of centering housing status: (1) To a large extent, reporters do it because police do it and they base their stories off police blotters, and (2) At least some reporters would have no problem not doing it.

Like a lot of dangerous Copspeak, pathologizing houselessness by centering it in stories of heinous crimes is done simply because it always has been. And the police––whose unions routinely lobby city officials and the public for tougher homeless laws––have every incentive to highlight each time homeless people commit a crime. 

To be clear, there are instances when the housing status of an arrestee can be relevant and it is perfectly logical to lead with it. For example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been engaged in a months long campaign against Austin’s homeless population, blaming crimes on homeless people. It is understandable––though regrettable––that the media would then center the housing status when reporting on those crimes since powerful people have already framed it that way. Since homeless people are a vulnerable population, in instances where attacks on them could potentially be a hate crime, it’s reasonable to note if the victim or arrestee is also homeless. Same for stories about people experiencing homelessness dying in public, or acts of charity for or by homeless people used in schmaltzy clickbait––because housing status in these cases don’t serve to incite against the population in general. 

Beyond these circumstances, however, there’s no coherent reason why one’s housing status should be mentioned much less centered. The only apparent reason to do so would be to tarnish the houseless population writ large––and given we are in the midst of a homelessness crisis affecting most major American cities, this does little more than contribute to an already hostile media climate directed at poor and houseless people.