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Stoking Hostility Toward Homeless People

Dozens of reports about an indigent man in Bradenton, Florida, showed the cruel excesses of local news’s homelessness coverage.

Picture of homeless person near roadway
Steve Baker/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

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.

On July 14, in Bradenton, Florida, Ryan Bray followed around an indigent man with a sign that said he had offered the man work for $15 an hour that he had refused. The man, who goes by the name “Alabama,” denied he was offered work and accused Bray of harassment. What followed this rather unremarkable incident was three original news reports and scores of write-ups that unfairly targeted a homeless man, perpetuated dangerous stereotypes about homeless people, and lacked critical social context.

First, the WFLA NBC Tampa report by Melanie Michael should be watched in its entirety. (Faces were blurred out by The Appeal, not WFLA.)

Tampa Fox 13 and ABC Action News Tampa also filed original reporting from the scene (ABC Action News actually ran two different reports) painting Bray as an everyman hero standing up to aggressive panhandlers. The episode was reported or written up—in similarly fawning terms—by the Orlando Sentinel, WATE Knoxville, Kentucky, KAMR Amarillo, Texas, KIRO Seattle, WSVN Miami, WTHR Indianapolis, WSB Atlanta, ABC 15 Arizona and over 60 more outlets across the country.

In many of them, Bray’s position as a trustworthy arbiter of facts is never questioned. He is affectionately referred to as a “businessman” and “father and husband,” and his claims that Alabama threatened him are either taken as fact or left unchallenged. When The Appeal asked by email if she had evidence that Bray’s claims were true, Michael, the reporter, did not respond. 

WFLA’s report also fails to examine why Alabama may not have wanted to do the work he was allegedly offered. Why do ill-defined “yard work” for a stranger who may not be trustworthy? What, if any, are Alabama’s medical conditions? The status of his mental health? What, if any, are his physical limitations? Temperatures that day in the greater Tampa area were 95 degrees with humidity hovering around 75 percent, putting the heat index around 115 to 125 degrees. Was it safe for Alabama to be engaging in intensive hard work in these conditions? Was it reasonable for Bray to ask him in the first place? 

None of these questions are asked, much less answered. What the viewer gets is a simplistic morality tale of a character-deficient layabout and a hardworking “businessman,” out to set him straight—which, as Colin Wolf noted at Creative Loafing Tampa, “is one of the biggest problems with dealing with homelessness.” Stories like WFLA’s, he said, “just cement people’s ill-conceived notions that homeless people are cheats.”

Any context about why people like Alabama would be panhandling in the first place is also absent. In the reported segments from Fox 13 Tampa, WFLA, and ABC Action News, and in the scores of follow-up pieces, there is no mention that Florida is one of the worst places in the country to be poor. The rate of homelessness in Florida, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is the third-worst in the nation, behind only New York and California. According to the Orlando Sentinel, “Florida ranks 49th among the states for mental-health programs.” One life insurance company study found that Florida ranks 41st in support for those affected by drug addiction. Yet the lack of a meaningful social safety net in Florida is not the villain in these stories—an obscure powerless homeless man is.

The Bradenton incident isn’t an isolated case of the media stoking fears about homeless people. 

In March, Seattle’s KOMO News—a property of the Trump-aligned local news conglomerate Sinclair—aired “Seattle is Dying,” a subtly titled and popular documentary that local activists widely criticized for its sensationalist tones. Additionally, the piece was sloppy with the facts: CrossCut magazine tracked down one of the “homeless” people featured in the program, who said he was not homeless and was sitting on the sidewalk due to a chronic back and leg issue. 

In Austin, Texas, Fox 7, KLBJ radio, and ABC Austin ran coverage in the past week of an online petition, started by Travis County Republican Party chairperson Matt Mackowiak, to end a city ordinance that permits those experiencing homelessness to set up encampments without receiving a citation from police. In the reports, one-off incidents of violence by people supposedly experiencing homelessness are routinely framed as both a referendum on the new ordinance and evidence of homeless people’s inherent propensity toward violence. The Austin Chronicle wrote that KLBJ’s popular drivetime AM radio hosts Todd Jeffries and Don Pryor featured callers on their show who described the ordinance “in apocalyptic terms.”  All of the reports also failed to mention that a large number of those who signed the petition don’t even live in Austin. 

Another Austin outlet, KVUE CBS, ran a July 10 story headlined “Austin veteran fights off alleged homeless attacker after offering to help him.” The report starts with one man’s account of an attack and assumptions about the attacker’s housing status, and descends into a broad indictment of people experiencing homelessness. The story quotes a letter from the management company that oversees the apartment where the attack occurred, which blames “an increase in homelessness activity.” 

Beyond their often inflammatory nature, stories like these can serve as cover for moves by police and politicians to “fix” homelessness with destructive policing and carceral solutions—solutions that studies show do far more harm than good

“Too much of the local media coverage is dehumanizing people experiencing homelessness,” Chris Harris of the Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition in Austin tells The Appeal. Harris singled out the KVUE story in particular for quoting the apartment management and the police union president—but not members of the homeless community. “No service providers. No advocates. No actual people experiencing homelessness ever quoted.” 

Harris says stories like these in Texas are “feeding a perception of chaos falsely promoted by Governor [Greg] Abbott and helping to escalate violent anti-homeless rhetoric into action.” Just last week, an Austin driver passing by a homeless encampment threw a firework from the moving car, setting a couple’s tent on fire. The previous week, Austin City Council member Greg Casar posted a threat on Twitter that he allededly received by mail: a picture of an urn of ashes with the text “Fuck you Casar, here’s what you should ‘do for’ the vagrants.”

KOMO News’s “Seattle is Dying”—which repeatedly features voices calling for police to tackle the issue of homelessness—is emboldening law enforcement and politicians. Nadine Woodward, herself a former TV news anchor, is running for mayor on a tough-on-crime platform in Spokane and praised the documentary. KOMO itself boasted that the doc prompted a Seattle Police Department bust of “two crime rings” where “10 people were arrested for allegedly selling hard-core drugs out of homeless encampments.” 

The Bradenton controversy is also informing criminalization. According to the Bradenton Herald, the “buzz around the story prompted [Bradenton City Council member Gene Brown] to ask police and the city attorney to look into the city’s options for dealing with panhandlers.” After a Manatee County Commission meeting Tuesday where Bray spoke and his stunt was heavily featured, County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy told the Bradenton Herald, “We need more strategic enforcement on this.” Assistant County Attorney Kate Zamboni added, “My recommendation would be to try to enforce what we have a little bit more strictly through the help of law enforcement.”

There’s a direct line between local news demagoguing the issue of homelessness and lawmakers and police responding with traditional carceral solutions. Reporters ought to avoid shallow morality tales that target individual homeless people, record the homeless without consent, and strip the topic of nuance and social context. These practices—both directly and indirectly—help fuel a political environment that leads to overpolicing and the criminalization of homelessness.