Shifting the Media Narratives About Homelessness — A Review of the 60 Minutes Story

By Mary Lacey, Project Assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Editor’s Note: On the Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019 edition of 60 Minutes on CBS, correspondent Anderson Cooper reported on homelessness in Seattle in a piece called “’The Rent Is Obscene Here’: The Issues Forcing People in Seattle Onto the Street*.” It was the culmination of several months of reporting by 60 Minutes producers, capped off by a visit by the veteran journalist himself. But how did the show handle this sensitive topic? Our project assistant Mary completed this review in winter 2020 as one of her last projects before graduating. The pandemic delayed our posting it.

*The piece is viewable at the link above for those with a CBS All Access account. CBS, we wish you’d make it available to all.

Journalist Anderson Cooper visited Seattle for this 60 Minutes report on unsheltered homelessness. Photo Credit: 60 Minutes.

 

 

Cities like Seattle have a growing concern as they face increasing housing costs. As Seattle continues to fight homelessness by building affordable housing, providing emergency services, and setting up a regional authority, national audiences look to us to learn how we are dealing with housing insecurity.

A Dec. 1 60 Minutes segment, hosted by Anderson Cooper, looked at Seattle’s homeless population, focusing on those who are unsheltered – living outside in situations such as in a tent or in a car, rather than in a shelter. The 15-minute segment highlights three different stories of unsheltered homelessness in this city known for economic growth and tremendous wealth: Postal worker Emilee; the parents of a young child, Josiah and Tricia; and Jeff, an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At the beginning of the piece, I was impressed with Cooper’s ability to define sheltered versus unsheltered homelessness, which can be confusing. Despite this strong start, the segment’s weaknesses quickly became clear.

I began to feel uncomfortable about the portrayal of peoples’ drug use and the negative stereotypes associated with them which was shown throughout the piece. Unfortunately, our perceptions around those who use drugs can affect policy decisions that exclude those needing housing. This ideology perpetuates negative “undeserving poor” narratives of those experiencing homelessness. Judgmental media depictions of our homeless neighbors can further spread these negative images, especially toward those who use substances.

60 Minutes producers visited Tent City 3 in summer 2019 when it was hosted in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Seattle. Screenshot from the promo for the Dec. 1 60 Minutes episode.

This story made me reflect back to spring 2019, when I took a class on the politics of homelessness that changed my perspective on this important issue in my community and broke down my misconceptions toward those experiencing homelessness. While discussing the display of homelessness in the KOMO TV show called “Seattle is Dying” with my peers, I better understood the negative stereotypes perpetuated in media portrayals of homelessness. That discussion changed my understanding of the intersection between homelessness and substance use.

Between my classes and working on the project this year, I have learned more about causes, effective solutions, and communication strategies relating to homelessness in Seattle. One of our project’s main priorities is combatting negative stereotypes of those experiencing homelessness through effective communication strategies. Media portrayals of the homeless community – which was the foundation of our project – of course affect these perceptions and are highlighted in the 60 Minutes piece.

Jeff: The true cause of his homelessness?

One of the storytellers in the 60 Minutes piece is Jeff, the EPA employee, who had lived on the street for over five years after being evicted from his apartment. Unfortunately, the story focuses on Jeff’s use of alcohol, instead of his eviction. Jeff’s story illustrates that even full-time workers experience homelessness; however, Cooper’s emphasis on substance use misses an opportunity to discuss the role of eviction in homelessness.

Despite recent Washington state laws attempting to protect renters’ rights, Crosscut found that landlords are creating loopholes for tenants who do not know their rights. As landlords continue to target low-income renters, evictions still play a critical role in contributing to homelessness in King County.

In addition to evictions, criminal records contribute to homelessness. Cooper highlights the connection between homelessness and the legal system, which can be a barrier to finding housing. Cooper notes that the homeless population accounts for 1 percent of the population but makes up “20 percent of those arrested and jailed, mostly for non-violent offenses ranging from theft and loitering to drug violations.” (This Crosscut piece dives into the reasons behind that statistic.) Those experiencing homelessness who have criminal records face additional barriers to find housing, work, and access to other services.

Prof. Dennis Culhane, University of Pennsylvania, who says the real estate market is to blame for homelessness in Seattle.

What the research says

An integral perspective to the film came from Prof. Dennis Culhane, who has been studying homelessness for over 35 years. After spending eight years examining Seattle’s homelessness problem, he argues that substance use cannot be the cause of homelessness because “Seattle 10 years ago didn’t have this level of homelessness. Where were these people then? They haven’t changed. These people have been here.”

Culhane’s perspective undermines the substance-use-centered ideologies depicted throughout the 60 Minutes piece. Not only does Culhane reframe the cause for homelessness, he mentions that substance use makes it even harder for those experiencing homelessness to get housing, as they often are excluded from services such as shelters. I appreciated Culhane’s perspective throughout the segment, focusing the audience’s attention towards unaffordable housing instead of substance use as a cause of homelessness.

Despite Culhane’s insights, throughout the show Cooper demeans those who use substances, especially through the portrayal of Jeff. According to Cooper, during their interview Jeff “smelled of liquor” and had “empty bottles of vodka” where he was sleeping. I wondered about the consequences to Jeff’s safety after Cooper displayed his circumstances on national television – including where he sleeps at night.

I began to worry that the audience would conclude that Jeff’s substance use was to blame for his circumstances, instead of Seattle’s lack of affordable housing and restrictions on housing resources.

60 Minutes then added the perspectives of people like a failed City Council candidate who argued that “we need to look at homelessness as a drug problem” instead of a housing affordability problem. I was dismayed that they highlighted the role of substance use without a deeper understanding of why those experiencing homelessness might use drugs and alcohol. I wished they had used a compassionate approach toward Jeff and others who deal with substance use while experiencing homelessness. Jeff deserves a safe home despite his alcohol use. Housing is a human right.

Editor’s Note: Cooper noted in the conclusion that Jeff had lost his job after the interview. We are concerned for his safety, and his ability to find another job and home, especially after he was so negatively depicted.

Missing pieces

Unfortunately, the 60 Minutes story left out an integral solution to ending homelessness – permanent supportive housing. I waited in vain for Cooper to mention potential solutions like this. Permanent supportive housing serves as an evidence-based solution that provides affordable shelter, healthcare, and other services necessary to aid those experiencing homelessness into stability.

Not only did CBS leave out solutions, they left out people of color, who disproportionately experience homelessness. Everyone who was interviewed – from people experiencing homelessness, to officials, to researchers – was white. According to All Home King County’s 2019 Count Us in report, 32% of the homeless population is black; however, they only make up 6% of the total population in King County. The lack of representation leaves out vital perspectives, misinforming the audience about homelessness in Seattle instead of bringing to light the disparities.

The impact of storytelling

Aside from displaying homelessness in Seattle, 60 Minutes brings up an important issue about the way stories are told. What’s the responsibility of media organizations sharing people’s stories when they display vulnerable populations?

Several violations of privacy were displayed in the 60 Minutes piece. The producers included personal information about all of the people experiencing homelessness that they interviewed, including their full names, license plates, the bus route they take to work, locations of employment, where they sleep, and other sensitive information. This did not protect the privacy of the storytellers and I am concerned for the safety of the people telling their stories for the benefit of a TV show.

The 60 Minutes piece had led to other media violations of privacy before it even aired. An earlier report by a local blog, in mentioning that the producers and Cooper had been spotted around town, had identified the specific place where Jeff had been sleeping and other personal information about him that should have been confidential.

Although bringing issues to light has great value, we must exercise care when sharing stories. Fortunately, some Seattle organizations who fight homelessness and poverty are committed to equitable storytelling.

In an example of perfect timing, our project hosted an Equitable Storytelling Workshop in collaboration with ComNetworkSEATTLE a few days after this story aired. The event reminded attendees that the story belongs to the storyteller. Speakers from YWCA Seattle|King|Snohomish, King County and Best Starts for Kids highlighted the importance of representation, inclusivity, empowerment, and adequate compensation for storytellers. The event encouraged organizations that use people’s stories to take responsibility for their portrayal of people who are dealing with housing instability and other challenges. You can read a recap of what the speakers shared here.

Erin Murphy of King County talking about the principles of equitable storytelling at our Dec. 3 event with ComNetworkSEATTLE.

My takeaway

I hope future media portrayals of those experiencing homelessness emphasize the need for affordable housing instead of punishment for substance use as solution to end homelessness. I challenge audiences to shift their assumptions about their unhoused neighbors by viewing those who use substances with compassion instead of judgment.

I felt sad watching the show, as it is hard to see and hear how much people are suffering in our community. But I remembered the importance of listening to the stories of those experiencing housing insecurity to inform ourselves from the perspective of those with lived experience. 

Media portrayals around social issues have an impact on our attitudes, opinions, and actions towards solving these issues. As outlets for storytellers who are experiencing extremely difficult realities, media owe their storytellers respect and should avoid violating confidential information. As we continue to share the stories of others, we must ensure that the portrayal of the storytellers is strength-based, person-first, and reflective of systems that limit their abilities to overcome their challenges.

What You Can Do

After Mary wrote this, and before we posted it, the pandemic hit. Mary notes:

Right now I think it’s extremely important to remember our unhoused neighbors during this pandemic, who are at increased risk and continue to struggle for safe housing. The stories of Jeff, Emilee, and the Wood family remind us of why caring for our unhoused neighbors matters. As we all struggle with the effects of COVID-19, it’s critical to remember those experiencing housing insecurity to ensure the wellbeing of everyone in our community. I hope peoples’ perspectives of those experiencing homelessness will shift to a compassionate, empathetic, and action-oriented mindset to help others who continue to suffer from housing insecurity. 

Mary finished her bachelor’s degree in Public Affairs and Social Work in March 2020.

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