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Amplifying the voices of homeless people

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TJ Johnston reports at the most recent Project Homeless Connect gathering. (Courtesy photo)
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Recently, I was at City Hall to cover a media briefing for the Street Sheet, the homeless paper published twice monthly by the Coalition on Homelessness and sold by mostly homeless vendors.

There, I spoke to a young homeless woman who got ticketed under San Francisco’s sit-lie law while she was avoiding a group of drunken rowdies. The cop, she told me, saw the scene unfold without intervening when she was being harassed, but waited until she moved away from them. Then she was cited.

RELATED: COMPLETE SF EXAMINER HOMELESS COVERAGE

I spent a few minutes interviewing her about the incident, how it made her feel and her experiences being treated as an outcast for living outside.

Confident that I had enough material for the Street Sheet, I left City Hall. Outside the city officials’ seat of power, I came across an older woman who was originally scheduled to speak at the briefing. A sudden emergency prevented her from attending: Her medication was stolen at her shelter, and she spent the morning trying to get a refill. Also, she attempted to contact her family in regards to a concurrent crisis, but to no avail.

I kept her company as she vented until a coalition organizer she was meeting appeared.

These are the stories I often hear as a Street Sheet reporter. Often, they escape the mainstream media’s attention and fall outside their narrative of homeless people posing an inconvenience to its well-heeled audiences — looking at you, New York Times, for labeling unhoused folk as “clumps of humanity.” You could have selected better phrasing when announcing the SF Homeless Media Project.

When I agreed to participate in this endeavor, I knew I had to amplify the voices of homeless people. That’s been my standard procedure of my coverage when I started more than 15 years ago. The other major newspaper that’s leading the project is seeking “solutions” to homelessness. For answers, I went to the people most knowledgeable about the homeless experience: people who are living it themselves.

It’s also how things are done at Street Sheet. As stated in the paper’s masthead: “All stories are formed by the collective work of dozens of volunteers and our outreach to hundreds of homeless people.”

And those stories are powerful, sometimes. With tears in her eyes, Street Sheet vendor Beneeta told me last year how unjust BART police acted when they cited her for sleeping in the station where she feels safest. “Why should I be punished for getting tired?” she asked.

Sometimes a current of black humor runs. Miles related a tale about how an San Francisco police officer, who styled himself as an “emergency intervention specialist,” drove him from his sleeping spot at Nob Hill to St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin. In the back of the vehicle, Miles noticed something that belied the cop’s true mission. It was a sniper rifle.

“Good at finding housing for homeless, he was not,” Miles said.

As I wrote in my account at the most recent Project Homeless Connect gathering, homeless people are experts on their own circumstances.

Including those voices who can speak authoritatively as service providers and policy makers — sometimes, more so — only seems like common sense when writing about the homeless and poverty experience. The education of the housed population can be enriched by learning from homeless folks’ expertise.

So, it would follow these experts with such peculiar, lived experiences are thoroughly invested in reforms that affect them. Same goes for any relief measures that preserves their dignity and autonomy during episodes of homelessness.

As other movements involving marginalized populations would say, “Nothing about us without us!”

T.J. Johnston is a freelance journalist who covers homelessness and other political issues. His work appears in such publications as Street Sheet, Street Spirit and the San Francisco Public Press.

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