Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Media and the Homeless - Part 2

I went down to Whitman Park on Tuesday to observe the first meeting of Housing First! No More Deaths. While attendance was what I would consider light, it appeared to come close to the numbers that assembled at the June 29 City Council meeting.

The local mass media was well represented at the gathering. Kate Renner from KREX and Courtney Jones of KJCT did some comprehensive reporting on the event, including interviews with some of the local homeless that attended. The Sentinel's Emily Anderson and Wyatt Haupt of the Free Press (strange to type that) weighed in with good accounts as well.

Conspicuously absent from the event was KKCO-TV. "The Ones to Watch" appear to be approaching the issue from a different angle. One of their lead stories Tuesday night at 5:30 was about a Mortgage Credit Certificate program for first-time homebuyers and others. It was almost as if the station was trying to say, "This is how you get housing".

A search of the station's website (using a very robust new search tool) using the term homeless resulted in only one story hit, and that involved the homeless in Aspen. To the station's credit, their Monday special report on Bridges Out of Poverty was well-conceived, competently reported, and contained lots of useful information.

These two stories give me the distinct impression that KKCO is only willing to report on programs that give those in disadvantaged situations the opportunity to educate themselves, and assimilate into the work world so that they can pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty, crime, and in some cases, homelessness. They don't appear to be interested in anything outside of that somewhat narrow focus.

So what about the foundational benchmarks behind Tuesday's effort to begin organizing and empowering the homeless community? My interest was sparked by the civil liberties and effective governance aspects of the issue.

The groups involved are attempting to leverage the momentum from a victory at the City Council level into constructive change and meaningful dialogue with City government. At the same time, they decry what they perceive as police harassment, and threaten the use of civil disobedience to bring attention to their demands.

I believe that they can best move toward accomplishing their end with cooperative efforts first. Homeless advocate Jacob Richards stressed this among many points in a 15-minute speech to the crowd on Tuesday. Other things that Jacob touched upon included providing education on the rights of citizens when contacted by police, assuring that transients arriving in Grand Junction are communicated with about the services available and the behaviors to avoid, and strategies to address what they perceive as an overzealous police presence and the 'warrant-go-round' that I've mentioned previously. Jacob went so far as to encourage anyone receiving a 'petty ticket' to plead not guilty and exercise their right to trial, with the intent of bogging down the municipal court system.

Yesterday Jacob reported to me that he had received three reports of police contacts with transients in Whitman Park on Tuesday afternoon, in which officers chided those that they contacted for having the meeting that morning. Phrases such as "you have the wrong idea" and
"you don't know the trouble you have started" were reportedly used. Judging from the GJPD's response to media queries on Tuesday, they believe that they are doing the job they are paid to do, and claim that the laws on the books apply equally to everyone. That's to be expected.

As a citizen and taxpayer I also expect that the PD will continue to exercise their duties in a professional manner, regardless of the segment of the population they are dealing with at any given time. Despite the rhetoric being bandied about, I have faith in our police to do the right thing when necessary. I believe, as I believe many citizens do, that it is a disservice to a society of laws when that doesn't happen.

With regard to civil disobedience, I believe that is a last resort tactic, and not one to be used without significant provocation or evidence of some sort of injustice. Hopefully Jacob and his crew have learned something from the Palin motorcade incident last fall; not all publicity is good for the cause.

Councilman Tom Kenyon was quoted by KJCT as saying
"We are willing to work with them. We're willing to solve problems. But, if they go down the road of illegal behavior then they will be dealt with." If he's true to his word, that's a reasonable approach.

One segment that hasn't ventured to speak in a public forum are those who hide behind online aliases to spew hate and discontent, or insults from moving vehicles. That's one voice I didn't hear at the park on Tuesday. Like cockroaches and vampires, these kinds of attitudes can't survive the light of day.

In fairness, the community at large also needs to recognize the need for better, more accessible alcohol, substance abuse and and mental health treatment, and those among the homeless community that are so afflicted need to make some life choices. The City and the Police are right about one thing; a drunk on the street is a danger to themselves and to others.

Tuesday's meeting was hopefully the start of meaningful dialogue and a positive step toward our community uniting to address a long-standing problem. A sense of commitment and honesty, a focused approach, and sincere attempts at compromise are keys to making effective change happen, hopefully before it gets cold outside.

Our local media can help in this process by continuing to report on the issues at hand. With one possible exception, they're off to a good start.

Have a great day.

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