When the media dehumanizes the homeless

A little over a week ago two separate stories about homelessness caught my attention. The first was an article in the Boston Herald in which the main focus seemed to be that homeless people were using MBTA as a place to escape from the cold.

There’s nothing new about this. Homeless people have been using MBTA stations for years to avoid frigid temperatures during the day, and even at night to avoid shelters which are not always the most pleasant places to be. There is hardly any mention of that fact or why homeless people would rather stay in a MBTA station than a shelter. Maybe no one bothered to ask them. Instead the article focused on “130 complaints in the past year citing foul stenches, public drinking, and frightening and unpleasant situations.”

Most of the article reinforces negative feelings about homeless people; that we are all something less than human. I say “we” because I have been there and have slept in my share of subway stations. The article could have been a teachable moment, focusing on “Why people would rather sleep in the subway or on a sidewalk as opposed to a shelter.” But no. Instead, as usual, the media continues to demonize us. It seems we’re either being demonized, or showered with pity during those sickening holiday photo-ops with politicians.

This article and many like it give the general public the impression that homelessness is a choice, failing to ask how people become homeless and why it’s so hard to overcome.

Homelessness is a human issue. One complaint quoted in the article said “This is bordering on a public health issue.” One might think that it should go without saying that the most pressing public health issue presented in the article is homelessness itself. But he wasn’t referring to homelessness, he was talking about his own well-being, complaining that he has to step over homeless people sleeping in a subway entrance.

There’s pretty much no way out of the cold weather in the winter unless a weather emergency is declared and the shelters have to stay open. Good luck with that during the summer months. Even then people won’t go inside, and there are many reasons why that’s the reality. I challenge the gentleman who was quoted, or even the writer of the article, to spend a few weeks in a shelter then get back to me.  

One of the glaring problems facing the homeless is the lack of day centers, like the now defunct Bread & Jams in Cambridge. People need a place where they can get a hot meal, stay warm, and take a shower. Many of those places were closed so money could be shifted to band-aid style solutions. As usual, advocates give out the same tired speeches.

In response to the article, the MBTA said “Neither the MBTA nor the Transit Police consider individuals who self-identify as homeless as a problem.” That’s partially true. On many occasions I’ve witnessed MBTA employees being helpful towards homeless people, including myself at one point. Most see them panhandling or just staying out of the cold and leave them alone. They also call street outreach if they need help. However, there are also MBTA employees that think of the homeless as less than human, which brings me to my next point.

Last summer a homeless man who was intoxicated and fell asleep on a train was allegedly woken up and beaten with a baton by an MBTA Police officer who then, along with two other members of the transit police, attempted to cover it up by arresting the man on trumped up charges. In an interview with the Boston Globe the victim, Anthony Watson, said he simply fell asleep on the train. When he was awakened and asked to leave, he attempted to do so.

He exchanged words with the officer, but other than that he wasn’t causing any trouble when he was beaten by the officer while another MBTA employee held his arm. When 911 was called, the transit officer told the Boston Police Department officers that he had been looking for Watson because he assaulted him. They turned him over to the officer, and Watson was locked up.

Apparently someone at the transit police station saw the video of the incident and let Watson out. An investigation took place and the officer, Dorston Bartlett, was charged with assault and battery, and violating the civil rights of Watson, who is black. Bartlett’s two supervisors from that night were charged as accessories.

This isn’t the first time a homeless person has been roughed up by someone from law enforcement or security officers — some of you may remember the guard at North Station who assaulted a homeless person a couple of years ago. While these two stories saw the light of day, many don’t, and there are plenty of stories of homeless people being roughed up by members of law enforcement. You just gotta know who to ask.

I had my own run in with the transit police when I was homeless. I didn’t get assaulted but I was treated like I was less than human. I’m not going to paint everyone who works for the MBTA police or all MBTA employees with a broad brush, but for a company that likes to pride itself on customer service these issues have to be addressed, and so does the media. It really shouldn’t matter what race we are or the fact that we are homeless. We are human beings and deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity as anyone else.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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