Homeless conference looks at media

Giving spare change to panhandlers and donating to food banks are only short term remedies to alleviate the immediate impacts of homelessness.

But the population of Calgarians without shelter has increased 900 per cent since 1992, indicating that the social epidemic is growing.

To discuss these issues, the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary hosted a three-day national conference titled “Growing Home 2009: Housing and Homelessness in Canada,” last week.

Keynote academics from diverse disciplines gathered to lead presentations and workshops addressing the emergent issue of homelessness and discuss long-term solutions.

Communication and culture associate professor Dr. Barbara Schneider and her co-presenters Brenda McDermott and Ray Op’tLand shared their preliminary research on the portrayal of homelessness in the media.

They compiled information from content in the Calgary Herald, the Vancouver Province and the Globe and Mail for one year.

The Herald offers a feeling of optimism and positivity towards homelessness along with a greater focus on community initiatives to improve the problem, explained Schneider. The Vancouver Province has fewer articles about homelessness, but offers a more negative tone and more requests for government intervention. The Globe and Mail reports largely on the legal activities taken against the homeless and criminalizes actions such as panhandling, portraying the homeless as social delinquents, said McDermott.

“The voice of the homeless in the media is marginalized by the authoritative voice of scholars,” said Schneider. “The homeless are subordinated and erased from narratives that are about them.”

The prevalence of articles positively representing the homeless as people who deserve help occurs in places where there are more community assistance projects and less government aid. Government intervention is more readily urged in locations where the homeless populace is depicted as undeserving, argued Schneider.

Poor media depictions of the homeless fix the boundaries of social relations between “us and them” and paradoxically stabilize homelessness, she said.

Overall, Schneider’s research revealed Calgary is “engaged” with the issue of homelessness while Vancouver’s attitude is “tired.”

“The Globe and Mail presents homelessness as an individual problem rather than a national crisis,” said McDermott.

Schneider suspected the Globe and Mail’s avoidance of national responsibility for the homeless speaks to the lack of a national strategy in Canada to tackle this pervasive crisis.

The homeless count in Calgary reached an all-time high of 4,060 individuals in May 2008.

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