By Israel Bayer, Executive Director
Last month I tagged a story in my Director’s Desk titled, “Old Town Chinatown relations misguided.” The article argued that bad press and a major push to create political change by the neighborhood could have a negative impact on business in the area.
The Portland Tribune published a series of articles that in my opinion are sensationalized journalism for a political means. One article (above the fold) appeared with a photo of what appears to be an individual on the streets smoking crack cocaine with the headline “Crack Alley.”
I called the Tribune editors and the writer, Peter Korn, to ask them if they actually had proof that the person was smoking cocaine after people on the streets brought it to SR attention that there’s no way it could be cocaine due to the manner in which the drug is smoked. SR talked to more than a dozen addicts and former addicts, and they all believed it was marijuana, a very big difference.
SR did not have proof one way or the other. The story died.
SR had been privy to conversations that the strategy by the neighborhood was to raise a big stink, and create so much political theater (through the press) that the mayor would have to publically react to the drug dealing in the neighborhood.
Korn’s “Crack Alley” became the mantra, and it didn’t take long before Mayor Adams responded with a plan that resembles a drug-free zone; a plan that targets poor people and African-Americans in an attempt to sweep America’s drug problem off the open market in Old Town.
Last week the Tribune and Korn produced yet another sensationalized piece about homelessness in Old Town with the subtitle, “Housing First policy opens the doors to alcoholics and drug users.”
The article lays out critics’ concerns about the new Bud Clark Commons, a building that will house people dealing with an addiction. The article also calls into question the Housing First policy supported by the federal government through the 10-year plan to end homelessness.
The article quotes advocates and service providers questioning the validity of offering “wet” housing for individuals on the streets. The article alludes that the city, or local government, has failed in its responsibility to people on the streets.
It also calls into question the Housing First policy, and the philosophy of housing people who are at risk of dying on the streets because of their addiction and because they’re sleeping outdoors with very little support.
Korn’s article offers no public health perspective or examples of facts from other cities, including Seattle, that have been successful in using “wet” housing to support addicts while they get help. Or how progressive harm reduction initiatives, such as those in Vancouver, B.C., have demonstrably stemmed the tide of addiction and death from overdoses.
The article doesn’t include context for the Housing First policy. In fact, it doesn’t even quote one government official, or give readers perspective by offering up how many people have been housed in the past five years. A quick records request revealed that between 2005 and 2010 the City of Portland and Multnomah County had successfully housed more than 5,000 individuals, and 2,000 homeless families.
The article doesn’t touch on the real subject matter at hand, resources and priorities. The real issue here is the federal government’s lack of support for housing on a national level.
Instead of concentrating on the facts, Korn provides coffee shop talk from advocates and social-service providers about their opinions on the new “wet” housing program and the Housing First policy.
Why does this matter? In a time when social-service programs are being cut across the board, and a growing anti-tax and government agenda is taking hold of the population, articles like these create an avenue for those voices to gain stream and to alter the public view of the government’s role for supporting the downtrodden.
The real issues outlined above, such as drug dealing, addiction and how it relates to housing and neighborhood livability, are public health issues, and it’s the government’s responsibility to maintain harm reduction services to maintain a healthy society. It’s the media’s responsibility to deliver the general public as many different perspectives on a specific issue as possible, followed by facts that support these views.
In the cases outlined above, the media, namely The Portland Tribune has failed to look at these issues in-depth, and instead has chosen to go with a minority of voices and rhetoric instead of looking at all of the facts and presenting the story at hand. Portland deserves better.