Homelessness, Policy and the Media: How a Long Lens Helps

By Anne O’Brien*

Flithy Rich and Homeless, SBS Documentary

One of the most difficult tasks facing advocates and policy advisors in late industrial welfare states must surely be navigating the media – new as well as old. At worst the tabloids manufacture crises, fuel moral panic and demonise people in need while online platforms enable trolls to reinforce old prejudices. But in a world where advocates are expected to compete for funding and philanthropic sponsorship is worth millions, keeping vulnerable people in the public eye would seem not to be an optional extra. After the first series of SBS’s Filthy Rich and Homeless went to air in 2017, the website of the Council to Homeless persons noted that while such shows ‘walk a fine line between poverty porn and investigative journalism’ a ‘positive outcome’ was ‘renewed attention on both causes and solutions’.

History can illuminate the benefits and limitations of media attention by showing how it affected outcomes over time. Here people experiencing homelessness are an apt case study for they tend to evoke extreme emotional reactions and have an ambiguous relationship with visibility. While rough sleepers become hyper-visible if they organise to assert their claims, their increasing numbers tend to normalise homelessness, making it at once familiar and unnoticed.

War veterans experiencing homelessness have a particularly volatile relationship with visibility because nationalism heightens the emotional stakes, tapping into shame as well as pity and fear. In recent years those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have gained some attention but ‘the homeless digger’ has a longer history. I have discussed elsewhere how his fluctuating newspaper presence in the 20 years following the First World War effected government action. What I’d like to do here is draw out what policy-makers might learn from that research.

The study found that there were three moments when homeless veterans were a sufficiently strong newspaper presence to have an impact on government action. The first was in the years of return 1915-19 when their dominant image was the disruptive, violent, vagrant mob. The next two came at periods of economic downturn – the recession of 1921-2 and the 1930s depression. In both, the men were figures of pity, and the pathos they evoked was not incompatible with the celebration of failure and victimhood at the heart of the Anzac Legend. To VC winner Albert Jacka the war had left men ‘mental and physical wrecks’ and he urged Australians not to judge those who were ‘down and out’ too harshly. 

What were the effects of this reporting? On one level it prompted significant action. Fear of the vagrant mob inspired the repatriation system itself. The concern of the early 1920s lead to the NSW government committing nearly £100,000 to relief work and supporting various forms of emergency shelter, considerably more than provided for homeless men who were not veterans. The early 1930s campaigns lead to the introduction of the Service Pension and provided a form of subsidy for more commodious care homes.

But once ‘the homeless digger’ disappeared from the newspapers, so too did the help veterans were proffered. Despite evidence of increasing unemployment among veterans in the mid-1920s the extra relief work and emergency shelter dried up. Similarly once the Service Pension was introduced, those who did not meet its tough criteria and could not find a place in the new style accommodation, disappeared from view. They were faced with the old options: jail, government asylums, refuges, or low-end boarding houses.

The nature of reporting also shaped outcomes. The menace of the vagrant mob demanded a serious national response. Once the repatriation system was established, however, those who fell outside its boundaries were left to 19th century solutions.

Further, the narrow identity of the figure of the homeless digger limited the scope of the action. He was almost invariably represented as alone and always white, thus obscuring the collective concerns of Indigenous veterans and their families, some of whom were exiled from their homes to make land available to white soldier settlers.[3]

Further in making these stock figures utterly pitiable, this discourse reinforced the developing medicalization of violence against women and children, one that extended, as Elizabeth Nelson has argued, to men who did not serve. While this encouraged compassion for men with mental illness, it cut domestic violence off from the deeper structures of power that produced it, as Nelson also notes.[4]

A full history of the visibility of homeless veterans remains to be written but a couple of examples from the more recent past draw social science research into the frame, suggesting it too can be influenced by a media-shaped political context. In the first major study of homelessness in Australia in the 1960s, Alan Jordan found that 48% of a sample of 1100 homeless men in Melbourne had served in the military during the second war – a startlingly high figure. But rather than examining war service as a factor, he mentions it only in passing. In contrast, veterans are the only occupational group separately identified in the demographic profile of the most recent longitudinal study of people experiencing homelessness.

There were doubtless many factors shaping these reports that further research will illuminate but the broad contexts of their construction must have played a part in the different emphases they put on war service. Jordan was writing during the protests against the Vietnam War and after Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year had crystallised a younger generation’s cynicism over ‘Anzac’. The contemporary report’s emphasis on veterans must in part reflect the more recent revival of interest in the First World War.

What can these historical perspectives offer to policy-making? In providing new examples of the ambivalent effects of media attention, they reaffirm the importance of holistic solutions and long-term planning: visibility was significant in getting action after the war but that action was limited by a short attention span. Further, the resort to stock figures indirectly supported negative outcomes for other vulnerable groups.

More broadly, then, these examples shed light on how understandings are shaped by context. They prompt us to probe ever more deeply the assumptions that inhibit the contemporary search for the long-term solutions that might eradicate, or at least seriously reduce, homelessness for all who experience it.

 

*Anne O’Brien is Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism, God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia and Poverty’s Prison: The Poor in New South Wales, 1880-1918. With Dr Heather Holst she is currently researching a history of homelessness, and people experiencing it, in Australia from the late 19th century to the present.

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