Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Banging my head on the homeless wall
March 28, 2008

For the 12 years I’ve been a columnist, I’ve worked at trying to keep my topics diverse. I put a lot of importance on variety, having always figured readers tire quickly of a one-trick pony.
So it hasn’t been an easy choice to settle exclusively on homelessness these past five months. I’m still not sure what I hoped to accomplish by doing it, or whether anything will change as a result. That last part is probably what worries me the most.
What I hoped would happen was that the stories I told would somehow play a part in moving things along around street issues - that people would read them and come to understand how 1,500 people have ended up living on our streets, and how little of it has to do with them being too lazy to get a job.
But are people reading? Are the unconvinced being swayed? Has anything changed? Such are the questions that keep a columnist up at night.
Those who share my passion for the issue would presumably agree with my current column focus. But if you’re writing about an issue as an activist, the real challenge is to convince the unconvinced. That hinges on getting people to read what you have to say - no small feat when you’re writing regularly about something they didn’t want to hear about in the first place.
I figured I’d try to write about homelessness for a year, starting with the series I did for the Times-Colonist last November. But I’ve already heard from some readers that I’ve become “boring.” Feedback is dwindling, and so are the hits to my blog. If readers are shutting down around me, what is that telling me?
And yet I really am completely on fire about the issues. I continue to believe that in Victoria and any number of other B.C. communities grappling with the same issues, we’re dangerously close to losing the fight. I’m heartened by the work coming out of the mayor’s task force on homelessness, but by God, these are disturbing times.
If you saw disaster coming, wouldn’t you want to get the word out? As someone blessed with the privilege of a high-profile weekly platform in the daily paper, shouldn’t I be doing what I can do to keep homelessness in the public eye?
But it all comes back to whether anyone’s listening. If they’re not, then it’s all just words into the wind.
A journalist friend of mine tells a haunting light-bulb joke that plays into one of my great fears:
Q. How many journalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None. Journalists have never changed anything.
Ouch. It’s not really true, of course: I’ve seen any number of stories featured in the media that brought about positive change. And when the media decide to focus their intense gaze on an issue, the impact can be dramatic. Just look at what CanWest Global Communications’ national focus on literacy these past six years has done to raise awareness and funds for that issue.
But can you sustain change around less appealing social causes just by keeping them in the news? With many years invested to trying to effect change through the media, I’d obviously like to think it’s possible.
But then a hot potato surfaces - the relocation of the needle exchange being a recent example - and it’s all out the window. And it gets me wondering what’s gained by years of sophisticated discussions around the importance of, say, needle exchanges, if we still fall apart the moment we try to figure out where to put one.
So here I sit, betwixt and between on whether writing about homelessness every week is actually enlightening readers and advancing the cause, or just pushing me and my pet issue into the land of the never-read.
I even got into a big argument with a homeless guy a while ago over this issue. He stopped me on the street and told me I was just another cog in the “big machine” making money off the homeless without doing anything to actually change things.
I was wounded, and asked what he thought would happen if everybody just quit writing about homelessness. “Nothing ,” he said, “which is exactly what’s happening anyway.” Point taken.
My passion for the issue will keep me active behind the scenes no matter what, but I’d like to have a better sense of whether my writing about it every week is helping or hurting the cause. I’d love to hear from you either way - send me an e-mail at patersoncommunications@gmail.com.

Setting the record straight: I made a mistake in my column last week about a family grappling with addiction. The cost for a month of addiction treatment at a private facility here on the Island was $10,000, not $37,000. My apologies - I misheard the number.


Anonymous said...

CanWest (parent company of the Times-Colonist) is part of the problem. They lobbied to have the poor exempt from labour laws covering carriers.

The Writers Guild at the TC has promoted a society of have nots. Why has the Guild never unionized the poor - the carriers? There are about 100 Guild members versus 1000 carriers. That is a minority keeping down the majority.

Write about the fact that the TC has no safety regulations for carriers - no matter how icey it is outside you have to deliver. How the newspaper industry and the circulation managers associations of North America have kept carriers down as independent contractors rather than employees even though they are obviously doing the work of employees.

To end homelessness in Victoria we have to get rid of the Times-Colonist as it is. The Guild is ensuring that the hard to oragnize workers are never organized. They treat carriers with contempt. They think people with learning disabilities do not deserve the same employment rights they do. The guild believes in a class society of haves and have nots.

The Times-Colonist probably employees more children than any other employer in victoria. And guess what? Child carriers are exempt from labour laws due to CanWest lobbying. So, the largest exploiter of child labour is/was your employer.

The way that carriers are classified by newspaper has changed little in 200 years. Read Star Wars by York University law prof Eric Tucker on the attempt to organize Toronto Star carriers.

If the Guild cannot organize carriers then they should say okay, fuck this. This has gone on for too many years. We are not going to write the propaganda that supports a society with systemic homelessness.

I question someone who thinks that the corporate media will be a platform for change for systemic homelessness. The TC circulation department is booting the poor in the ass and laughing at Jody who sheds a tear for them. They might shed a tear themselves somethimes. But give me a fucking bat to fight back! Give me a non-corporate press in Victoria to challlenge the assholes that administer poverty laws, the business manangers who abuse the poor and the ineffective intellectuals.

And I cannot believe you tooted the horn of CanWests raise a reader program. This corporate social responsibility sham is to hide their shame of lobbying government to exempt children from labour laws!

Is the TC teaching kids to read about their non-existant labour rights? What a great society CanWest is creating!

You were brought into the TC after it was gutted and demoralized. It used to be something of a community newspaper but that ended after the sale to the first big corporation. The work place you shared was with the assholes that stayed. But it always had non-unionized carriers. The largest number of its employees are shafted and treated like crap.

Why are exploiters of child labour in your community not humiliated and exposed in the media on a daily basis? Because Jody Patterson and peole like her were conditioned to accept that expolitation is okay. In fact, they have to accept it because they work shoulder to shoulder with the people firing the exploited poor and even in the same union.

"Lets promote the rights of 10% of the workers! Yay! We are so beneficent! Why don't people respond to me when I write about poverty?"

Jody, you are out to lunch!

Bernard said...

I am very glad you are putting the energy you have into this issue. The issue is depressing and seems so hopeless to me most of the time. It is one of the issues that I really have no idea what the 'solution' is, I expect it has to be a 1000 small things that are not big enough to be noticed.

Keep up the work on the this.