Why Individual Woes Can Muddy Affordable Housing Imperatives

A homeless person sleeps bundled up in a blanket on a Lisbon, Portugal public stairway
Homeless photo by Osvaldo Gago is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Can this person's story help us understand a housing crisis? Sometimes, but not always.

On one hand: CBS‘s Anderson Cooper does a so-called ‘progressive’ take on Seattle’s homelessness crisis. “Rent Is Obscene Here”: The Issues Forcing People In Seattle Onto The Street

And on the other: 770 KTTH Conservative Talk Radio‘s Jason Rantz calls Cooper’s assessment a ‘botch.’ Rantz: ‘60 Minutes’ Badly Botches Seattle Homelessness, But Dunks On Mayor Durkan

The field of battle: the personality, health and individual circumstances of a single homeless person, who is also an alcoholic.

It has long been an honoured journalistic technique to humanize a difficult, complex issue by detailing the fortunes of an individual or family caught up in some crisis or other.

By contrast, placing statistics at the heart of a difficult story may be dry and distancing, and fail to make that all important human connection.

The example above, however, demonstrates how we can be boondoggled by focusing on individuals when the story can only truly be told by (shudder) looking at a broader, impersonal set of data.

Conservative Rantz aims to discredit the entire crisis by referring to the health problem of one individual. Cooper’s ‘botched’ argument about a crisis is being countered by Rantz’s logic that one person who can not or will not deal with a health issue can be stretched to discredit thousands who cannot afford housing.

Dry and lifeless as statistics can seem, here’s another story about homelessness that makes no attempt to personalize it through the sympathetic trials and tribulations of one little boy or girl.

It’s about New York, where 70% of shelter residents are women and children. This percentage includes more than 114,000 school children, half under six years of age, who face the challenge of education without a permanent home. Read more in the New York Daily News: Attack Student Homelessness Now: With Numbers Surging In Shelter System, Families With Children Must Be Affordable Housing Priority

Dry it may be, but nonetheless it’s a compelling story. And it’s not one that can be challenged and dismissed as a housing crisis by way of the peculiarities of a single, struggling individual.