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  • The Center for Rural Homelessness

Few & Far Between: Media Coverage of California’s Rural Homelessness

By: Jarrett James Lash

September 19. 2023

California’s homeless crisis is often seen on the nightly news with a similar headline and a similar image each time. Headlines proclaim “California has spent billions to fight homelessness. The problem has gotten worse” or “California homeless makes up nearly one-third of US homeless population, a new report shows” and are often paired with an image of a sprawling tent city in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. The images of the notorious LA street are often used for articles outside of the region, speaking to how ubiquitous it has become in bearing the image of rising homelessness in the United States.


It’s no surprise why. Though California only represents 12% of the U.S. population, it comprises 30% of the total unhoused population. Furthermore, California represents more than half (51%) of the unsheltered, unhoused population in the U.S. And of that, the recent report found that HUD Point-in-Time Count data outlines that 49.9% of California’s homeless population lives in Los Angeles and the South Coast while 22.2% live in the San Francisco Bay Area.


In an era dominated by the rapid dissemination of information and imagery, our perceptions of complex societal issues are often shaped by the lens through which we view them. This is particularly true when it comes to homelessness. The ubiquity of cameras and the rise of social media have allowed us to bear witness to scenes of urban encampments, such as Skid Row in Los Angeles, with unprecedented frequency. While these images are undoubtedly impactful, they can create an augmented view of homelessness that fails to capture the full spectrum of its manifestations and the myriad factors that contribute to it.


Skid Row, a poignant symbol of urban homelessness, often serves as a focal point for media coverage and cinematic storytelling. It is a place of stark contrasts, where poverty and destitution coexist with resilience and human spirit. Yet, the danger lies in reducing homelessness to these visually striking encampments, for it obscures the multifaceted nature of this crisis.


The media's fixation on urban encampments can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness. These images, while representative of one facet of the issue, can inadvertently suggest that homelessness is primarily an urban phenomenon characterized by makeshift tents and desperate individuals. In reality, homelessness takes on numerous forms, many of which are hidden from the cameras.


Data only confirm that story. In July, the California Budget & Policy Center published a new research report, “Homelessness in California: A Statewide Challenge.” The report, Monica Davalos sought to capture the magnitude of the homelessness crisis across the state of California by drawing on the key statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census.


Surprisingly to the evening news purveyor, the study showed that the 16 Northernmost counties had the highest per capita rate of homelessness (647 unhoused individuals per 100,000 residents) compared to the San Francisco Bay Area (503 per 100,000), Los Angeles, and the South Coast (477 per 100,000).


In regards to the per capita magnitude of the crisis, Northern California comes out in front. So why is it that the eye is drawn to Skid Row to represent the crisis?


Dr. Dan Treglia of the University of Pennsylvania said in a 2020 Cronkite News article, “We have hidden homelessness because so many people that live in rural areas are not visible to the general public. I think rural homelessness is often overlooked.” The visual nature of today’s media requires fast-grabbing visuals that will draw the attention of viewers.


Families and individuals in rural areas struggling to make ends meet often find themselves couch-surfing or living in overcrowded and substandard housing, far from the bustling streets of downtown areas. This form of homelessness may not conform to the sensationalized narratives presented by the media but is no less real or urgent.


Moreover, the media's portrayal of homelessness often overlooks the systemic causes behind it. Structural issues such as affordable housing shortages, income inequality, healthcare disparities, and a lack of social safety nets deserve equal attention. The focus on urban encampments can inadvertently divert our gaze from the policies and interventions needed to address the root causes of homelessness comprehensively.


Coverage of homelessness in rural areas is critical to shine a light on the specific situations that someone might face in an area that is void of many services that urban areas have. A natural barrier that media groups face is the same as social service providers, a lower population density that can make it difficult to identify and highlight the lived experience of those experiencing homelessness. As the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless states on its website, “As homelessness becomes more prevalent and more visible, stances can become more contentious, and myths take over.” Stories of lived experience create a true understanding of what value these stories can bring.


The struggles faced by those in rural areas, where resources and services are often scarcer, deserve just as much attention as urban homelessness. The challenges of finding shelter and accessing support services can be compounded in rural regions, making the experience of homelessness even more isolating and precarious.


Media and popular culture wield immense power in shaping public perceptions. By offering a more nuanced and holistic view of homelessness, we can foster empathy, inspire informed dialogue, and galvanize meaningful action. Let us challenge the prevailing narratives, encouraging the media to tell untold stories, the struggles that unfold away from the cameras, and the resilience of those who persist despite society's indifference. Only through such a lens can we hope to confront the homelessness crisis with the empathy and urgency it truly deserves, whether it unfolds in the heart of a bustling city or in the quiet corners of our rural landscapes.

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Some journalism outlets are actively pursuing highlights of this acute situation. Some of our favorite publications have sought to capture the nuance of homelessness in rural areas. Here are our favorite articles that highlight rural homelessness:

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