Are posting photographs of homeless men and women to Facebook and Twitter a social justice movement in a social media world? Is it journalism? Or is it a public shaming of the city’s down-and-out?
Sacramento’s homeless population may not be exploding, but it is becoming more visible. Even for people living in midtown and downtown – neighborhoods affected by the homeless for years – the issue seems more prominent.
Sean and Jackie O’Connell say that’s what drove them to start the Sac Homeless Report a few weeks ago.
Since mid-June, the couple has been posting to Facebook and Twitter photographs of homeless men and women sleeping, sitting and panhandling on central city streets. They sometimes try to speak with those people to learn how they ended up homeless. Most of the posts tag prominent city leaders, including Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city.
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The O’Connells have lived on the grid since 2009, the past two years near 17th and X streets. Last winter, a small homeless camp set up in the alley behind their home. When a fence alongside their home was being repaired, the work created a temporary opening that enabled homeless people to use the O’Connells’ property as a bathroom.
Like a lot of other urban dwellers, they’ve found men passed out in front of their home. But for Jackie, the tipping point came last month, when a guy threw garbage on their lawn. When she confronted him, she said he told her to “shut the (expletive) up.”
“It’s a powerless feeling,” said Sean, who cares for the couple’s 1-year-old daughter. “It became very frustrating. Now we’re trying to take our frustration and turn it into something positive.”
They say their goal is to bring attention to the real-world struggles of Sacramento’s homeless. They’re trying to be respectful with their posts, but they believe that to have an impact, their observations need to be raw.
“Alley behind Broadway Bait & Gun being used as a toilet. Unacceptable,” they wrote last week.
The O’Connells say they are not out to embarrass anyone. “I don’t want to take pictures of people like they’re animals in a zoo,” said Jackie, an environmental engineer.
“We’re showing how bad this issue has become,” added Sean.
City leaders have bumped up the time and money they’re spending on homelessness. They’ve voted to add 24-hour shelter beds, toured tent cities in Seattle and confronted protesters camping in the shadow of City Hall.
San Francisco last week opened its second Navigation Center, a 93-bed facility with on-site services designed to springboard homeless people into supportive and stable housing. That model is under consideration in Sacramento, although the City Council has been more focused on permanent housing and shelter beds.
Besides cost, neighborhood opposition has kept city leaders from dropping a new shelter into the middle of a community. The O’Connells say they wouldn’t mind one near them.
“It would be an improvement from seeing people on the sidewalk,” Jackie said.