Homelessness & Addiction: A Newspaper Embraces Stigma

homeless man holding his hat out, and a dog beside him
Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay

Last year I wrote about a police wellness check gone wrong, in which a young woman was dragged half-naked in handcuffs through her building by a police officer. While the woman was apprehended under the Mental Health Act, a story about the matter in the Kelowna Daily Courier used the word “arrested” multiple times, including in the headline. I emailed the paper to point out that being mentally ill was not a crime, the woman in question was apprehended under the Mental Health Act, not arrested, and stigma is not helpful. I received a response from managing editor Dave Trifunov, who got defensive about me pointing out that his reporter hadn’t done his homework.

Fast forward to now. I was poking about on Twitter and happened to come across an unbelievably ignorant opinion piece by Mr. Trifunov that appeared in the Courier on October 9, 2020, titled “Goodbye downtown Kelowna, we might not miss you.” Bring on the stigma, but with a different target this time.

In the article, the managing editor writes about being pleased that the paper’s offices will move out of the downtown core. Why? Well, that’s where the ignorance comes in.

Addiction and the “druggies”

He uses terms like “druggies,” “crackheads,” “Kelowna’s undesirables,” and “vagrants.” But really, why limit yourself? If the homeless population of Kelowna wasn’t predominantly white folk, he could trot out ni**ers, sp*cs, ch*nks, and p*kis. That’s good journalistic use of language too, isn’t it? If you’re going to get down in the gutter, might as well go all in, n’est-ce pas? Go big or go home… And don’t forget for a second, you pompous ass, that you actually have a home.

About a man he estimates to be in his 60’s, Trifunov writes: “I’ve watched him shoot up heroin. At 5:30 p.m. On a sunny August day.” Gasp! How dare addiction have the gall to show itself on a summer afternoon? He also writes that it is “sickening” to watch someone lie in the fetal position after shooting heroin. Well isn’t that just sad for him and his delicate sensibilities? Addiction should happen in dark holes where no one has to be exposed to it, I suppose.

He proudly writes of a paper employee who, upon catching someone reaching into another employee’s car, “put the man into a chokehold” until police arrived. I sure hope that employee was arrested when the police showed up.

Excuses, excuses for stigma

Mr. Trifunov makes a half-assed attempt at being something less than a complete ignoramus, but it doesn’t work:

We admit to feeling incredibly conflicted. These people need help, but there are more of them than ever, it seems. What’s going on? I know that calling people “vagrants,” “crackheads” and “addicts” will make some of you angry at me, but – frankly – I’m fed up with the whole mess.

And what are we supposed to think of these “Journey Home” buzzwords when our staff was afraid to leave the building at night?

Journey Home is Kelowna’s 5-year plan to address homelessness. Someone, I don’t think “vagrants,” “crackheads,” and “addicts” are their buzzwords of choice.

I contemplated writing to the paper’s owner to express disgust. However, the Kelowna Courier is published by Continental Newspapers, which is run and partially owned by David Radler, who has previously been convicted of fraud, so that would probably be a waste of time.

Small town, small minds?

Kelowna is a hokey little city that has grown to a population of 132,000 but still retains much of its small-town close-mindedness. I used to read the Courier whenever I was staying at my Grandma’s place, because she had a subscription. The Courier has always kind of squeaked in as a barely second-rate paper, but this garbage knocks it down a few more pegs.

If anyone’s looking for lamestream media, it’s here, proudly voicing the stigma-fuelled ire that probably a lot of the paper’s readers feel towards the local homeless population.

We are all human. We all have our struggles. Having a home and not having an addiction doesn’t make someone a better person. Having a home, not having an addiction, and using one’s privileged position to start trash-talking people who don’t have homes and do have addictions is just pathetic. Someone needs to plaster signs all over that office: “There but for the grace of God go I.” I may not be religious, but it’s appropriate.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

27 thoughts on “Homelessness & Addiction: A Newspaper Embraces Stigma”

  1. You cannot educate someone that obtuse, it’ll only lead to frustration on your part. Someone that deeply mired in their own entitlement is lost and no amount of common sense is going to make them suddenly ‘see’. My only comment to that idiot moaning on about the addict who had the audacity to shoot up where people could see would be “if it bothers you so much to look at that kind of thing, then stop looking at it”

  2. Horrible. I just hope the readers are more intelligent than the writers and know what they are reading is wrong on many levels. But I also worry that this is what society believes and accepts as the media has such a powerful influence.

  3. It sounds like he puts his mouth in gear before engaging his brain. It is ignorance like that which makes me see red.
    It is fact, that many people are one paycheck away from being homeless. Many would not be able to manage a $400.00 emergency.
    My heart goes out to those who are homeless. The system will not give them aid because they need an actual address. Without aid that is not even close to being possible.
    I am not sure what the answer is to this. One political party here in Canada is pushing to have a “living wage” for everyone. My questions is, how are they going to pay for it?

    1. Given that poverty is very expensive for the health and social service systems, and paying people a living wage makes it more likely that they’ll put that money back into the economy (including shopping at the grocery store rather than relying on food banks), I’m guessing it’s doable.

  4. I loved your article on bringing awareness to this problem. I feel it is a constant uphill struggle in the US to educate ignorant people that the police are not the solution to mental illness in any capacity. Thank you for helping bring this into the light, every little bit helps.

  5. The sort of stuff you read in that paper is, I think, really a microcosm of a bigger problem I encounter with regards to attitudes towards the homeless. Attitudes that are judg-y and show a complete lack of compassion. Attitudes that can lead to criminalizing poverty, if we are not careful.

  6. Hi Ashley. I’ve been super busy and it took a while for me to get back over here. I think that, outside of the many kinds of things I usually say — statements that are made all over my blog — I also find myself wondering how many people who live indoors are doing lines of coke in the secrecy of their own private residences, and use a public statement of disdain for “crackheads” whose problems are more visible than their own as a kind of smokescreen to draw focus away from their own similar difficulties.

    Visible poverty is often not a pleasant sight to behold. But many actions which people who live indoors engage privately are next-to-impossible for those who live outside to enact with any degree of dignity. When I was outside,I often felt as though I were being watched, or even stalked, when I had to do simple things such as relieve myself. If I was seen sneaking into an alley way, it was more often though that I was doing so in order to “do some drugs” or “do a drug deal” rather than to take a leak.

    Given such a reality, it is no wonder that drug-addicted people who live outside often project the impression that they have ceased to care if anyone sees them. Finding privacy when one lives out in public takes time and energy.

    This all points to the statement that I and others iinvolved in Homeless Rights Activism make frequently. Homelessness is not the problem. It is the RESULT of the problem. That a societal structure would be so flawed as to result in the homeless phenomenon is problematical. Homelessness itself is only an unfortunate side effect of that much larger problem.

    1. I agree, homelessness is the aftereffect of a whole series of system failures.

      what struck me was that there was no indication of any attempts at engaging with people as if they were actual human beings. The article had mentioned someone sleeping by a doorway who got annoyed when asked to move. Had someone bothered to show some respect and bring him a coffee a few days a week, chances are he’s going to treat their property with more respect. If you treat people like shit, you can’t expect them to give a shit about you.

  7. Jeez!!! What an ass. Although… traditional media is dying (thanks to Facebook and Google), requiring them to resort to ever-more underhanded tactics to attract attention and provoke emotive responses from the reader.

    Some newspaper editors seem to firmly believe that any publicity (even fair critiques like yours) is good publicity. All that matters to them is getting eyeballs on pages, generating ad revenue.

    You mentiond the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I heard that a lot at NA, it’s a really useful reminder.

    BTW… it’s just a fun coincidence that in the last few days both you and I have written about the need for empathy towards drug addicts and homeless people!!!

    Coincidence… or synchronicity?!

    1. If someone was inclined to con others out of their money, they would have to be dumb as a post to think that faking homelessness would be one of the more effective ways to go about that.

  8. Thank you. I currently live in a homeless shelter – technically I guess homeless. If it were not for the shelter me and the Boy would be on the street tonight. I am not addicted, or homeless because of drugs, not mentally ill, but reading your kind words about my friends, and fellow residents, I actually feel like society might stand a chance. I love to see kind!

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