I was very glad to read in Sunday's Oregonian a guest column analysis of a "PolitiFact" article titled "Beaverton distorts homeless roll call". The PolitiFact report assessed whether the Beaverton School District's reporting of homelessness levels among students was accurate. PolitiFact had labeled the School District's statements "False", because one of the many statistics quoted was inaccurate - that the number of homeless students is "the highest ever recorded in Oregon".
From the PolitiFact article by Janie Har:
<<"One out of ten children in the Beaverton School District lives below the federal poverty line and more than 37% of the school district's students (over 13,000 kids) receive free or reduced lunch benefits. Last year, Beaverton School District had the highest number of homeless students in the state, 1,580 homeless students, which was also the highest number ever recorded in Oregon."
PolitiFact Oregon did a simple search at the state schools superintendent website and found that the figure is correct. The Beaverton School District reported 1,580 homeless students in 2009-10, ranking No. 1 of all school districts.
But is that the highest number of homeless students ever reported in the state?
The previous year’s figures show that’s not so. In 2008-09, Portland Public Schools -- the state’s most populous school district -- reported 1,706 students without permanent shelter, followed by the Medford School District with 1,126. Beaverton was third with 1,114 homeless students. The 1-2-3 line-up was the same in 2007-08.>>
As Sunday's Guest column by Eric Canon and Russ Dondero of the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness of Washington County notes, the "highest ever in Oregon" was a mis-statement by someone in the City of Beaverton, not the School District. The latest number is the highest ever in Beaverton, not Oregon.
When I read that PolitiFact article, I was exasperated that the headline "Beaverton distorts homeless roll" and the "Truth-ometer" firmly on "False" implied the entire homelessness level was distorted, whereas the article found most of the claims of record-high levels of homelessness for Beaverton's students true. Labeling the entire report "False" was in itself misleading and not true, even if qualified and clarified in the article below the headline.
It's important to note that often the headline is written by someone other than the author of a newspaper article. That's unfortunate because the journalist's name is on the column, while the headline-writer is anonymous.
From the Guest column:
<< Here's a partial quote from the Beaverton School District's response to the PolitiFact article:
"...We are concerned that people may see that headline and read no further. In the body of the article it is clear that the Beaverton School District's homeless numbers as reported to ODE [Oregon Department of Education] are completely accurate....
Har's otherwise excellent article's lead paragraph also fosters a stereotypical view of Beaverton and Washington County. "Beaverton brings to mind terrific Asian restaurants, good schools and traffic hell on the Sunset Highway. It doesn't often conjure images of homeless children."
Nobody is "conjuring" or inventing homelessness in Washington County or Oregon. It's not a myth -- it's an increasing reality -- even before the current deep recession.
Homelessness is not just single men down on their luck on Burnside. It's families with children in Portland, the suburbs and the "other" Oregon. The Portland metro area is ranked among one of the highest in suburban homelessness.
Words like "distortion" and "conjure" add to people's cynicism as evidenced by reader remarks in the article's online comment section. Many are oblivious to the depths of this problem in our state and nation. Homeless people, their loved ones and children are simply faceless and invisible too many of their fellow citizens.
The Washington County Interfaith Committee on Homelessness [IFCH] has worked tirelessly for four years to put a face on homelessness in Washington County and Oregon. Newspaper headlines, code words like "FALSE," or stereotypes make it harder to get the public to engage in this issue.
An innocent mistake was made and corrected. To blow an error up by an attention getting headline hurts advocates like the IFCH but, more importantly, individuals, school students and families with children in Oregon who are the victims of homelessness.
As our state faces serious budget cuts when the legislature meets in 2011. Headlines like this appeal to cynicism and hurt the cause of educating citizens. The headline writer, in effect, took a cheap shot at some of the most vulnerable Oregonians. Like doctors, journalists should be mindful to "do no harm." >>
PolitiFact seems to be set up to do the homework many people don't have time to do, in checking statements made in the public realm. In the good old days, journalists and editors would check facts before publishing independent statements, rather than after. Since that is no longer the case, apparently, PolitiFact seems to be designed as a Gotcha - yet another way to work on convincing readers that public servants working in political realms seldom speak the truth. I disagree with that premise. And when the PolitiFact headline and the Truth-ometer are in themselves distortions, the public is given a dis-service twice over.
I appreciate Eric Canon and Russ Dondero taking the time to give readers the real truth on this issue. Homelessness is indeed a huge problem in the Beaverton School District, and throughout Oregon.