The expected Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudolph W. Giuliani has revived media interest in homelessness, an issue that had almost disappeared since a Republican last occupied the White House nearly seven years ago.
Television reports about homeless people were big news during the Reagan and Bush administrations, but the issue nearly vanished from the screen after President Clinton’s election in 1992.
One study showed major news networks, which ran 71 stories about homelessness in 1990, have recently averaged only eight such stories a year until Mrs. Clinton last week criticized the homeless policies of New York City’s Republican mayor.
“The disappearance of homelessness was almost as mysterious as its appearance as a social problem back in 1982” a year after Ronald Reagan became president, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center.
Media coverage of homelessness is “driven by a need to club a politician,” Mr. Graham said, charging that the attention the issue is receiving now is a media effort “to make Rudy Giuliani look insensitive.”
But Richard T. Kaplar, vice president of the Media Institute, said the media simply grew tired of the issue. “Homelessness had its 15 minutes of fame,” he said.
“We’ve gone on to other issues such as drugs, AIDS and now violence in schools. When you get kids shooting each other, homelessness seems almost benign,” he said.
The issue has returned to the spotlight in the New York Senate race, Mr. Kaplar said, as a result of a “news development” engineered by Mr. Giuliani. “He’s on the [media’s] radar screen. I don’t see this as a pro-Hillary conspiracy,” said Mr. Kaplar.
Last month, after a homeless man attacked a young woman on a Manhattan sidewalk, Mr. Giuliani ordered police to round up the homeless from the streets and arrest those who refuse shelter.
He also said adults who refuse to work would be evicted from shelters for at least 30 days and their children could be put in foster homes.
Mrs. Clinton denounced the policies as both immoral and ineffective.
“Locking people up for a day will not take a single homeless person off the street … and will not make a mentally ill person any better,” Mrs. Clinton told a group of 85 black clergymen in New York.
“Tonight, in New York there will be no room at the inn for thousands and thousands,” said the first lady, who charged that Mr. Giuliani’s policies “punish poverty rather than helping to lift people out of poverty.”
Mrs. Clinton also promised to obtain more money for subsidized housing and for treatment for the mentally ill if she is elected to represent New York in the Senate.
There is no solid data on the number of homeless in America. But Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says there are probably fewer homeless on the streets today than in the 1980s.
“Clinton has spent a lot more money, and it’s been [HUD Secretary] Andrew Cuomo’s big issue. Now there is a big shelter infrastructure,” which wasn’t the case a decade or two ago, she said.
A new HUD study of homelessness released this week did not provide an estimate of the total homeless population. However, it said the estimated 470,000 homeless people sheltered on an average night in February 1996 represented only a fourth of the people who were homeless at any one time during the year.
A prior national survey, conducted in 1987, estimated that the number of homeless Americans, including those living in the streets, was about 600,000 on any given night.
Moreover, a federal plan to deal with the problem, released in March 1994, cited research showing “about 7 million Americans experienced being homeless at least once in the latter half of the 1980s.” According to that report, some 23,000 people per day and 86,000 per year were in homeless shelters in New York.
Mr. Graham said media coverage of homelessness has been scant during much of the Clinton administration. A Media Research Center study counted how many times homelessness was addressed by four television networks NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN on their evening news shows between 1989 and 1998.
“They went from [a total of] 71 [broadcasts] in 1990 to just nine in 1995,” said Mr. Graham.
And during the three-year period, 1996 to 1998, he said, the four networks addressed homelessness only 22 times, or fewer than eight stories per year.
“This just blows me away,” Mr. Graham said of the statistics, which he called “just more evidence that no economic problem is ever connected to Clinton” by major news networks.
Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said he believes politics has played a role in how the media have covered homelessness “at least in an indirect way.”
But he does not believe the issue has been used to promote or attack any particular official or candidate.
“There’s always a place in the media agenda for debate about poverty,” Mr. Lichter said. “A decade ago, the media treated the homeless as a proxy for the poor. But more recently, their stories about poverty have been stories about poor children and welfare.”
Ms. Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness said issues have “peaks and valleys.”
The homeless issue has been “in a valley” for some time, she said.
She agreed the issue has gained some attention recently, but that the “little dust-up” between Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton is just one of the reasons.
“During the holidays, there are typically a number of stories about the homeless. At this time of the year, people want more coverage of stories about the less fortunate,” Ms. Roman said.
In addition, she said, a photographic exhibit of homeless people at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery has sparked increased media interest in this population.