Shelter WA calls out tweet

Opinion | Royceton Hardey. 

Since the invention of Twitter hardly a day goes by without the media writing a story based on the reaction to a tweet. In the past week U.S. President Donald Trump, Actor Roseanne Barr and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have had a plethora of stories written about their 280-character meanderings. 

Locally, Nic Naitanui is king of the kids with his 79,000+ twitter followers. His highly entertaining use of the medium has seen many stories written about him including a recent trip to both Jerusalem and Palestine. 

Sitting at 43,000 followers is suspended Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi. It’s a strong following and it means Ms Scaffidi’s views hit a large platform.

On Saturday 3 November at 12.08pm two photos were tweeted by Ms Scaffidi. Accompanying them she wrote: “Small businesses face enough in [the] current Perth climate without having this on their doorstep.”

In the photo were two men who were homeless. Fast asleep, each of them had no idea their picture had been taken. One is surrounded by luggage, a coffee cup and a couple of pairs of shoes. The other is sleeping in a shirt too small to cover his belly. This is clearly a difficult time in their lives. Both had taken refuge, one situated under the front window of a restaurant which looked to be closed and another in a doorway. Thin bedding material keep each of them off the concrete.

For privacy reasons, WAtoday blurred the faces. Source: TWITTER @LISASCAFPERTHLM/WAtoday.

Twitter has two options when it comes to retweeting a tweet from someone. The first option is to simply retweet a tweet. This is considered an endorsement of the content as you are sharing that content with your own followers. The other option is to retweet the tweet but with a comment. This allows your followers to see the original tweet but with your thoughts added.

At 6.01pm the CEO of Shelter WA Michelle Mackenzie saw Ms Scaffidi’s tweet. Taking the retweet with a comment option Ms Mackenzie with her experience in social and affordable housing and homelessness policy typed away.

“This tweet is totally unacceptable - people are homeless as services and supports are stretched - I invite you to join our initiative @Homelessness_WA and do something positive to end homelessness,” typed Ms Mackenzie.

Shelter WA is the backbone organisation for the Western Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (@Homelessness_WA) referenced in the tweet. The Alliance comprises a group of organisations currently working on a 10-year Strategy to end homelessness.

The next day, Lauren Pilat a journalist with WAtoday, understood the potential of the issues raised in the tweet. Under the headline “Shelter WA outraged by Lisa Scaffidi's 'appalling' homelessness tweet,” she outlined the content of both tweets and interviewed both Ms Scaffidi and Ms Mackenzie.

But it was this line, I believe, that got to the heart of the matter, “the images which WAtoday has chosen to blur.” Using Ms Scaffidi’s photos within their story for context, WAtoday decided to blur the faces of the two homeless men.

Now let’s make it perfectly clear Ms Scaffidi did nothing wrong. It is not illegal to capture the image of a person in a public space – and this location was certainly public. But in making the choice to provide anonymity, WAtoday captured the reason why so many people found the tweet unpalatable.

Yes, you will see homeless people in the City. Yes, it is an issue. Yes, we would all like to solve the issue quickly and yes, Ms Scaffidi is correct, the optics of having people in doorways is not a good look.

But surely the conversation could have been started without the need to identify two people? As Ms Mackenzie told WAtoday, “Taking photos of people who have clearly fallen on hard times, and not respecting their privacy is totally unacceptable,” she said.

Speaking to 6PR’s Oliver Peterson, Ms Scaffidi apologised for her actions.

“I would probably say that I was deliberately provocative, and I would apologise to anyone that may have been offended,” she said.

“My stance jolted a reaction because as we know and as you [Oliver Peterson] and I have discussed off-air, many stakeholders, residents, visitors, tourists to the City, see these people every day and they are needing help and as taxpayers we want to help them.”

For privacy reasons, WAtoday blurred the faces. Source: TWITTER @LISASCAFPERTHLM/WAtoday.

ABC local radio in an interview Ms Mackenzie talked about the structural drivers of homelessness. Crises accommodation services are stretched with two out of three requests for accommodation unable to be met. The waitlist for social housing is long and there are not enough affordable properties on the market for people to rent. If you have no home and for whatever reason you can’t stay with families or friends what do you do? Sleep in the car. Sleep on the street. People are homelessness because there are not enough affordable homes and services that are needed.

In a follow-up article in WAtoday again penned by Lauren Pilat, Jonathan Shapiera a person with lived experience who provides advice to the Alliance shared his thoughts on the tweet.

Mr Shapiera said sharing images of people who are homeless was “immoral” and Ms Scaffidi should have considered their anonymity. “Anonymity for a person on the street ... is sacred,” he told WAtoday.

What was most puzzling about the actions taken is Ms Scaffidi has been a champion of homeless. She was made aware of Homeless Connect at a Capital City Lord Mayors meeting back in 2007. It had been run successfully in Brisbane and Ms Scaffidi saw it as a way to educate the public about homelessness in Perth. She pushed for City of Perth endorsement and since 2007 it has run every year with support from Volunteering WA, corporate sponsors, community groups and the City of Perth.

Ms Mackenzie has mentioned to me she believes she is a technological luddite when it comes to Twitter. I found this comment surprising. At my last place of employment my CEO was not even on Twitter, so I thought she was way ahead in her understanding of the medium. Her Twitter comment on the back of Ms Scaffidi’s tweet was firm and respectful and outlined how a little compassion can go a long way in the area of homelessness. It gave a call to action and a way people could help.

It was a masterclass in messaging on a tweet which had to be called out.

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