Why Doesn’t the Media Discuss the ‘Perfect Victim’ Conundrum in Relation to Homelessness?

homeless people

In response to the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial, mainstream media continuously repeated the same monotonous message about Amber Heard not being the “perfect victim” to suggest she still deserved the public’s sympathy. This phrase was especially symbolic of the beginning of the trial when the cameras were cued, and truths unfolded. As viewers across the globe indulged in 83.9 million hours’ worth of court TV, this idea was subliminally playing in the background like a soundtrack to the entire scene.

Perhaps this is just what happens when actors take the stand against one another. One could argue that the “perfect victim conundrum” was merely this melodrama’s clickbait button, a theme for all ages and audiences. But even mainstream media itself, this machine that churns out narratives deemed unbiased that don’t always live up to that title, admits there were more sinister motives at play.

Regardless of your stance on the case and its verdict, there is one bold question housing advocates need to ask themselves about the war on words that happened in the background as the Heard/Depp courtroom drama took center stage. The question, simply put, is:

Why doesn’t the media discuss the “perfect victim” conundrum when they come to Skid Row with their cameras? How about when they publish heinous photographs of Kensington Avenue? Or when they constantly run stories that portray homeless people in the most negative light possible? Why is there never this disclaimer, this idea that hey, this person slumped over in a tent on the side of the road might not be perfect, but they still deserve your sympathy because they are a victim of homelessness?

Perfect Victim – What Does This Catchphrase Even Mean?

Elle Australia describes perfect victimhood as “a damaging belief about how a victim should look and behave to be deemed a credible source.” This description includes but is not limited to assumptions about:

  • How a victim should present themselves publicly
  • How society must perceive them as trustworthy to believe their story
  • The victims’ sobriety, the track record for honesty, ability to maintain a steady or respectable social status, and overall likeability factor

Above all else, perfect victimhood is presented as a faulty, dare we say toxic concept because, in truth, there are no perfect people. Behind every kind smile, there lies at least one not-so-innocent secret. This is true without exception because the state of human existence is imperfection by default.

These are such important points because they are mind-numbingly true. Yet, this concept is never the focal point of conversation when the subject of homelessness and homeless people is being discussed.

Examples from Recent News Clips

As a point of reference, here are some recent examples that show the stark contrast in wording when mass media describes Amber Heard as opposed to when mass media outlets chronicle random homeless people.

In a May 2022 article entitled “Amber Heard Is Not A ‘Perfect Victim’ Because There’s No Such Thing”, Refinery 29 states:

“…the court of social media continues to judge Heard harshly. She is one of the women who the world doesn’t want to believe.”

The New York Post chimes in on the discussion in a May 16, 2022 post titled “The Unfair Vilification of Amber Heard”, in which the author states:

“Whether you think Heard is telling the truth or not, anyone who has ever been a victim of domestic violence will tell you: None of this is funny.” 

This quote again hints at the idea that someone needn’t be truthful or likable to be a victim.

Time Magazine takes the concept even further in their piece “The Depp-Heard Trial Perpetuates the Myth of the Perfect Victim”, where the text plainly reads:

“And victims can be flawed: They don’t need to be pure and sober to tell the truth.”

The above statement is of note because victims of homelessness need to be all of these things – pure, sober, honest, humble, flawless, selfless, not to mention hungry, soiled, desolate, and poverty-stricken – in order to be perceived not just as victims but merely as human beings.

Don’t believe it?

Here’s a snippet from an article posted by NBC Boston on June 27, 2022, after the perfect victim conundrum had been thoroughly explained. This post describes a homeless encampment as a barrage of “needles, condoms, and human feces.”

Inhabitants of the encampment are described not as imperfect victims of homelessness but as rampant, stumbling derelicts that present imminent danger to children at play. This is by no means a lone or rare portrayal of homeless individuals. Indeed, it is the norm.

The New York Post has run countless articles describing homeless people as tree-dwelling, syringe-loving drug addicts. Opinion pieces accuse housing advocates of virtue signaling at a population they claim is desperately in need of “tough love.”

Why isn’t any of this seen as unfair vilification?

And where was the imperfect victim disclaimer when Time Magazine ran their photo series of Opioid addiction that grossly displayed a grandmother figure slumped over a dose of heroin with a rickety shopping cart by her side?

This is not to say that these stories should go completely untold. Instead, they should be reported in a context that makes it clear they are not representative of all or even most homeless people. After all, isn’t that what reporters were requesting when they resoundingly demanded cameras be removed from the Depp/Heard courtroom?

A Case of the Outliers: When Amber Heard Shouldn’t Represent All or Even Most Victims of Domestic Violence

As evidence of Heard’s deception emerged, advocates of the #MeToo movement quickly went from describing Heard as “imperfect but still a victim” to proclaiming she should be completely separated from other domestic violence victims as she was not representative of all or even most of them. Under this new narrative, Heard is an outlier whose courtroom image taints the stories of other domestic violence survivors, making it necessary to immediately shut down the rolling camera footage to save others.

This is fine. But then, where was that same energy when the cameras were rolling on Kensington Avenue or when pictures of Skid Row were plastered on the front pages of reputable websites worldwide? Where were the activists screaming that these pictures are not representative of all or even most homeless people?

Why has the face of homelessness become a middle-aged man waving a cardboard sign with an empty liquor bottle at his side? It would be more accurate to show scenes of an eight-year-old girl having her teddy bear tossed in the garbage as police storm a homeless encampment and separate her from her parents and the family dog?

Why aren’t we captioning photos of Skid Row with a sentence that tells the public the leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing? Why aren’t we declaring this undesirable image of homelessness as an outlier, a snippet, something that distorts rather than captures the entire story?

Is This Because Most Homeless People Are Men?

This must be asked, particularly now, at a time when male domestic violence survivors are all too often shamed into silence.

According to End Homelessness, men account for 70% of the American homeless population. This is a gross overrepresentation considering men only make up 49% of the national population. Multiple studies reflect that the general disbelief of accusations is among the many unique barriers faced by male domestic violence victims.

Is this representative of a bigger trend, one where men, in general, are not socially perceived as victims of anything? If so, could this explain our casual, callous attitude toward male victims of homelessness?

For now, that is a question for the void, but one that should inspire a sense of urgency.

Is This Because Most Homeless People are Black?

According to a 2019 report released by HUD and discussed in-depth on USA Today’s platform, black people now account for the majority of homeless ethnic groups. Fifty two percent of all homeless families fit this description. The fact that most homeless people are descendants of victims of the Transatlantic Slave trade shows a disproportionate representation and a pattern of oppressive housing practices and discriminatory legislation.

The academic manuscript “From “brute” to “thug:” the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America“, covers this concept quite thoroughly. Authors Calvin John Smiley and David Fakunle conclude that:

“Documented historical accounts have shown how myths, stereotypes, and racist ideologies led to discriminatory policies and court rulings that fueled racial violence in a post-Reconstruction era and has culminated in the exponential increase of Black male incarceration today.”

Even with all this information in the public sphere, homelessness is still not considered a form of racial violence. People who suffer under the weight of it are never portrayed as victims of a social woe. They most certainly do not have the luxury of being “imperfect victims,” even though the state of homelessness shaves decades off their lives.

Is It Possible that Homeless People are not Allowed to be Victims at All?

Given the above-listed information, the only viable conclusion is that mass media refuses to admit that homelessness is something people can be victims of. Rather, the general narrative is that people who “experience” homelessness are victims of their own decisions. Nobody is protesting this image’s distortion because it perpetuates the wrongful narrative mass media would like you to believe.

Studies continue to prove that public opinion directly influences the adverse outcomes of people experiencing homelessness. To that end, a shot in the dark with a camera can incur just as many consequences as a spiraling bullet. So, where are the activists crying foul, begging the reporters to step away from Kensington Avenue, proclaiming that they’re damaging the image, the progress, the movement? It stands to reason that there isn’t one. In terms of making headway for the homeless community, we continue to step back one fumbling foot at a time.

Disclaimer: This post contains potentially problematic language.

In this post, we have described the descendants of victims of the Transatlantic slave trade as “black,” a word that is problematic for several reasons. It has been used only because it is this time’s most current and universally understood moniker. We at Invisible People look forward to a future where this ethnic group of people is described with more accurate language and treated with a much higher level of respect. We have placed that description as a placeholder until more appropriate vocabulary becomes universally available.

In this post, people surviving without a safe, stable residence have been described as “homeless,” a word that is problematic for several reasons as well. We at Invisible People look forward to a day when no description of homelessness is necessary because this transient state of living no longer exists. You can make that future possible by picking up the phone.

Get in Touch with Your Local Legislators About Making Housing a Human Right

Perhaps you’ve never heard the press mention this before, but people who are experiencing homelessness are imperfect victims. They are not victims of poor choices or addiction or mental illness, even if they suffer from one or more of those problems. They are victims of a system that fails to acknowledge housing as a general, basic need, one everyone deserves.

Contact your legislators and ask them to change that by making housing a human right.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

Related Topics

Get the Invisible People newsletter


80 years old and homeless veteran in Los Angeles needs help


Displaced - social impact fim

Displaced: When Surviving Homelessness is a Crime

Homeless man sitting on sidewalk near Skid Row Los Angeles


homeless woman in Grants Pass




California Politicians on Both Sides of the Divide Vote to Criminalize Homelessness

homelessness in Scotland

Scotland’s Homelessness Explodes, Surpassing Pre-Pandemic Levels

Criminalization and Homelessness in Las Vegas

Trapped in the System: The Vicious Cycle of Criminalization in Las Vegas

johnson v. grants pass

Understanding the Potential Impact of Johnson v. Grants Pass

Get the Invisible People newsletter