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How I reported on the Bay Area’s homeless population during the pandemic

How I reported on the Bay Area’s homeless population during the pandemic

Picture of Nicole Karlis
(Photo by AntoinePound via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by AntoinePound via Flickr/Creative Commons)

“Man plans, and God laughs.” I can’t think of a more suitable phrase for 2020.

At the end of last year, I applied for the 2020 California Fellowship with the following tentative title: “An Investigation into the Bay Area’s Aging Gap.” My original plan was to follow a select group of senior citizens in Oakland who were aging on the streets, and investigate how being without a home can literally accelerate the aging process. As I pointed out in my initial proposal, right across the Bay Area in San Francisco wealthy tech executives were paying thousands of dollars to slow down their own aging processes. There is an aging gap in the Bay Area that needs to be addressed, I proclaimed.

Then the pandemic happened, forcing me to dramatically shift my story and find ways to do essential street reporting — without the street.

During the first month of my reporting on the project, I focused on what I could do from my home. I submitted public record requests, interviewed researchers and made an effort to establish relationships with new sources. But it became obvious that the coronavirus would change the scope of my story, since I was planning on reporting on a population — homeless seniors — who had suddenly become even more vulnerable during the pandemic. When we were given shelter-in-place orders, many wondered (myself included) how people without housing were supposed to shelter-in-place.

In April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide initiative, Project Roomkey, which would open up 15,000 hotel rooms to the state's homeless population. As part of the initiative, $150 million was set aside for local California governments to purchase trailers and lease rooms in motels, hotels, and other facilities, prioritizing counties with high homeless populations like those in the Bay Area.

As I reported in one of my stories, it was the first initiative of its kind in the nation and was hailed as a & "win-win" It prioritized homeless people from the following categories: people over 65 and/or who have certain underlying health conditions, homeless people who have been exposed to COVID-19, and those who are COVID-19 positive, but didn't need hospitalization.

Naturally, my story changed as this group was prioritized in receiving temporary housing during the pandemic.

At first, I felt overwhelmed and like I was starting from scratch. I also felt very restricted because I didn’t feel comfortable reporting in the field yet, but I did my best to stay optimistic. I approached the reporting in small steps, which resulted in a series of stories looking at the plight of older homeless people in the Bay Area amid the pandemic and their health (the stories can all be found on a Flipboard page here).

Here are a few lessons I learned along the way:

1. Break your investigation into smaller pieces.

Since my story was constantly changing as events unfolded, I found it useful to narrow down the focus for each piece while remembering that it touched the bigger issue I was writing about. For example, it helped to think of my story as a Venn diagram where aging, homelessness and the pandemic intersect. For example, when wildfires sparked across Northern California and poor air quality made it hard for me to report on the streets, I wrote about how the wildfires were “a crisis within a crisis within a crisis” for homeless people.

2. Check in with your sources frequently.

Since meeting with sources in real life wasn’t feasible during the pandemic, it became even more important for me to maintain communication with them. I made a point to send weekly emails or phone calls to my sources to check in, say hi, and even just ask them how they were doing during this chaotic time.

3. Document your progress daily.

When the time came to submit my monthly status report on the project, life definitely became easier when I took notes daily on my progress using Google Spreadsheets. Every day, I’d document any little progress I made (even if it was just reading a short article or report). Get organized with your project, and you’ll be happier and more productive! This tip was inspired by one of the presentations during the fellowship training.

4. Don’t give up on finding a personal narrative.

As you can imagine, it was difficult to find people living on the streets, spend time with them and interview them safely during COVID-19. And when Project Roomkey got going, reporters weren’t allowed in the facilities. It took a lot of discussions, planning and me following up with a key source to eventually tour the RV park in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, which led to one my best stories. I’m really glad I didn’t give up.

5. When possible, incorporate audio and video.

I ended up working with Salon’s multimedia team to put together video and audio of my time at the RV park. I think using this additional medium to share Jerome Howard’s story was highly effective, and contributed to the success of the piece. I was very lucky to have spent time with Howard, who was willing to be photographed and have parts of the recording from our interview published.

6. What’s going right is just as important as what’s going wrong.

As journalists, we often focus on reporting on injustices. And I certainly came across some of that while reporting on the slow pace of Project Roomkey, and how bureaucratic policies got in the way of housing vulnerable people during the pandemic. However, the story I came across at the RV park in Mission Bay was a positive one, and it gave readers and the Bay Area community a story of hope in an otherwise hopeless time. Focusing on how the pandemic gave people housing who wouldn’t have had it in non-pandemic times reminded me how important these stories of hope are, too.

Find Nicole Karlis on Twitter @NicoleKarlis or nkarlis@salon.com.

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