How California reporters are covering homelessness during COVID-19

Published on
May 20, 2020

With 151,000 people living in inhabitable conditions, California accounts for most of the nation’s homeless population and has by far the most people living in cars, tents and lean-tos in public space. Experts say the state also has the most innovative housing policies, public health and city-county cooperation, and other cities are taking their cues from California to shape their own homelessness policies. 

So, it makes sense to talk to California homelessness reporters, who have been immersed in the topic for five years or more, for tips on how to continue in-depth coverage during the pandemic.   

The answer, in a word, is with great difficulty. 

Reporters on the homelessness beat face the same problems covering the pandemic as the rest of their peers: fear of getting infected, and of passing it to family; missing or defective protective gear; glitchy internet connections during Zoom news conferences; a month of bad hair days, and counting. 

But our fears are magnified because of the threat we pose to a highly vulnerable population subject to rapid contagion and a four-fold risk of dying if we unwittingly infect a single homeless person. The homeless beat is largely a street reporting gig; those of us who have done it for years learned long ago policies that sound reasonable at City Hall or batted around on Nextdoor make no sense on L.A.’s Skid Row or in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Now, our news organizations are discouraging us from reporting in person. And we are by and large renouncing the part of the job we love the most.

“It sucks,” said Kevin Fagan, longtime homelessness reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m a street reporter I try to dig into people’s experience and empathize. Now I can’t be the intrepid reporter, I’m stuck.”

For Matt Tinoco, KPCC-FM’s homelessness reporter, phone work can pose an existential dilemma. He managed to land an interview with a family in one of the new homeless hotel rooms but could barely decipher the tape. “They tell us to find a landline and a quiet room,” he said, noting that he tried in-person reporting early on “but knew it wasn’t right.” 

Being grounded — and it does feel like being a teenager grounded by Mom — comes as the coronavirus has made screen communication with homeless people harder. The stay-at-home order shut down libraries, restaurants and other outlets that homeless people used to charge their devices and connect to the internet. 

Fagan, Tinoco and Los Angeles Times homelessness reporter Ben Oreskes say they are relying on their deep source lists of homeless shelter officials, advocates, street doctors and others to connect with homeless people. 

Oreskes found a COVID-19 positive homeless man living in his car through a shelter operator. Fagan, whose coverage of homeless people goes back decades, said he still receives email from people who know him from the beat.  

Oreskes said without easy access to in-person interviews, he has become more focused in targeting key players.

“I’ve become more judicious about reaching people,” Oreskes said, “not calling advocates just for the sake of calling them.” 

Oreskes said public records requests have gone by the board; officials say they don’t have time to fill them. Just tracking the numbers of new shelter beds, campgrounds, hotel rooms, wash stations and bathrooms is a Sisyphean task. 

“I can ask the city of Los Angeles, the county and the homeless authority the same question and get three different answers, and they refer me back to each other for clarification,” said Tinoco. “Everybody is in charge but nobody’s in charge.” 

And the coronavirus is one of the few news stories that the public is following down to the last numeral. The L.A. Times coronavirus tracker, which updates new cases, deaths and other data daily, is one of the paper’s most popular digital features.

Even in the scramble for facts, reporters say it’s more important than ever to maintain a healthy skepticism and provide context. “There’s always that fourth paragraph pointing out there are still 36,000 people living in the street,” Oreskes said.

The L.A. Times, like other media, has moved away from incremental court coverage. But under the aegis of U.S. District Judge David Carter, a lawsuit challenging street encampments on Skid Row is producing near real-time information about things political leaders would prefer to keep under wraps — wash stations running out of water and soap, cities opposing hotel shelters.

Several reporters have found profiles — featuring people who normally would not warrant the spotlight but play a leadership role in the pandemic homelessness response — a good way to make the news more digestible. 

Oreskes profiled Carter, a 76-year-old ex-Marine, who insists on personally inspecting Skid Row, his N95 mask dangling off his face so homeless people can hear him. “He’s such an interesting person, it felt like a dereliction of duty not to write about him,” Oreskes said.

“The response to this crisis is being led by lots of people who normally stay deep within the government,” Oreskes said.

In another profile of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, L.A. Times legal reporter Maura Dolan not only explicated the Bay’s homelessness politics during the pandemic but detailed Breed’s climb from the projects to the top of a city that epitomizes the nation’s wealth divide. And she found space to note that Breed, the face of San Francisco’s daily televised coronavirus updates, did her own hair and makeup.

While homelessness reporters are swamped following the public health crisis, they are also asking what lies ahead. 

“One of the big questions is what happens when the contracts end for these hotels?” Tinoco said. “Are they going to put people back in the street?”

And they’re preparing to cover an explosion of newly homeless people, if predictions of a post-pandemic economic collapse hold. Based on discussions with medical experts, Fagan believes the coronavirus could already be embedded in the homeless population. It just hasn’t been detected yet. Homelessness reporters’ biggest challenge could still be waiting.