Telling the real story of homelessness — and busting the biggest myth

Published on
July 14, 2020

Covering homelessness puts reporters in the middle of a contradiction. On the West Coast, homelessness is so visible that it touches virtually everyone. But it can also feel like another world to which most people don’t have access.

Audiences take in so much information about homelessness, but at a distance or second-hand or filtered through politics or advocacy. It’s hard for many people to create a mental picture of this issue that incorporates all the contradictory information in a way that makes sense.

When we set out to make Outsiders, a multipart podcast chronicling unsheltered homelessness for one year in Olympia, Washington, we realized we had a chance to collapse some of that distance. 

We saw an opportunity to replace a low-resolution picture of homelessness with a high-resolution one in listeners’ minds, and give them a foundation of knowledge that would help them absorb future coverage of the issue.

The experience of working with our subjects for more than a year also changed my own ideas about homelessness and how to report on it. 

My main takeaway was how much reporters have over-emphasized “one-paycheck-away” stories — tales of bad fortune driving people from the middle class to the streets. While these stories may grab attention and elicit sympathy from middle-class audiences, they ultimately distort the complicated reality of unsheltered homelessness.

I wanted to explain to our audience, clearly and succinctly, how a person became homeless. But that goal started to unravel with a simple question, early on, to one of the main subjects of the series, Jessica. 

When I asked her how she became homeless, she launched into a dense, winding story that took hours of interviews to unravel.

“It was around Christmastime and I hadn’t seen my family in 15 years,” she said. “I just moved back. And my little nephew was running around and the downstairs neighbors didn’t like it and complained so much it made me lose my housing because I was being pulled which way. My uncle committed suicide, I was losing my house. My daughter just got kidnapped from school [by] my ex-husband. And I didn’t know which way to go. And I missed an appointment for housing and they wouldn’t let me appeal it and I’ve been on the streets ever since.” 

Jessica’s response is representative of the answers we got — stories of almost impenetrable complexity. 

Back when I started to report on homelessness about three years ago, a source in local government told me that at the root of every story of homelessness lies a “crisis” — a discrete event like an eviction, job loss, family breakdown or dispute with a landlord.

But our subjects kept telling us about three types of crises.

First is the immediate crisis that caused someone to lose a home. In Jessica’s case, as best we can tell, she was evicted after missing one or more appointments with the housing authority that was providing her with an apartment.

But almost always, people described problems unfolding in the background long before the immediate crisis struck. 

For many people, it was generational poverty. Or parents with substance use disorders. For others it was alienation from family. Or mental illness they’d been dealing with most of their lives. Or a criminal record that had followed them for years. For a remarkable number of people, it was trauma or abuse in childhood. Often, it was a combination.

These background forces made the precipitating crisis more likely and more devastating. An eviction would be devastating for almost anyone, but most people have family, friends or resources to provide support and stop the fall all the way into homelessness. 

As we reported our series, we realized we needed to show our audience those background forces. Anything else would have given them an incomplete and unrealistic view of homelessness.

The idea that one catastrophe can cause anyone to spiral into homelessness — the idea that we’re all “one paycheck away” from homelessness, as it’s often phrased — is attractive to reporters. 

We often seek out those stories because they speak to the very real economic anxieties of an educated, middle-class audience. Saying, “This could happen to you” is an effective way to get someone’s attention and get them to care. 

But those “one-paycheck” stories aren’t representative of what we experienced on the streets of Olympia. Most of our subjects did not come from middle-class backgrounds, and their life experiences were probably alien to large segments of our audience. 

In almost every case, our subjects did not fall into homelessness from a place of economic stability. Jessica had been sexually abused and trafficked throughout her childhood by a mother and stepfather who had substance use disorders and no stable housing before they died.

“The present, in some way, is just kind of like this last stop on this train of chaos that’s been happening for years and years and years,” Seattle Times reporter Sydney Brownstone said while telling Jessica’s backstory in Episode 3 of the podcast. “It’s not like she lost her footing from a stable environment and fell through the cracks. She came from this background of severe trauma and severe distrust and probably didn’t have the tools to navigate in a world that had been so cruel to her.”

Getting at these background forces meant asking people not just about their recent histories, but also about their childhoods, their parents and even their grandparents. We also spent time talking about race, which seems to have powerful effects on homelessness that are only partially understood. 

In addition to the immediate catastrophe and background forces, our subjects told us about a third crisis in their lives: everything that kept happening to them after they became homeless. 

Case in point: the following exchange about garbage.

At one point in the series, we set up a hotline so listeners could send us their questions about homelessness. We then posed those questions to people who are unsheltered, to bring them in on conversations they’re often left out of.

Some listeners called to ask why people living in encampments don’t pick up after themselves. If you can imagine, this was an awkward question to ask people living outside. But, to a person, they were happy to answer it. 

A man who goes by the street name Johnny Irish said: “Throwing a piece of trash on the ground is probably the least of their worries when nobody seems to give any care for their needs or their wants or helping them at all. So they feel abandoned. So, you know, they feel like trash. So they feel thrown away. So they just, they don’t care. Most people just don’t care.”

Johnny Irish went on to point out that some people who are homeless walk around the city picking up litter, and get little attention. 

But his main point was that the physical, mental and emotional stress of homelessness affects people’s decisions and behavior.

The theme came up again and again in our conversations with our subjects. The day-by-day, hour-by-hour task of surviving took up so much of their lives, lives built around routines and strategies that kept them safe, fed, and feeling OK as much as possible. 

Some of those strategies make a sort of sense in the short-term, but ultimately contribute to more problems. Some people use methamphetamine to stay up all night when they’re worried about someone stealing their belongings or assaulting them. Then they might use heroin to get rest during the day. 

One reason poverty is so hard to report on is that it’s wrapped up in morality. When we see someone who’s homeless behaving a certain way, it’s common to assume: “They’re homeless because they’re the sort of person who acts that way.” 

We wanted to show the opposite is often true. Many behaviors on the street are responses to extreme deprivation, psychological trauma and other effects of homelessness. Those behaviors, in turn, often reinforce and perpetuate someone’s homelessness.

It’s a theme we introduced in the opening moments of the podcast, when Jessica said: “The streets change you, a lot. I’m so cold-hearted right now that I don’t even know what niceness is anymore, and that’s what I want to find. I want to find my hope and my dignity and my morals. And out here you can’t keep them.” 

One of the most memorable moments of the podcast captured this idea. It happened when Scott Greenstone, a reporter for The Seattle Times, asked one of our subjects, known as Tall Sara, about the last time she felt at home.

After a five-second pause, she said: “I don’t know. It’s been so long.” 

After three more seconds: “Um. I honestly don’t remember.”

And then, almost to herself: “That’s crazy. I don’t know, sometimes I feel at home out here. But then it just gets crazy again. Now I’m trying to get out, but it’s like where do you even begin? You know? Where do you even begin?”

Of all the people we followed, Sara had one of the longest unbroken stretches of unsheltered homelessness: about five years in at least three different cities.

Homelessness is not just an economic crisis, but often also a crisis of isolation, hopelessness, and alienation from mainstream society. And the longer someone is homeless, the stronger these forces get.

We would have missed these realities if we’d hewed to purely economic stories or prosecuted people’s choices and sought ways to blame them for their own homelessness.

Instead, we sought to show our audience what we saw on the streets: people whose behavior and choices are shaped and limited by their circumstances and environments. 

When we did look at economic factors, we went beyond the standard story of how life has gotten harder for middle-class families (even though, in many ways, it has). In truth, most middle-class families have safety nets separating hardship from homelessness. 

Instead, we looked at how cities have gotten less hospitable for their poorest residents.

A turning point in our reporting came when we interviewed Joe Martin, a longtime Seattle social worker who started his career in Seattle’s “Skid Road” neighborhood. 

Many of the neighborhood’s residents lived in broken-down hotels and slumlord-owned buildings, home to generations of “drifters, itinerant workers, hobos, prostitutes, gamblers and kind of the whole amalgam of folks who made up that community,” as Martin put it. 

But as inner cities gentrified in the late seventies and early eighties, Martin watched developers turn those buildings into nicer apartments with higher rents. The people displaced from them, he said, became the first wave of the city’s modern homeless population. 

Reporting on why people are homeless can amount to asking why people are poor. It’s almost an absurdly complex question. 

But Martin’s account suggests a different question: Where did poor people used to live? And what happened to those places? 

A lot of reporting has been done on the close correlation between rising rents and worsening homelessness. But it’s easy for reporters to oversimplify that link. We found that overheated housing markets in places like New York, Seattle, and the Bay Area have virtually eliminated the substandard apartments, single occupancy units, share houses, and flophouses that the poorest residents relied on in lieu of a robust public housing system. 

If we wanted, we probably could have found homeless subjects our listeners would have identified as hardworking middle-class people who had been dealt an unlucky hand. Several people advising us early in our reporting process also pushed us to find families with children (although we never learned of children living in any of the encampments we immersed ourselves in). 

These sorts of stories may have gone down more smoothly with educated, middle-class podcast listeners. But they would not have been representative of the crisis we saw. It would have been yet another low-resolution picture. More importantly, it would have erased the very people we wanted to report on.

When reporters sidestep reality in favor of smoother, more sympathetic stories, it reinforces the message that some people are beyond trying to humanize. But it’s our job to describe the world as it is and to humanize people in their full complexity.