What I learned reporting on Sacramento’s effort to get dying people off the streets

Published on
November 27, 2018

When I walked into Room 104 at a Motel 6 along a busy Sacramento road paralleling the Capital City Freeway, I entered a deeper understanding of a complicated and growing crisis.

Jamie Murphy was rounding out 46 years of his life, facing a terminal diagnosis while rotating through temporary motel stays. Affordable housing remained out of reach.  

Pancreatic cancer reduced Jamie from 236 to 131 pounds; he was overwhelmed by the weight of financial stress during his final months. He was too ill to work. SSI benefits barely lasted half the month. Loved ones were unable to take him in.

Through meeting Jamie, I learned he is far from alone. In California, and most of the country, hospice care doesn’t exist for the terminally ill experiencing homelessness. I had an abrupt moment of realization as a journalist that some of the most vulnerable in our community are left to die on the streets.

As a general assignment reporter for KCRA-TV, a backbone of my daily reporting is covering a growing affordable housing gap that leads an increasing number of people to experience homelessness.

What followed, was the challenge to cultivate empathy on a topic that is typically seen through a glaze of preconceived judgments.  

But focusing solely on Jamie’s story, while heart-wrenchingly powerful, would only highlight a dire problem. Where is the hope? Who is pioneering humanity? And what are the solutions to affordable housing?

As a 2018 California Fellow, I spent six months finding compelling narratives — and new solutions — to the growing disparities of those struggling to find housing in Sacramento. That meant capturing Jamie’s final months. But it also meant introducing viewers to Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, a retired UC Davis Medical School professor and founder of Joshua’s House.

“I met newly diagnosed cancer patients who were homeless and that was shocking to me,” Marlene said. “I had not thought about that — that someone could be going through cancer and be homeless. And as a cancer survivor myself I just I couldn’t understand how you go through that.”

Marlene was propelled to action when confronted with the issue personally, naming the facility after her late grandson Joshua. “I lost my grandson in 2014 who died on the streets,” Marlene said. “He had been homeless much of his adult life due to addictions — but he was this very loving, compassionate, wonderful young man.”

The 20-bed facility is partnering with all Sacramento-based hospitals to provide hospice care to those terminally ill on the streets — the first of its kind in the West and among just a handful in the country.

We continued to meet with Jamie over the last three months of his life. Following his death, we connected with his family to better understand the dynamics that ultimately led to his loss of stable housing.

One of the most poignant moments was when Jamie told us he knew his life would fall short of the opening of Joshua’s House. But he wanted to leave behind a legacy for others just like him — the opportunity to die with dignity and respect.

In all, Joshua’s House was just one story in a four-part series spanning a total of 30 minutes of broadcast. We then reimagined the individual pieces into a half-hour special that aired two months after the series finished.

From the terminally ill, we then looked at how seniors are finding themselves evicted for the first time; new solutions for those living in encampments; and an army of compassion in the form of a unique nonprofit called Mercy Pedalers.

Each part was anchored by our efforts to show the complicated, layered circumstances that lead each individual to find themselves without a home. We sought to go beyond preconceived judgments, and to leave viewers uplifted with knowledge that solutions are producing results — one bed, home, and meal at a time.  

A few tips from the field:

  • Avoid overused words. Our series was titled “Hope, Humanity and Housing” for a specific reason. We made a conscious choice to limit our use of the words “homeless,” “crisis” and “health.” Challenge yourself to find other descriptions to capture the person behind the story. And when using the word, phrase it as “experiencing homelessness,” as opposed to a label that clouds the unique circumstances facing each individual.
  • Gain trust. There is skepticism among vulnerable populations. Having them trust your intentions takes time and relationship-building. Whether spending the morning pedaling with Sister Libby, having in-depth conversations with Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, or organizing conference calls with a spectrum of advocates, a majority of my six months on this project was spent cultivating relationships that could connect me to narratives and solutions.  
  • Problems need to be tied to solutions. Covering the issue of homelessness can feel demoralizing when solely highlighting a problem. That helplessness does little to persuade the community to care about a problem that impacts all of them in some way. There are myriad existing and new solutions taking shape in your community. Search for them.
  • Stay focused. When trying to understand the dynamics and nuances contributing to homelessness, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with information overload. I began with outlines spanning a couple pages, but then thoughtfully narrowed my coverage to what I wanted — and what I could realistically accomplish. I ended with a single page of four bullet points that I continuously updated as I gathered and learned more.