Wick Communications

Covering the homeless

In journalism on June 4, 2015 at 1:58 pm

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I want to point your attention to a wonderful series in the Sierra Vista Herald dealing with the local homeless population. (I’d link but apparently there are website archiving issues with the Herald at this writing.) It began with this amazing portrait taken by local photojournalist Jacob Petersen and his terrifically empathetic story of people who in many cases simply choose to live outside in his community.

From there, the project branched into several parts and before it’s done will involve reporters Derek Jordan and Christine Steele as well.

Herald Editor Eric Peterman said in an email that it began like this: “I asked if (Jacob, who is a former Herald reporter) was interested in being homeless for a week and he liked the idea … It ended up being four days, off and on, with two overnight stays.”

That is quite a commitment and the result is powerful.

I love seeing inclusive stories like this in our newspapers, stories that acknowledge all of the people around us. Too often, our less fortunate or more eclectic citizens are something like invisible. They don’t have PR agencies to herald their achievements. They aren’t straight-A students or city officials. That doesn’t mean they are lesser citizens, and the Herald’s work makes that clear. …

Covering the homeless is a notoriously difficult pursuit. For reasons that can include mental illness, drug and alcohol problems, legal entanglements or simply the fact that they may be squatting on land that doesn’t belong to them, many people who are living unsheltered are distrustful of people who approach them with pad and pen. Sometimes attention is the last thing they want. Eric said that in Sierra Vista police told people living in 12 such camps to move along in the days after the story in the newspaper. Coincidence? I bet some of those forced to leave the camps think not.

And government agencies are often not much help either. Federal law requires dubious “counts” from time to time, but I am not so sure you can count on those numbers.

Homelessness is a pervasive and persistent problem. Consider humanizing the people who live in the streets of your communities. It can make for good journalism.

Clay

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