For West Coast reporters covering homelessness, the coronavirus breeds caution

Fearing they could infect their sources, some reporters are limiting contact at a time when unsheltered communities’ needs are increasing

June 3, 2020

Among the most vulnerable people in the coronavirus pandemic are the thousands living on sidewalks, under bridges, in shelters, in cars and in the woods throughout the United States, with little access to clean water or doctors.

In West Coast cities, where tent encampments are part of daily life, homelessness is often a full-time beat, one that encompasses social services, advocacy, health care, criminal justice, public policy, politics and a constant drumbeat of criticism from both the left and the right.

Reporters covering these unhoused men, women and children face a new concern on top of their ongoing challenges, challenges both ethical (“Do I help?”) and emotional (“My heart is breaking”). In the pandemic, these journalists are asking themselves: Could the very act of reporting harm my sources? Could I infect these people, who live so precariously, with the virus?

In Washington State, public radio reporter Will James of Seattle’s KNKX has been working for more than a year with The Seattle Times Project Homeless team on “Outsiders,” a podcast exploring the causes of, responses to and lives affected by homelessness in Olympia, the state capital. The state saw the nation’s first case of COVID-19 and the first deaths from it, and James put the podcast’s three final episodes on hold — partly because coronavirus coverage had become an all-hands-on-deck affair for his four-person newsroom, and partly because he was worried about hurting his sources, about being infected but asymptomatic and passing on the virus.

One day in March, as the full scale of the pandemic had become clear, James spent seven hours in an encampment in Olympia.

“I went into the field thinking I could take precautions that would protect myself and my sources sufficiently,” he said. “I found in practice that was a lot harder than I had imagined.”

Finding handwashing facilities, and places for socially distant interviews, was impossible. “We ended up just being near coughing people,” he said.

Driving home, he thought: “I just finished talking to a 71-year-old man who lives in a tent and has a pacemaker in his chest. And I tried to be really careful, but what if I wasn’t careful enough?” (Disclosure: As an undergraduate, James was this reporter’s student.)

MORE ON THE VIRUS AND HOMELESSNESS: Many street newspapers, which benefit people experiencing homelessness, have halted sales

Like James, Project Homeless reporter Scott Greenstone has cut back on in-person reporting because of concern that he might bring the virus to sources.

“I’m more connecting with people over Facebook,” he said. The people he speaks with can sometimes use computers at shelters or in the tiny-house villages cropping up in Seattle while phones get lost or stolen, or their owners can’t always pay for service, he explained.

But Project Homeless reporter Sydney Brownstone has continued to report in person, mostly in outdoor camps rather than in shelters, she said, to limit exposure to the virus. In recent weeks, she has covered, among many other stories, the city’s continuing removal of encampments, a man surviving the crisis in an RV and how front-line workers serving the homeless are coping.

She sees “a new level of desperation” during the pandemic that becomes “overwhelming” at times, she said.

On one recent reporting outing, “I was with a man for hours, walking miles to get running water,” she said. “I just got home and totally broke down.” On April 28, she tweeted, “If you’re a reporter covering vulnerable communities during COVID-19, I’m here. To listen, to share, to talk mental health and burnout, whatever. DM me and we can find a time. Let’s support one another.”

For Kevin Fagan of the San Francisco Chronicle, often identified as the first reporter in the nation to cover homelessness as a full-time beat, social-distance limitations are extremely frustrating.

“I like to go out into the street,” said Fagan, who initiated his homelessness beat in 2003 after living on the streets, with photographer Brant Ward, for six months, producing a five-day series called “Shame of the City.”

“I like to hug people and shake their hands,” he said. “And it kills me that I can’t do that, get close.”

Fagan, who said he grew up poor and was homeless briefly as a teenager, has gone out to report a few times, wearing a mask, standing six feet away, talking through his car window.

“I feel like I’m using extension tongs to report the story,” he said. “I consider street reporting the greatest passion of what I do … and that’s been all but taken away.”

These reporters’ individual decisions come amid ongoing controversy over how homelessness is covered. Unlike many of their stories, others’ reports sometimes neglect the voices of unsheltered people themselves, or they recount individual hard-luck tales but fail to seek insights into causes and solutions drawn from lived experience, critics say.

In May, at the monthly roundtable of “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms,” a news column on diversity issues in the news media, 27 people debated the question “Are journalists too far removed to relate to homelessness?

Yes, said Mary C. Curtis, a columnist at Roll Call. In today’s newsrooms, where academic credentials and unpaid internships are prized, “journalists are people who haven’t been homeless, don’t know folks who have (been homeless),” she said. “They want to think that they come from an unbiased point of view, but they generally don’t relate at all, many of them.

MORE ON THE VIRUS AND HOMELESSNESS: One of my friends, a journalist who loved his job, is newly homeless.

“I’ve seen even some stories,” she continued, “where they’re talking to so-called experts about people, and not actually talking to people.”

In 2019, while she was a student working on a research project, Sylvie Sturm, a San Francisco-based journalist who also participated in the roundtable, produced a video critique of that city’s coverage. In general, she said in an interview, the coverage “is more reliant on policymakers and experts and doesn’t bring in the voices of the unhoused.”

Reporters often dismiss the wisdom of longtime advocates, she added, second-guessing their views while accepting government officials’ comments as fact.

“We sort of devalue the voice of experience,” she said.

Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia couldn’t agree more. She is that voice of experience, “a formerly unhoused, incarcerated poverty scholar, revolutionary journalist, lecturer, poet, visionary, teacher and single mama,” per her biography, who started POOR Magazine and the PoorNewsNetwork in Oakland in 1996.

“I have so many thoughts about so-called professional journalism,” Tiny said. “That world doesn’t really reach out to us.” She calls it “a middle-class media syndrome” producing work that’s “more about us, without us.”

Barbara Selvin is an associate professor at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism in New York.