In December, we published our biggest story of the year, a nationwide investigation into the cities that give one-way bus tickets to homeless people in the hope they will find housing elsewhere. The reporting took 18 months, and one aspect was especially thorny. By making public-records requests we were able to gather information on tens of thousands of journeys, but we knew very little about the travelers themselves beyond their names and destinations. How had they become homeless, and what became of them?
The answer lay in old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism. We plugged hundreds of names into databases in the hope of finding contact information, but because homeless people are by definition hard to trace, the success rate was low. Reporters in seven cities, from San Juan to New York and Portland, Oregon, visited shelters and encampments in a bid to turn up leads. A colleague and I spent hours hanging around outside a San Francisco social-services office that dispensed tickets with the goal of meeting a would-be traveler.
There was a morning in August when, for me, it all seemed to pay off. On the street outside the ticket office I approached a tired-looking 27-year-old named Quinn Raber, who had just been approved to travel to his hometown of Indianapolis on a bus leaving a few hours later. At lunchtime we met again at the Greyhound station, where he told me he’d been homeless off and on in the western US for three years, that he was exhausted, and that he hoped returning home would be a new start for him. Five minutes later, his bus was called, and we agreed to stay in touch. Just like that, a chance meeting became the personal story with which we began and ended the piece.
What we published
Behind the scenes
Just before the 2016 presidential election, a body was found in a dumpster outside an Amazon warehouse in San Francisco, and we revealed the man’s story and the dangers posed by dumpsters in another major piece published last month. Numerous interviews didn’t make it into the final version, including those with local residents who didn’t know how the man died but were shaken by the circumstances.
In a park across the street from the dumpster, I met a woman, Kris Leifur, walking her dogs. She had lived in San Francisco for over a decade, she told me, and the homeless situation grieved her. She worried if her exposure to it for so long had changed her. “I feel like I’m becoming desensitized and losing my empathy,” she said.
Ultimately, though, her verdict was uncompromising. “I can’t believe this is going on in one of the most expensive, wealthiest cities in the world,” she said. “I feel like San Francisco should be embarrassed for itself.”
- UN official: 2018 is the year we must address housing. [The Guardian]
- California officials tell hundreds they must leave a homeless encampment in Orange County (the same one where, as we wrote last year, residents relieve themselves in buckets). [US News & World Report]
- Why aren’t we addressing homelessness with the same degree of urgency as we would an earthquake? [Los Angeles Times]
- The richest 1% possess more of America’s wealth than they have at any point since 1962. [The Washington Post]
- Hundreds camp out for free dental care in Arizona [12News]
- A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America. [The Guardian]
- How ‘Not in My Backyard’ Became ‘Not in My Neighborhood’ [The New York Times]
- “Nearly 40% of working adults in the Bay Area are now ‘doubled up’ with roommates in order to afford rent.” [The Mercury News]
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