Washington, D.C. is a competitive town where the federal government overshadows almost everything else. But it’s also a regular city, where people with no affiliation to the government live, work and thrive, or get pushed into the shadows.
A group of 10 news outlets joined forces to help shine a light on one of D.C.’s biggest local issues, one that often gets swept aside: the city’s large homeless population. In August, outlets made a concerted effort to provide a deep, comprehensive and multi-faceted series of stories about what it means to be homeless in Washington, from the city’s shelters to how many teenagers are without a stable place to sleep.
The idea is borrowed from a major project from the San Francisco Chronicle by way of coverage from the New York Times, says Eric Falquero, the editorial director of Street Sense Media, a publication aimed squarely at the homeless population in the city. “They started organizing a list like this four years ago, the New York Times wrote about it and four different people I know emailed it to me. I thought we can do that, we can recruit other outlets to cooperate.”
It’s an effort that included, in its most recent iteration, outlets like DCist and The DC Line in addition to Street Sense.
“We published around 10 stories, which is a lot for us on any one given topic,” says Rachel Sadon, the editor-in-chief at DCist. “The beauty is, there are so many different angles to (the topic of homelessness). We also made sure to be following up on stories we might not otherwise follow up on. Two folks who had been experiencing homelessness were sitting or sleeping on a bench late at night were killed. For the longest time, we didn’t have any information. This gave us an opportunity to say, a month after this, we don’t know who the driver is, we don’t know if he was arrested, and here’s why it happened on federally-controlled land.”
Her outlet also took a look at homelessness for children and students in D.C. who also have to try and go to school when they don’t have a permanent address. For many of the city’s youngest people experiencing homelessness, going back to school means a return to stability, Sadon says.
The joint DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project also provided an opportunity to take a closer look at some policy-level decisions in the city that will have a direct impact on people who struggle to find, or retain housing.
“Homelessness does relate to so many issues that are top-of-agenda for D.C.,” says Chris Cain of The DC Line. “Not just the mayor’s plans to close what had been the major family shelter, where conditions were legendarily bad, but her commitment to affordable housing that encourages the private sector to build 36,000 new homes by 2025, with one-third being affordable.”
Many of these outlets — with the exception of Street Sense — do not focus on homeleness on a regular basis. A project like this provides a wonderful opportunity to help their readers stop and learn about such a pressing issue and educate them on another part of their hometown that they might not otherwise give much thought on a regular basis.
It’s also an effort that provided some good news on progress: Falquero said the city’s homeless population has been declining over the past few years.