Housing beat reporters bring new focus to root causes of growing homelessness

An engaged couple stands by an encampment off of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 23rd Street in Oakland, California on October 9, 2020. (Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

For one week every summer, dozens of local news outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area team up to produce a series of multimedia stories on the region’s acute homelessness crisis.  

They’ve explored the health risks homeless seniors faced during the pandemic, profiled a woman whose search for her homeless mother grew into a mission to help others look for their loved ones, and done a deep-dive into the methodology behind the state’s biennial homeless count to explain why it often produces inaccurate results.  

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“I think there’s an acknowledgment in local media that we need to do a lot more to educate people about the very complicated societal problems that contribute to where we are now with homelessness and generational poverty,” said Audrey Cooper, the former editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle who spearheaded the enterprise, called the SF Homeless Project

Since its launch five years ago, the project has pushed city officials to open more emergency shelters and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in donations for nonprofits and housing organizations. The series, which features not only print reporting but also podcasts, videos and online resources guides, has also inspired newsrooms across the state and country to revamp up their coverage of homelessness.  

“We thought that if we could pool our audiences together,” Cooper said, “we might actually make our community a little bit smarter about what I think is the greatest humanitarian crisis.” 

Over the past half decade, many newsrooms on the West Coast have formed new housing beats or collaborated on special projects to more proactively tackle the twin crises of rising home prices and a ballooning homeless population — which has topped 151,000 in California alone. For some publications, the Covid-19 pandemic was an impetus for a fresh approach to housing and homelessness reporting.  

The Oaklandside, which launched a new housing beat last June, has published explainers to help landlords and tenants understand the eviction moratorium, how-to guides on applying for rent relief and other benefits, as well as in-depth coverage of local policies, such as a controversial new rule limiting where unhoused people can sleep outside.  

“In the Bay Area, where rent prices, house costs, and the number of people living on the streets have all grown exponentially in recent years, every beat is the housing beat,” said Natalie Orenstein, Oaklandside’s lone staff reporter on the beat.  

Community input has been crucial to Oaklandside’s reporting, she said. Before starting on the beat, she spoke with residents about which issues they felt were under-covered or misrepresented by the media. The pandemic, she added, has caused mass layoffs that put a new group of middle-class, once financially stable people at higher risk of becoming homeless. 

“It felt critical that we use our new platform to both provide information directly to unhoused people about where they could find resources during the crisis,” Orenstein said, “and to document the government’s emergency response and promises, to hold decision-makers accountable during a chaotic time.” 

Renaissance Journalism, a nonprofit that studies media practices, released a report in early 2020 exploring media coverage of the country’s housing crisis. The research, which was commissioned by the Ford Foundation, found that mainstream coverage of the subject has often reduced unhoused people to tropes and brushed over complex issues and policies, such racial inequities and tax laws, that perpetuate chronic homelessness. 

“In San Francisco,” said Jon Funabiki, the founder of the organization, “we noticed there was a lot of focus on homelessness as a problem and an annoyance to people rather than on the question of, ‘Why are these people homeless?’”  

When a new societal issue starts to develop, he continued, most journalists tend to focus first on covering its symptoms rather than its root causes. For subjects like housing, policing and health care, Funabiki said he expects more news organizations to collaborate on special projects or assign reporters to work on long-term investigations. “They’re seeing this is an area they can make a difference,” he said. 

Some editors say that while it’s encouraging to see more newsrooms covering homelessness, some weaknesses persist that reinforce negative stereotypes about the country’s unhoused population.  

For example, Cooper said, much of the current media coverage on homelessness tends to be on “sad victim stories” instead of the nuanced factors that contribute to the crisis.  

“One of the things we’re talking about in my newsroom now is putting more resources into covering affordability and inequity, but I want us to be talking about instability in general,” she said. “The issues of poverty and economic instability are just so much bigger than just homelessness.” 

One of the early examples of solutions-oriented journalism on housing and homelessness is the Seattle Times’ grant-funded Project Homeless, which launched in 2017.  

The team, which consists of a lead editor, two reporters and an engagement editor, devotes a substantial amount of time and resources to investigating questions readers raise, such as the structure of the government’s homelessness response system, how much the city spends on the crisis and what percentage of King County’s homeless population actually comes from the region. 

In addition to producing a podcast and multimedia stories, the team hosts a spate of community engagement events to discuss their reporting with readers, including annual storytelling sessions at Seattle University and open forums with residents in various neighborhoods. 

“There are a lot of things about homelessness that wouldn’t make any sense if you’ve never been homeless or never volunteered at a homeless shelter,” said Scott Greenstone, a staff reporter who previously worked as the project’s audience engagement editor. 

In a story published in April, Greenstone found that many of the region’s homeless people, who collect mail at local nonprofits and housing organizations, had not received their second and third stimulus checks. Within weeks, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., launched an inquiry that paved the way for unhoused filers to receive their long overdue payment. 

“Trying to elevate the conversation,” Greenstone said, “has been the biggest contribution we’ve made.”