How to cover stories on the homeless

Toronto is the largest metropolitan area in Canada and home to the largest homeless population in Canada.  According to a 2013 finding from the Homeless Hub, the number of Torontonians estimated to be living on the streets is 447, staying at shelters is 3,970 and a total estimate of Toronto’s homeless is 5,219. The public’s view on the homeless touches upon the way they view homelessness. It affects them, maybe indirectly, when they see men and women sleeping on the streets with cardboard signs seeking help of any kind and “god bless you’s.” But not many know how to help. Those who wonder will turn to media as a source. As a result, most newspaper articles on the homeless focus on the homeless individual itself. For instance, how he ended up on the streets and how he survives day-to-day. But, it lacks depth on how to reverse the problem, such as, what can be done to help those who sleep on the streets. Did you know 850 people have died on the streets of Toronto since the 80’s? And up until January 1st, 2017 the deaths of those who die sleeping on the streets was not tracked. The government only tracked those sleeping at city funded shelters.

Journalists Mary Ormsby and Kenyan Wallace with the help of street nurse and activist Cathy Crowe published an article covering the issue of these deaths.  Journalists need to be the voice of the homeless.

Media and the homeless

Every interview with the homeless starts with their name, their age and where they slept last night.  As journalists, we must ask the right questions. For instance, questions that incite emotion and information.

Like any interview, journalists must go in knowing background information. Knowledge on what is being done to help these people, Ontario’s welfare programs and mental health issues is key.

A journalist covering the homeless beat must focus on solutions, not just problems.

According to Cathy Crowe, journalists and politicians don’t know the difference between shelters; drop ins, out-of-the-cold programs, overnight drop-ins and the warming centers.

“Shelters have been full since 2013. And not many investigative reporters have really dug in.” – Cathy Crowe.

Approaching the vulnerable

Trust. It doesn’t come easy. Many homeless individuals open up and share their stories. They are talkers. Most often they welcome company, appreciate being approached and enjoy conversations.  But earning their trust doesn’t come easy – as open as they are, most aren’t keen on having their story or name published. Some ask to be paid to tell their story.

The Star’s Mary Orsmby suggests journalists go to homeless memorials to make themselves known.

“A lot of people say no to us. But sometimes we must keep at it with genuine interest. Not just for the purpose of a story,” Ormsby said. “They might be protecting their own families. It’s not easy. Homeless people don’t be want to be a sideshow. They may feel that some people are talking to them only because they are homeless. You must genuinely care and ask good questions and treat them with dignity.”

Homeless activist Cathy Crowe also says,”You have to go to events and go where people are at. Some journalists would come to these events with food. They don’t attend just for stories.”

Making connections with homeless activists will pave a way for journalists. But, journalists must be clear and identify themselves clearly.

All in all, it’s easy to walk by someone because you feel you can’t make a difference in their life. But, the importance of it is that a moment of kindness can go a long way for those experiencing dark times.

Finding the right person

Robert Lacquaniti is a homeless artist who sleeps at a shelter. Lacquaniti has never slept on the streets. He says the streets at night scare him. But he doesn’t enjoy the company of those sleeping at shelters either.

“They are shady people, the poor rob the poor.” he said.

Lacquaniti can be found in the financial district. His “office” is just outside a Second Cup located near the Old Gooderham building. When it is not too cold or raining, he spends his day drawing and selling his art. If not, he walks about talking to people about business opportunities.

“The shelter makes me sad,” he said. “It makes me think of sad things so I only go back to sleep.”

Lacquaniti is a very popular artist in the area. He claims many people stop to take pictures of him and his art and ask him questions about how he ended up on the streets.

And when you do

For a journalist looking to write a feature on him or other homeless people, yet again, it is about connecting.

For example, when you find your source, get to know him. On the first day, have a conversation with him or her for about five minutes. The second time you meet, buy him or her lunch. Build a genuine friendship.

When I approached Robert Lacquaniti, he was all smiles and keen. After the appointment to have a chat was confirmed, he said, “Bring some money. Buy my art.” And I did.

I took Lacquaniti to a Second Cup; bought him coffee and talked to him like we were old friends.

Covering questions

When covering a homeless feature, think of yourself as writing a book on your homeless source. Ask them everything; questions that range from his childhood; to his interests; to how everything fell apart. But be sensitive.

Ask them about the worst thing about being homeless, the best thing that happened to them this week, or about what makes them feel safe.

Most homeless people have mental health issues. Be a good listener. At one point, you may even be taken advantage of. A journalist must be able to wade through lies when interviewing a homeless source.

Most importantly, ask them what they want us to know.

Know when you are being lied to.

If you catch a lie, do not confront him of it. Instead, ask open ended questions. Press for details.

Robert Lacquaniti said, “One time the people who won the Grey Cup came to with the big cup.” He said they wanted him to draw a picture of it with them.

So I asked him when and where this was, how much he was paid for it and that they would have paid him a lot – so how come he is on the streets still?

Never make accusations. But ask good questions and listen with care.

To be their voice

Cathy Crowe says the media attending events such the coverage of the protest held outside Mayor John Tory’s condo creates public awareness.

Crowe said “Without the media, there would be no voice.”

Creating public awareness

It is a journalist’s duty to be the voice of the vulnerable. As a result, we must create awareness and educate the public. Did you know most homeless stories are covered during the winter months? (Homelessness Coverage in Major Canadian Newspapers, 1987 – 2007).