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In reporting on homeless, up-close approach reveals subjects’ humanity

In reporting on homeless, up-close approach reveals subjects’ humanity

Picture of Marc Lester
A married homeless couple profiled by Alaska Dispatch News. [Photo by Marc Lester/ADN]
A married homeless couple whose story was told by Alaska Dispatch News. [Photo by Marc Lester/ADN]

Looking back, the idea of a reporting project examining the impact of chronic alcoholism on the streets of Anchorage, Alaska, was probably enough to make most readers’ eyes glaze over. Homelessness has been a serious and visible problem for as long as most here can remember. Print and television media have regularly circled the issue — the deaths, the illegal camping, the public nuisance complaints — as public interest has ebbed and flowed.

Even those in Anchorage most dedicated to the issue feel stuck in a purgatory of public discussion. Social service groups must explain and re-explain what they do, how they think they can help, and what they’ll do with public dollars.

Sherry McWhorter, who manages a Salvation Army residential treatment program, said re-education is part of her job. She just wishes she had some definitive solutions.

“I don’t know the answer and I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she said.

But it’s hard to ignore the growing problem. Anchorage takes temporary protective custody of drunk people in numbers greater than that of much larger cities. Downtown firefighters, burned out by responding to the same people over and over, can’t keep medics on staff and feel less prepared for real emergencies because of it.

Understanding this, my reporting partner Michelle Theriault Boots and I decided to focus on two ways we could approach this topic to keep readers from glossing over an issue readers think they already understand.

First, we decided that we would report from our desks only as a last resort. Readers, we felt, were numb to discussions of “inebriates,” a common term indicative of the telephoto lens through which Anchorage considers the topic. We felt we could bring readers closer to the story than they had previously been.

It sounds simple, but the difference was meaningful in creating a report with both urgency and poignancy, a tale data alone can’t capture. Being on the street was the only way to capture the key moments recorded by our project: A frail woman picked up off the sidewalk and transported to a hospital, only to be back on the street hours later after finding no access at the shelter. A man in restraints who tried to take a swing at a medic in the back of an ambulance. Clients of the city sleep-off center greeting each other as they pass the entrance.

These were important details we couldn’t expect to learn from interviews alone.

More importantly, we were determined to get to know some of the people who are chronically homeless. And because no one person could be emblematic of the greater issue, we set out to meet as many as our time constraints would allow.

In conversations large and small, we learned how many had arrived at that station in life and what they believe keeps them there. We followed the lives of an unusual married couple that shared a fascinating glimpse into how they spend their days. That story was presented along vignettes of nine other individuals, which largely told their stories in their own words.

We continued this close, intimate approach in our final installment. On its surface, this was to be a look at ideas that make a difference. We felt that this portion could easily fall flat — official positions from organizations who righteously feel their approach is best. We felt we’d learn more from by getting to know those receiving the services. Access was not a given. But through persistence, we were able to achieve some intimacy with our sources.

We went shopping with a man who preparing to head out-of-town for hard-to-get residential treatment. We went bowling with a housing-first client who told us he is drinking less, down to only a fifth of liquor a day. We sat with a woman in her living room who unspooled a story of addiction, prostitution and attempted suicide.

Our time investment was risky in one big way. This can be an unpredictable group. We knew that any person that agreed to be profiled could back out at any time. That’s exactly what happened. One subject we spent several hours with on several occasions ultimately withdrew his permission to share his tale. His was a rare and poignant story, and letting that material go was difficult.

It was a slow approach. Michelle and I spent more than 10 weeks working almost solely on this project, supported by editors who encouraged us to think big and supported the publication with a bold presentation. In the end, judging by feedback we received, the result was successful in capturing the attention of readers.

One comment called the series “A window on a world which is right here with us but about which we know so little.” Another said the approach inspired compassion, “putting a human face and story on the countless cardboard signs we see.”

What’s more, there’s evidence the discussion reached Anchorage policy-makers. An aide for one Anchorage Assembly person wrote to let us now that the stories would inform a discussion on taxing alcohol to pay for related problems.

“In your first installment you have carefully presented readers with a compassionate and balanced view of Anchorage’s most intractable issue: the confluence of alcohol and those who abuse it,” Ira Perman wrote.

The Man Down series was hardly the final word or the definitive account of one of Anchorage’s most vexing problems.  It’s a topic that’s too big and too stubborn to be exhausted in one series, no matter how large. But we hope it provided readers with a deeper understanding of chronic alcoholism by presenting stories that aren’t about an issue, but about human beings.

[Photo by Marc Lester/ADN]

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