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Bedbugs and marijuana smoke: The Denver Post's exposé of the realities of life for many homeless kids

Bedbugs and marijuana smoke: The Denver Post's exposé of the realities of life for many homeless kids

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Peggy Monroe with her children. [The Denver Post / Joe Amon]

Investigative reporter Jennifer Brown of The Denver Post was reporting a series on child abuse when one of her sources happened to mention that the number of homeless children in Colorado had soared in recent years.

When she dug up the numbers, they confirmed it. “In a 10-year period, the number of homeless students in Colorado had gone from 7,000 to 23,000,” Brown told fellows at the 2015 National Health Journalism Fellowship in Los Angeles this week. The Great Recession and local housing shortages were fueling the trend.

It would’ve been an easy story to push out in that Sunday’s edition, but instead Brown kept the story under wraps — even from her editors at first — and embarked on a six-month reporting odyssey that culminated last August with the three-part series, “Trying to Live, Trying to Learn.” To produce the powerful stories, Brown and videographer Mahala Gaylord immersed themselves in the daily lives of two families, showing in vivid detail what it’s like for young kids to grow up and go to school in a chaotic, unstable world of seedy motels, reflexive punishment and chronic poverty.

The stories wouldn’t have been possible without the families who gave Brown such unguarded access to their lives, but finding them wasn’t easy.

“One thing I’ve really learned in the last four years is: Finding the right people make the entire difference for the story,” Brown, a project reporter, told fellows. “If you interview the first family you come across, that might not be what you want in the end. So patience is extremely important, and I needed a lot of it to find these two families I featured in this project.”

She started with homeless liaisons at local school districts, but the families they put forward seemed pre-packaged. Brown’s prospects improved when she discovered the Colfax Community Network, a nonprofit in Aurora that picks up homeless kids from school and runs an after-school program that provides food, homework time and play and then drives the kids back to the transient hotels along what it calls “Colorado's roughest stretch of avenue,” where they live. (Homeless youth don’t typically live on the streets, Brown explained, but “invisibly” rotate through a series of temporary accommodations such as cheap motels, relatives’ couches and spare rooms, shelters, etc.).

Brown and her team did a ride-along to one such bedbug-infested motel – the King’s Inn – one day, as the Colfax nonprofit went door to door offering free basics. After a few doors slammed shut, Brown came upon Peggy Monroe, her shirtless boyfriend “Johnny” Jacko, and their children. “One by one, these kids are popping up in the doorway, and there’s six of them,” Brown recounted. As the outreach team walked with Peggy to pick up supplies, Brown and her team knew they’d found their family. “We asked her, ‘Can we call you sometime?’ She said ‘Yeah, sure.’”

So began a series of weekly visits in which Brown and her videographer would spend as much time as possible hanging out with the family, asking questions, and trying to gradually become part of their scenery. “It took them awhile to get comfortable with the journalists in their close quarters,” Brown said. But eventually they did, and they captured some remarkable scenes as a result:

[WATCH VIDEO HERE]

“When I watch that video, I still get high blood pressure because of the claustrophobia of the motel room — it takes me back to hanging out there a lot,” Brown said after watching the above footage. She’d often leave her visits smelling of marijuana smoke, a constant presence in the room.

As the stories and videos coalesced, Brown and Gaylord quickly realized they had a likability problem. “We looked at each other and said, ‘No one is going to like these people — these parents are not sympathetic.’ What we hoped is that people would read it and watch it and care about those kids and see that the cycle has to somehow be broken. The way they live now is how both of the parents grew up – that’s all they know.” Her editorial team agonized over what scenes and images to publish, and what should remain on the editing table. “We wanted to show it as raw and genuine as it actually was,” Brown said.

When the series ran, Brown said the family responded well, despite some expectedly harsh criticism from the broader community. Other readers were moved to donate food and gifts. Brown had prepped the family on what to expect beforehand, and her worst fears — that the family would be kicked out of their lodgings or that her reporting would influence their caseworker’s decisions — never came to pass. Peggy and Johnny didn’t seem to mind the exposure.

“It wasn’t embarrassing to them – it was just how they are,” Brown said of the media attention. “They didn’t think they had anything to be ashamed of.”

Before traveling to Los Angeles, Brown checked in with the family again and was deflated to learn that they were still living in the same decrepit motel. But Peggy has gotten a job at a grocery store. Thogh it required her to forfeit her disability check, it gives the family more income and hence more housing options.

As for the homeless kids at the heart of the series, school and after-school programs offer a crucial refuge outside of the smoke-filled eight-to-a-room motel the kids go home to. But it’s hard to believe school and after-school programs offer enough of a foundation for these kids to succeed. And that problem is really at the heart of Brown’s series:

“Most of our reporting was focused on: How do you fix the problem when they might spend six or seven hours a day at school in a better environment but they still go home to that at night?”

[Photo by The Denver Post / Joe Amon]

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