More than half a million Americans are experiencing homelessness, according to government estimates, and the actual number is suspected to be much higher. In the spring, the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country and widespread shelter-in-place orders were issued. Many were left without paychecks as businesses shuttered and services halted. The Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, with a consortium of other universities, reported on what has happened to those without stable housing and those facing eviction in the time of COVID-19.
Student investigative reporters interviewed dozens of professionals working in the fields of homelessness, epidemiology and public health and filed over 100 public records requests to investigate the government response to the crisis. Their reporting focused on homeless essential workers, on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx populations, and on whether government funds allocated to help people experiencing homelessness actually reached them.
“We were blown away by the boldness and inventiveness of the project: to recruit an army of students across six different university campuses and have them report about one of the most virulent facets of the pandemic, homelessness and evictions,” Pulitzer Center Executive Editor Marina Walker Guevara said. “They used collaboration, data and a safe approach—we could not be more pleased.”
The two series, “COVID’s Invisible Victims” and “Nowhere to Go: Evictions,” track the successes and failures of policy and illustrate the pandemic’s effects on hundreds of thousands in the United States.
To learn about the work that went into this project, Pulitzer Center General Intern Abigail Gipson spoke with Kathy Best, director of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, and Maud Beelman, founding executive editor of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Abigail Gipson: Where did the idea for this project come from?
Kathy Best: The summer project actually grew out of a project that began last fall. We were doing a deep dive into two homelessness-related issues. The first was the criminalization of homelessness in the United States. And then the second big package of stories was around how cities were handling homeless encampment.
In the fall and the spring, learning about some of the causes behind homelessness, it became really, really clear the more we reported that ultimately the major reason the United States has such a significant homelessness issue is the affordable housing crisis. That people's salaries haven't kept up, that there's not enough affordable housing; that housing, when it does exist, is out of reach. And so we had originally planned to make our summer project really focused on affordable housing. Then the pandemic happened. So we pivoted to still look at housing, but looking at whether people were going to be able to keep the housing that they had as the economy crashed around them.
Maud Beelman: As the spring semester was ending, as the summer semester was looming on the horizon, I started thinking about, what might we do in the summer? This was just as the COVID-19 crisis was getting started.
I felt very strongly that we had to do something related to COVID-19 because I wanted [students’] work to be relevant to the times in which they were living and working. I had remembered that my colleague Kathy Best at Maryland had started in January a project on homelessness.
And so I reached out to her and I said, “Is anybody looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the homeless? Are you guys doing that?” And at the time she said, “No,” and so I thought about it a little bit more. And then I came back to her with a proposal: How about we, the Howard Center in Arizona, take a look at the public health implications and the public policy implications of COVID-19's impact on the homeless.
By that specifically, I wanted us to probe into what were the different, special health implications for homeless people that the pandemic posed. And I wanted to be able to say something specific about how local governments responded to the crisis to protect their homeless populations. Watchdogging government is at the heart of a lot of investigative reporting and it was an opportunity for us to illustrate to our students how to do that.
AG: I was reading one of the pieces in which we hear from someone from Florida and someone from Oklahoma in the same story. What was the goal of covering the situations in many different cities and states?
KB: The mission of the Howard Center is to do national projects. And in this case, we picked places where there were specific criteria. We wanted to look at cities where at least 20 percent of the population was spending half of their income or more on a place to live. We wanted to look at cities that had historically high eviction rates. But the other really big issue for us, because we couldn't go to courthouses and look up records, was that we really needed to find places where we had ready access to court records, because we built our own scrapers to find eviction cases. So, that's how we ended up looking at the 10 counties that we did.
The reason that we wanted to look at places with higher eviction rates and where people were really living on the edge is because we decided to focus on the federal eviction moratorium to see how it was working. Those were the kind of places where we figured if this is working, it's going to show up. If it's not working, it's also going to show up.
AG: How did you approach reporting on homelessness?
MB: Through a couple of ways. We were essentially watchdogging government. We wanted to explore, in depth, how the federal government responded to caring for this vulnerable population. And how local governments deal with homelessness, which is a problem on the local level, even if it's funded at the federal level. And so a huge part of what we were doing was watchdogging how governments were performing this vital function, but we were also very conscious of wanting to be sure that we had voices of homeless people in the mix.
We did a couple of different things, some creative, some that we've never done before, to try to ensure that. The students in the summer semester, for their own safety, were not allowed to go out into the field and report. And so, one of the reasons that we reached out to the Pulitzer Center for support was we had the idea to purchase smartphones with limited plans, burner phones essentially, and distribute [them] in select places around the country where we had established relationships with either homeless communities or homeless shelter operators.
We wanted to get the phones in the hands of people experiencing homelessness, so they could talk to us directly about their experiences in the pandemic. We also set up a Google number that we shared far and wide so that anybody who didn't get one of these burner phones, but wanted to participate, had a way of contacting us. They could leave a message and then a number so we could call them back.
The other way we ensured that we had that perspective represented is we had extensive interviews with every major nonprofit involved in homeless outreach in the country. We spoke to them early, we spoke to them often, and we had their experience and knowledge guide our reporting.
AG: What were some of the challenges to doing a nationwide project like this one during a pandemic?
KB: It actually speaks to one of the advantages of partnering with universities around the country because we couldn't travel. We wanted to do a nationwide story, but we couldn't travel. So, we were able to work with people who had expertise, in different parts of the country. Number two, you know, how do you put together a collaboration with three other universities and make it work? We met every day. The whole team came together and talked every day, so that we could share what we were finding, we could problem-solve together, and the students could learn from each other.
MB: Well, we weren't able to get out into the field to gather video and photos. We compensated for that by, for example, asking any of the outreach workers who might be at different homeless sites to please take photos and share them with us. And they did. Part of the reason we wanted to get smartphones out to the field was because we wanted people to take selfies of themselves and to share them with us. And they did.
There was a story that we all thought was really important to tell, and it ran on day three of the project. It was about homeless essential workers, because one of the stereotypes about homeless people is that they're not contributing members to society. We knew from our research that wasn't the case, but it's one thing to be told that statistically or intellectually, and it's quite another to find people who are homeless and who are working in essential jobs. Once we found them, it was very important for us to have them share with us their own pictures and photos and their own stories about what their lives were like.
AG: I saw that one of the reporters on the project, Brenda Wintrode, tweeted about some impact that she's seen from a story on the federal eviction moratorium. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
KB: Ashley, the character at the end [of the story] who's a single mother of six, thought that she was going to have to sell her car to pay the rent for the rest of the year. People who read that story contacted Brenda, saying that they wanted to know who they could get in touch with to help her. Brenda gave them the names of some of the organizations she talked with and they are going to help her. And I don't know if she is still going to have to sell her car or not, but it was great to see that people read the story and were prompted to reach out and help.
AG: What other kinds of impact have you seen from the reporting so far?
MB: One of the things that I hope we contributed to was a greater understanding of the profile of homeless people in America, or at least certain segments of them. Whenever you do big investigations, a lot of times in the course of your reporting, you will come across solutions.
You're not proposing the solutions yourself; these are not your ideas for solutions, but you find that others have put forward work-arounds to whatever problem you're investigating that may hold promise for the future. We ended up doing a story focused on what we called the silver linings. These were work-arounds that had been instituted because of the pandemic and turned out to be superior to the practices in place prior to the pandemic. I thought that was really important to share with people because one of the things that investigative reporting can do is present, through the experience of others, possible solutions or how to address problems.
One of the things that really jumped out at me was what stable housing does, mentally, for people who are experiencing homelessness. We had our own direct experience with that very thing, because one of the people who got our burner phones was a young woman who had been moved off the street into a hotel room. And she was so excited by the prospect of what we were trying to do, that she on her own—we didn't ask her to—recorded a daily diary. It was really interesting because at the front end of the week, she was still talking about panhandling to get money, to buy food. By the end of the week, she was contemplating what life might be like not living on the streets and what other things she might be able to do with her life. So in a relatively short period of time, we saw somebody's mental space expand.