His newspaper series on the homeless in San Francisco emphasized solutions – what really works and what doesn't. The result: constructive changes.
Journalist Kevin Fagan spent months immersed in the homeless community in San Francisco for his “Shame of the City” series, which ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. The series not only documents the daily lives and personal struggles of homeless people and families, it also examines various existing and emerging solutions from a critical perspective, looking at what works and what doesn’t.
Reflecting back on his extensive reportage on homelessness, Fagan explains how solution journalism can become an instrument for social change and directly influence policy. In the case of his series on homelessness, his reportage caught the attention of the city’s mayor at the time, and prompted the creation of new social programs to deal with issues raised by the series.
Below is Fagan’s conversation with Dowser on reporting on solutions to homelessness, and the particular obstacles involved in that kind of journalism.
Dowser: Why did you become a journalist? What did you think you could achieve?
Fagan: I became a journalist after working on the school paper in high school. It was the only job I really wanted. My mother had been a Navy journalist and told me it was a wonderful thing to do. I felt like I could contribute to society. I could make change. I could make society smarter. I could inform them on serious issues to help people make informed decisions on how to make life better in our world. It’s the old journalism adage of "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted." You want to give a full, unbiased view of what’s going on, and hopefully people will make better decisions because of it. The other reason is that I like adventure; journalism is like being in an action movie all the time.
Looking back, have you been able to achieve the goals you hoped to as a journalist?
Yes, I have. "Shame of the City" is one example. Robert Rosenthal, the managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, proposed the series. It was successful in encouraging positive approaches [to the problem of homelessness]. I got a ton of reactions to the series, and homelessness went down in the city during the time I was reporting. I had a full-time partner on that project, Brant Ward, a photographer. He cared about the issue as much as I do. We pushed supportive housing as the best answer out there to chronic homelessness. President [George W.] Bush read the series and he used it as a brochure for pushing the idea of supportive housing. We reprinted the series as a package and put out around 40,000 copies. Bush handed these out to the leading homeless organization directors around the United States, saying to them, “This is what we need to do,” and he had me come talk to their gatherings.
What’s a specific example of a local reform in response to your reportage?
There was a program called Homeward Bound created in response to my reporting on [a homeless person I profiled named] Rita. Her family saw my stories and they flew out from Florida, and got Rita and took her home, and fixed her. She had HIV, was on crack, heroin, and she got stabilized, and now she’s this vibrant, wonderful woman who I talk to every month or so. And I wrote about this, and about a dentist who fixed up her teeth for free. Mayor Newsom of San Francisco saw these stories and said hey, if you can reunite people and it’s successful, I want to encourage that. So the Homeward Bound program he created sends people out into the streets and they find homeless people and if the people want to go home, they help them call home and help them get reunited with them. To date, the program has reunited thousands of people and it’s still going on.
[My co-reporter and photographer] Brant [Ward] and I are skeptical, of course – so we hung out in the program to see how it was working, and it seemed to be working pretty well.
And you also investigated already-existing solutions for your series.
I did reporting on something called Homeless Connect. The problem was that homeless people don’t make appointments, like to go to the welfare office. They just don’t make them. So instead they said, let’s do a once-a-month gathering where homeless people can get all the services they need in one place. Brant and I had been in conversation with homeless outreach workers and we were telling them, you have to meet people where they are. It’s not like they recruited us to help, but during reporting we would emphasize that idea. You have to recognize that they’re still addicted and on the streets. So we wrote stories showcasing Homeless Connect as something that was having an effect and really helping people. With each story the thing grew; putting attention on it helped.
Was your reportage publicly recognized for its achievements?
We got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize each of the four years we were doing the beat. But we heard people saying, isn’t homelessness a problem of the '80s? And back East, especially, because there were some effective programs [out there], people don’t know how bad the situation is in San Francisco.
Brant and I won the national James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, along with several other national prizes, including Brant getting the Robert Kennedy Award for his photos and me getting the national Excellence in Urban Journalism Award.
Do you believe that writing about solutions is a legitimate form of journalism?
It’s absolutely legitimate. We get complaints that it isn’t. Journalism has time constraints and pressure to produce material every day, and that means you look at the shiny object, which is the things that are broken. It’s easier to write about what’s screwed up rather than what’s working. And it’s important to write about problems but it’s not the only thing to write about.
What is the biggest problem journalists run into when they cover solutions?
There’s an institutional or industrial attitude that writing happy stories is sappy. But that doesn’t mean there’s a prohibition against writing about things that work well. They are seen as "puff pieces."
Do you think some, or most, editors are hesitant to accept story pitches that explore potential solutions? Why?
Most would be leery of it. They want useful stories. The trick is you have to be sophisticated enough to let the editor know that you are writing about something that’s useful and informative rather than puffy and dippy. That takes sophistication on the part of the reporter, and on the editor’s part as well. I had to write thousands of stories before I figured out what’s a good story.
• This interview has been edited and condensed.
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