SAN FRANCISCO — While there are some programs to address homelessness in America, the problem will continue as long as there are low wages, expensive housing and expensive health care, according to two journalists who have covered the problem for decades.
That is what two Hopi High journalism students and about 5,000 high school journalism students heard at the opening ceremony of the National High School Journalism Conference at the Journalism Education Association Conference in San Francisco April 12-14.
Reporter Kevin Fagan and photographer Brant Ward have been covering the homelessness issue for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 30 years. From 2003-2006, Fagan was the only reporter in America to cover homelessness full time. He has won 80 national and regional awards. Ward worked with Fagan on a series on homelessness called “Shame of the City,” including scenes from Traffic Island, which was about a family living out of their van as well as a look inside shelters and hotels that house the homeless. Ward and Fagan have reported on homelessness from New York to California.
Sean Bolus, advanced radio editor at Hopi High School, said Fagan and Ward’s stories brought awareness about the homeless issue to a major city.
Ellyse Fredericks, a print journalism student at Hopi High, said she feels everybody should be equal and help each other out because everyone deserves help. She said she feels everybody should help the homeless in any way they can.
“Some people have the mindset that they don’t deserve it, but people who help the homeless have a good heart, and helping anyone is the most important thing,” she said.
Fagan said that he and Ward like to cover issues that can be fixed.
“It’s best when you can see something good happen,” he said.
Fagan said they became homeless so they could go into the places where homeless people go.
“We were told you can’t go into the shelter because you’ll die so we went there,” he said.
Fagan said they would still rather talk to a homeless person than a politician because they are more direct. He said homeless people usually are good people who had something go wrong, often resulting from drugs or alcohol. Fagan said they would never give a homeless person drugs or alcohol, but they would buy them cigarettes to get them to talk. He said the average age of a homeless person is 58.
Ward said the slogan for helping homeless people is “care not cash” because they would often use the cash for drugs or alcohol. He said a place to stay where counseling was available is the most beneficial help for the homeless.
“You can’t clean yourself up while you’re on the street,” he said.
Ward said studying the best practices throughout the country for helping the homeless showed them housing and counseling work best when they are combined. He said Philadelphia had a program that involved street counseling.
“It was successful,” he said. “Philadelphia is a tough town.”
Ward recounted a homeless community in Fairfield, California, near a beaver pond.
“It was never cleaned up. They needed bathrooms, showers and garbage pickup,” he said.
Fagan spoke about Saint Boniface Church, in the heart of downtown San Francisco, which allows the homeless to sleep in the pews before the noon mass.
“It’s the only church in the nation that did that until a couple years ago,” he said.
Fagan repeated that data showed housing and counseling helps the homeless. He said the city of San Francisco significantly increased the number of counselors after they became convinced that it is helpful.
While Fagan and Ward believe many homeless people were helped by their stories they also had to write the obituaries of several homeless people that were in their stories.
Fagan said Project Homeless happens once a month when all the services for the homeless can be found under one roof.
But Fagan said 30 percent of Americans are living at or below the poverty line and this will continue as long as health care and housing remain expensive. He asked rhetorically: “How are you not going to have homelessness?” (While this situation exists).
“We need all ranges of people paying attention to this,” he said.
Ward said San Francisco is considered a good place for the homeless because there are a lot of places to eat and it never snows.
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