Home Commentary A journalism student’s wake-up call: first time reporting about homelessness

A journalism student’s wake-up call: first time reporting about homelessness

by Melanie Lussier March 21, 2021
A journalism student’s wake-up call: first time reporting about homelessness

… Or how NOT to be a journalist

During reading week, I spent my Wednesday afternoon at the Abri de la Rive-Sud (ARS), an emergency shelter for homeless persons based in Longueuil. To be clear, I wasn’t there as a volunteer, I was there to complete a photojournalism assignment.

At the end of the day, I came out of this experience with two conclusions:

  1. I am not ready to be a “real” journalist.
  2. I am an even worse person than I thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot more than that during my visit. I have met great people and the ARS is an organization worthy of imitation. However, that is not what I am here to talk about.

On March 3, I did everything a professional journalist shouldn’t do.

For starters, I let social anxiety win and wasted way too much time thinking: how do I approach people without being invasive? Do I look like I’m taking myself too seriously? Do I look serious enough? What if I ask dumb questions? What if I do/say/think the wrong thing?

I was so scared of disturbing people that I shied away from asking more questions and ended up cutting corners. I even refrained from recording some interviews because I was afraid of asking people experiencing homelessness if I could put a microphone in their face. Thankfully, I only had to take pictures and gather enough information to write captions, but if I were to produce an extensive piece of journalism on the subject, there would be major holes in my story.

As an example, take Mr. A, who lost his job and his home due to COVID-19. Even though he did not seem to mind giving details about his life prior to the pandemic, I could not gather the courage to ask him: Why him, why now? What happened that made him unable to stay afloat, like many others did thanks to governmental support like the CERB or Employment Insurance?

Should I have pushed for more information?

At the end of the day, I talked to an employee at the ARS who made a comment that really made me regret not asking those questions to Mr. A. I don’t remember the exact words (always record your interviews, kids!), but the person said that, to become homeless — with no previous history — in the specific context of the pandemic, you almost “have to want it.” Referring to the government’s laxity in terms of monetary aid distribution, the employee told me that COVID-19 had actually made some of their clients better off.

“You have to want it” ???

I was so shocked by the comment that I froze. It was the last thing I thought I would hear from a social worker. I think they were able to read the disbelief in my eyebrows because they then took it upon themselves to specify that they were specifically referring to the current situation. At least, that’s what I understood… but instead of making sure that I had well interpreted the comment, I just stared in silence trying to process what had been said.

Whether it is because I didn’t want to be a burden for the employees who had “real” work to do or because I didn’t want to disrespect the few residents who were willing to talk to me, I shot myself in the foot by not digging deep enough for answers. By not addressing those missing pieces of truth, I threw the journalistic mandate in the trash and did not do justice to anyone who agreed to take part in this project.*

And here is another big no-no for all newbie journalists (and I guess people in general): I forgot to set aside any preconceived ideas.

I consider myself very open-minded, but as a person who was brought up in a very sheltered middle-class environment, I was never inclined to talk with people experiencing homelessness beyond the usual brief greetings.

At the ARS, I got to speak with Mr. B, who became homeless in 2014 and has been on and off the streets since then. He told me about his last psychotic episode and how different the situation is in Longueuil compared to Montreal. He was very articulate, perfectly lucid, and completely open when talking about his difficulties with substance abuse and schizophrenia.

Our exchange lasted a bit less than 25 minutes and let me tell you: it was the first normal conversation I have had with a stranger for a very long time. By “normal” I mean that I did not have to pretend to be someone I am not (i.e. a pseudo-reporter, a top student or a person who knows what they are doing). In fact, I was struck by how much Mr. B and I have in common, which ended up making me lose my journalist goggles. Obviously, I am not even close to knowing the same kind of struggles he did, but it only confirmed what I already knew: anyone could end up in this situation.

When I arrived on location, I had my main question ready and had prepared myself for the most plausible answer. Since the pandemic had made a lot of people lose their jobs and become isolated, I thought they would all say that COVID-19 had made the situation worse for people experiencing homelessness.

But my ignorant self had not thought of one thing: the homeless were already isolated. For many of them, nothing has changed. For many of them, things could not get much worse. When talking to Mr. B, I learned that most people in the homeless community did not spend their time worrying about the pandemic.

“An acquaintance of mine once told me that he had taken so many drugs in his life that COVID wouldn’t want to get into his body,” he said.

Under which privileged rock was I living to think that people without homes would experience the pandemic in the same way as everyone else?

In the end, a lot of the things I thought I knew about the issue were proven wrong when I visited the ARS. And all I can do about it is to tell all five people who will check out my not-so-thorough school project.

When I started working on it at the beginning of the semester, my intention was to achieve something truly meaningful. I agree; it was a bit delusional and I might have aimed a bit too high for a first-year student without any relevant experience.

Still, since I have started studying journalism, the same thought keeps lingering in my mind: maybe I am not made for journalism.

In two months, I visited two homeless outreach organizations and have been asked twice if I was a new volunteer or a recently employed social worker. Both times when I answered “no,” I was overwhelmed by the same feeling: guilt.  

If I cannot become a successful journalist, will I keep feeling bad for reporting on issues that I don’t have any real power to eradicate? If I wanted to change the world so much, shouldn’t I seek to actively help others instead of writing about things that I wish would change?

Putting that little existential crisis aside, I have to say that I am not ready to give up on journalism just yet. After all, I’ve only been studying in journalism for six months. Maybe this time I was not as good as professional journalist Christopher Curtis who’s been covering homelessnessness consistently for years, but facing these kinds of challenges so early in my student career only motivates me to do better. To be honest, I don’t think I will ever be able to grow into this groundbreaking investigative journalist I had envisioned myself becoming. But that doesn’t mean I should stop trying.

*This is why I decided not to mention my sources’ real names. They have signed a waiver regarding a specific assignment, but they were not informed that their story would be repurposed in this context. This article is about my own mistakes and “journey,” and until I am able to reach out to the persons involved, names will not be disclosed.

 

Feature photo by Christine Beaudoin

Related Articles