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A phone call that comes before 7 a.m. can’t possibly be good, and that was my first thought when I heard my iPhone quack before I had my morning coffee. It was a homeless woman I had interviewed for my series on homelessness.
“I’m back on the streets,” she blurted as soon as we connected. “You won’t even believe the [expletive deleted] that happened.” In a verbal torrent spiked with tears and F-bombs, she told me her boyfriend had thrown a can of shaving cream at her, bruising her left cheek. The landlord kicked them out because it was a case of domestic abuse. Now both were homeless again after living in a one-bedroom apartment for five months.
As I listened to these updates, my heart sank. I liked the couple. I rooted for them. When they finally found housing, I visited them with home-baked cookies to celebrate. I had met this couple while they were still sleeping in a tent on a sidewalk. I had touched the ring that the boyfriend had bought for his girlfriend, watched him smile as he said, “I think she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.” And now, this woman was telling me that he’d always been abusive: “But I can’t leave him because I love him so much. He’s all I have.”
Later, I called the landlord, and she too was breathless with anger. “They’re liars,” she barked. After the couple left, the cleaners had found paraphernalia and traces of hard drug use such as meth, even though the couple had signed a contract to a sober-living facility. If that’s true, they had lied to me too: They had sworn they no longer used hard drugs.
Theirs wasn’t the only dejecting story I encountered in my reporting. Another homeless woman I met called me at 10 p.m., crying and panicking: Her husband had hit her and busted her face open, she said. She blamed herself: “I was being a brat. He always gets so angry when I’m a brat. But I wasn’t that bad of a brat, was I? Oh, … I love him so, so, so much!” She then told me the police had arrested her husband during a rustle-down at their homeless encampment for past criminal charges.
This was a couple who became homeless due in part to drug dealing and alcoholism. They lost their teenage son to foster care and cry every time they talk about him. They were raw and vulnerable, and I liked them. A friend and I even took them out bowling, and they crushed me with their multiple strikes. Now, once again, they revealed yet another layer of chaos to their already complicated situation.
After experiencing just a little taste of the issue over the course of six months, already I feel frustration and cynicism and despondency creeping in, and I question every new “solution” that comes under the sun, every person who claims to tell me the truth.
One of the hardest—yet most necessary—components of journalism is engaging with real people, people who are suffering and struggling with tragedy and brokenness. As a journalist I meet them on a professional level, but as I listen to their stories and look into their eyes, we develop a deeper relationship than “Just the facts, ma’am.” After all, we ultimately all come from the same divine breath that brought life into dust. And because we’re human, we lie. We blame. We disappoint. As a journalist, I realize again and again that the issue I’m reporting on is much deeper and much messier than what it at first seems.
Two of my friends from church work in faith-based nonprofits for people experiencing homelessness. Both decided to quit after a couple of years, and when they did, they breathed sighs of relief. Not many workers last long in this field, and I now see why: The work is heavy, unceasing, and oftentimes thankless. After experiencing just a little taste of the issue over the course of six months, already I feel frustration and cynicism and despondency creeping in, and I question every new “solution” that comes under the sun, every person who claims to tell me the truth.
When I first began reporting on homelessness, pastor and chaplain Regina Weller warned me to be careful: “Remember! You’re entering a dominion of darkness. You don’t walk into it clueless and defenseless.” But then she told me her secret to lasting in the homeless ministry for more than 20 years: “I notice the darkness, but I don’t look at it for too long. I look at Jesus.”
Read Sophia Lee's previous coverage of homelessness at wng.org/categories/homelessness.