COLLEGE PARK (6/29/20) — Homelessness. It plagues every corner of the country, driving political debate from city halls to the White House as elected leaders try to figure out what to do about the half-million Americans living on our streets.
The Obama administration argued that criminalizing homelessness was unconstitutional and misguided. Five years later, the Trump administration is embracing it.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism wanted to take a nationwide snapshot of how homeless people are being treated in America, particularly those living outside, with nowhere to go.
To do that, it created an unprecedented collaboration among seven university journalism programs spanning the country. Led by the Howard Center, the consortium included the University of Oregon, Boston University, Stanford University, the University of Arkansas, the University of Florida and Arizona State University.
Despite challenges posed by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the collaboration produced more than two dozen stories — national investigative pieces, a long-form narrative, explanatory stories, case studies, a podcast, photos, videos and graphics.
The first portion of the project, called “Nowhere To Go,” tackles the criminalization of homeless people and was published Monday by Merrill College’s Capital News Service and The Associated Press. Two series of stories on homeless encampments will be published in the coming weeks.
The Howard Consortium targeted 54 metropolitan regions where median rent was more than 32% of median income, driving up homelessness. It collected and analyzed 311 complaints over the last decade, looking for patterns and trends. It surveyed local and state laws that were aimed at criminalizing homelessness. And using court data from across the country, it examined how those policies were playing out on the ground.
The primary reporting and data analysis were conducted by nearly 50 graduate and undergraduate journalists spanning the campuses, supported by more than 15 data journalists.
The work began in fall 2019 with an analysis of court cases, legal documents and data. It kicked into high gear when more reporters and visual journalists joined the team in January. They fanned out to meet and talk with people who made their homes in tents, cars and on the streets. They also spoke with city officials, advocates for the homeless, lawyers, police officers, judges, business leaders and experts on issues of housing and homelessness. Much of the work that appears in their stories, which were reported in eight states and more than 15 cities, reflects detailed in-person interviews.
Those ended in March, when the spread of the coronavirus shut down all travel and site visits. It also shut down all of the universities, prompting many students to move back home, scattering them across the country.
But that didn’t stop the project from being completed. Using tools like Zoom, WebEx, Slack, Google Drive and Dropbox, the students continued reporting, acquiring and analyzing data, editing and sharing photos and video, and producing digital graphics and websites. Most importantly, they found ways to keep talking with each other and their editors to produce the project.
The website, built by University of Maryland digital design students, collects the work of all the consortium members.
Support for the collaboration came from the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Park Foundation.