Cities and states across the country are in the grip of a homelessness crisis, particularly in the west, where California, Washington, Nevada and other states have some of the nation’s highest per-capita homelessness rates. Hawaii and the cities of Seattle and Portland have declared states of emergency. The number of homeless people counted in Los Angeles County alone rose by one-quarter this year, approaching an astonishing 60,000.
This underreported emergency is the reason the Guardian launched Outside in America, a year-long project dedicated to covering homelessness in the western states, hiring the country’s only homelessness editor and embarking on an unprecedented reporting project. Outside in America is also pioneering a digital innovation to investigate how groundbreaking journalism can enable social change.
The project launch, accompanied by an introductory film, featured a deep-dive into the nation’s unusual biennial street count of homeless people, featuring dispatches from reporters in Los Angeles, Honolulu and Anchorage, and a searing investigation into the death of a homeless woman in a freezing parking garage in Portland, Oregon.
Outside in America’s coverage ranges from breaking news to groundbreaking and in-depth reports. The project has so far reported on the presence of homeless encampments adjacent to the Facebook corporate campus, a piercing indictment of inequality in Silicon Valley, and exposed plans by a San Francisco public library to incorporate “defensive architecture” as a response to homeless campers. Dispatches from Berkeley and Venice have exposed the limits of liberal values when progressives are confronted with homelessness.
It has produced intimate portraits of individual homeless people, such as a film and feature about homeless superhero impersonators working on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. And in other examples, it ran a touching obituary of a Berkeley homeless man and former New York Times reporter known as the “Hate Man,” and profiled an Idaho gubernatorial candidate who is both homeless and in jail.
This journalism is inspiring impassioned responses. A piece on the huge increase in the number of tents in downtown San Diego was read out in its entirety at a city council meeting, and copies were distributed to council members. And the project’s monthly homelessness newsletter has over 1,500 subscribers.
As part of a partnership with Speakable, a new technology company, every story features an embedded “Action Button”, which offers readers the opportunity to take direct action to alleviate homelessness. The button on each story varies; one may ask readers to volunteer at a soup kitchen, another to donate money.
These “actions” are chosen by Speakable; the Guardian editorial team has no advance knowledge of which actions will appear on the stories until they are published. But it is the project’s goal to understand how journalism elicits reader action. Already hundreds of readers have signed up to volunteer and to donate money and old clothing.
Content is published on the Guardian’s web site and is also made freely available to “street sheets” sold by homeless vendors on street corners in the Bay Area, Seattle and elsewhere.