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San Francisco Media Outlets Unite To Help End The City's Homelessness

A bird steals a bag of food from a homeless man while he sleeps in front of City Hall in San Francisco on June, 27.
Josh Edelson
AFP/Getty Images
A bird steals a bag of food from a homeless man while he sleeps in front of City Hall in San Francisco on June, 27.

As a little girl growing up in a lovely house in Kansas City, Kansas, Audrey Cooper knew nothing about life with no place to call home. One day, her family took a trip out of state and her 8-year-old eyes beheld something she never forgot.

"The first homeless person I ever saw was on the streets of San Francisco," Cooper recalls.

Long after that trip ended, Cooper left Kansas City for college in Boston and after graduation started a career in journalism ending up in of all places — San Francisco. She's now the editor-in-chief at the San Francisco Chronicle. And three decades after that image was etched in her mind as child, it became one of the reasons she spearheaded what is being described as the most unprecedented effort by the media to address homelessness.

On Wednesday, June 29, The Chronicle and almost 80 other news organizations launched the SF Homeless Project — publishing stories exploring possible solutions to reducing or ending homelessness and improving the quality of life for the approximate 6,686 people living on San Francisco Streets.

San Francisco's overall population is about 864,816. And to get its homeless people in supportive housing the city would have to expand its current efforts, which is estimated at $200 million up front and $50 million annually.

"You cannot live in San Francisco without coming into daily contact with a person that lives on the street," Cooper notes.

She says The Chronicle has always covered homelessness, but she thought there was a need to do something different, something more effective. Once she came up with the idea in January, collaboration meetings with other news outlets in the Bay Area began in February.

She says the project has been quite a labor of love.

"It might have been less painful when I gave birth to my actual child," she laughs.

Originally, says Cooper, there were about 40 outlets involved — ranging from small hyperlocal newspapers and community digital outlets, to larger publications and radio and television stations. Soon enough, word got around and the number of organizations doubled.

"Getting everybody to agree on that perfect day to publish was difficult," Cooper says. "The NBA finals were going on, the summer is conventions for political parties . . . It (June 29) was a day that nothing was going on."

In just a matter of days after publishing, they are seeing the effects of their efforts.

"I think we've already been successful . . . We've already made national news headlines. You see politicians dealing with the issues. ... There's legislation by some lawmakers calling on the governor to declare a state of emergency."

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy organization, agrees that the coverage has been successful so far. She admits when she first read about the project — prior to its launch — in The New York Times, she was somewhat nervous, thinking the coverage would be "from a passerby's perspective."

"But a lot of the coverage has done a really good job of highlighting the plight of the homeless," Friedenbach says. "I like that they're highlighting the voices of people who are homeless."

She's hopeful these stories can force policy change, influencing lawmakers to get more proactive about reducing homelessness.

Nearly a quarter of the Chronicle's 200-member staff has been involved in the project. And they've covered practically every issue affecting the homeless. Key among these is — mental health — with the newspaper reporting:

Angela Flax packs up her tent in San Francisco in February. Media outlets in San Francisco saturated Internet, broadcast and print publications this week with news stories about the city's homeless.
Eric Risberg / AP
Angela Flax packs up her tent in San Francisco in February. Media outlets in San Francisco saturated Internet, broadcast and print publications this week with news stories about the city's homeless.

"A hundred additional beds in a hospital psychiatric ward, the most expensive level of care, could cost $80 million a year, according to the Department of Public Health. The same number in a locked facility like a skilled nursing home or other non-hospital treatment center could cost up to $20 million. The city also needs thousands more supportive housing units for those who don't need institutional care, at a cost of at least $50 million a year. But there could also be cost savings as a result."

The Chronicle also focused on the shelter system, citing sufficient improvements could make them more successful: "The shelter system costs the city about $16 million a year. Doubling that amount could pay for such an overhaul, according to a city controller's analysis."

NPR member station KQED is also a leader and a key player in the project and according to Holly Kernan, executive editor of news, they hosted "all of the collaboration meetings, because public media is mission driven and we are used to collaborating in the public interest."

Among their stories were a question and answer piece about homelessness; a timeline on homelessness in San Francisco and a close-up experience of life on the streets, featuring a video. Kernan said KQED's coverage also looked at the housing affordability crisis and the "invisible homeless people living out of cars and on couches and those living one crisis away from being without shelter."

She dismissed any notion that doing a project of this nature is advocacy, saying it's all about journalism as the Fourth Estate.

"Our role as watchdogs is to ask tough questions, hold politicians accountable and get good information to the public," she says.

"It's our responsibility to convene community conversations and that's what we are doing with this project. It's also our job to tell stories and we've tried to give people a sense of the humanity and breadth of stories beyond the label 'homeless.' "

Both Cooper and Kernan say their organizations will continue coverage throughout the year, keeping this project alive.

"I want people all over the Bay Area to have a renewed sense of pride in their media and how much they need to support us," Cooper says.

"This newsroom is earning more readers and saving the world."

A world, that hopefully by the time Cooper's 4-year-old son becomes a man, will be free of homeless people living on the streets of San Francisco — the place where she saw her first homeless person — thanks in part to her journalism.

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