Seattle Times humanizing homelessness, one message at a time
Allison Griner is a freelance journalist and a 2013-2014 fellow with the International Reporting Program. Follow her on Twitter at @alligriner.
Inspiration came on the daily commute as he crossed under the brick and stone of Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Tyrone Beason would see the same folks every day, making a home for themselves on the neighborhood’s sidewalks and roadsides.
Beason’s neighborhood is one of the city’s oldest — a holdover from Seattle’s frontier days, when lumber fueled the local economy. Loggers would slide tree trunks down the center of Pioneer Square, along a path called “Skid Row,” as they made their way to the city’s waterfront sawmill.
Then, as now, Seattle’s prosperity drew itinerant workers, and “Skid Row” gradually earned a reputation for poverty rather than lumber. The term remains popular as shorthand for urban blight. That fact wasn’t lost on Beason, a Seattle Times journalist, as he made his way to work each morning. He was determined to write about homelessness in a way that didn’t just capture a moment in time but rather, as he put it, “the story of our times.”
The result was “Portraits of Homelessness,” a multimedia project that transcends the usual paradigms of journalism. “I developed the idea of taking journalism back to its almost literal form, in a sense,” he told ivoh in a recent interview. “I wanted to create a journal that the subjects themselves could write or contribute to.”
To do that, he literally bought the makings of a journal — a bound book and some parchment paper. He and photographer Erika Schultz then set out to visit homeless communities across the city, to ask residents to write down their thoughts about life on Seattle’s streets.
But it wasn’t as easy as putting pens in their hands. Sometimes Beason was met with resistance.
“People had to overcome a certain hesitation even to be ready to write down their thoughts and feelings,” he said. “Homelessness is one of those things that we generally tend to judge very harshly. The people who are living in the streets often face criticism that they’re not doing anything with their lives, that they made poor decisions, and on and on and on.”
It was the fall of 2016 when Beason dreamt up “Portraits of Homelessness.” He was fresh off of a different project that tackled an equally fraught subject: “Under Our Skin” showed ordinary people on video, discussing what it meant to talk about race in the 21st century.
Beason wanted to use a similar style — a collage of perspectives — for “Portraits of Homelessness.” He liked the way it stirred up a “kind of dense, multi-faceted, cacophonous energy.” But this time, rather than invite interviewees into a studio, he decided to go out and meet them on their turf.
“I wanted the feeling of a story that’s crowded, because big cities are crowded. We’re always bumping up against each other,” he explained. “I wanted this to feel alive.”
Both he and the photographer Schultz had other projects to juggle, so they approached “Portraits of Homelessness” in a piecemeal fashion. They would go out a couple of times a week, to the sides of roads and the shaded areas under bridges and overpasses, with no plan other than to meet whomever they could.
They’d approach clusters of tents, tarps and RVs and introduce themselves, just as they would in any other neighborhood. Residents would often come out and ask what he was doing. Sometimes they’d give him a tour of the area. Other times, they’d refer him to other residents who might be willing to talk. And then there were the people who approached him with a plea to call on the city to help them out.
“We were kind of educated by folks in the encampment, each time we paid a visit,” Beason said. But getting them to put pen to paper was sometimes difficult. People fretted about their handwriting being bad, or that their spelling would be off. Still others worried about smudging the paper.
But Beason encouraged them to write a message anyway. Smudges and misspellings — they didn’t really matter, he explained to the potential contributors. Those were the realities of writing in a homeless camp. There was no place to wash hands or sit down and write. And the contributors would capture that, with each pen stroke.
“I felt like it was important for the subject to be a part of the storytelling. So how do you do that? By turning over the power of the pen to the person you’re writing about,” Beason said.
But the process wasn’t always comfortable for Beason either. “I was trained not to do that, to never turn your notebook over to the source,” he said with a laugh. “But in this case, I wanted the source to just put the words in the notebook.”
It wasn’t just their words he wanted to capture, though. He wanted to document their handwriting too. Each handwritten page was scanned and printed both online and in the Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine, as part of its May 4 cover story.
“A person’s handwriting is as much as a part of their profile, their identity, as any other aspect they might display to the world,” Beason said. But the decision was about more than aesthetics. Beason believes that extra layer of personality can help restore some of the humanity lost in the digital age.
“We’re so disconnected from the people who actually put their fingers to the keyboard to make stories. I wanted to remove as much of that technology, and as many of those filters, as I could,” Beason said. “There’s something about the physicality of communication I think we lose in our online worlds.”
In a final act of self-determination, Beason and his colleague Schultz invited the participants to pose however they wanted for a black-and-white photo to accompany their message. Some smiled for the camera. Others asked that their face be obscured.
In all, 22 members of Seattle’s homeless community took part in the project. Beason sat down with each one to let them know exactly what they were getting into — warning them that what they wrote would be made public.
“With comments and letters to the editor and social media, you are putting your subjects out there to be judged and criticized and defamed,” Beason said.
He worried about how to protect the storytellers who came forward with tales of chemical dependencies and prison stints — or those who simply wanted to keep their homeless status private. In many cases, subjects’ last names were withheld from the final story. And when it came time to publish the project, Beason and his Seattle Times colleagues tried to stem some of the most negative reactions, by cutting off comments when they became abusive.
“It’s a privilege for someone to tell you their story, in whatever format,” Beason said. “We didn’t want to ruin that relationship, or ruin the debate about homelessness, by creating a situation where people felt threatened or maligned unfairly.”
The risks didn’t prevent the contributors from pouring their feelings onto the page. Beason remembers some of the participants taking a while to mull over what they would say. Whether the messages were tinged with sorrow or hope, they were all “declarations of pride and dignity,” Beason said.
“What I got was a real sense of civic responsibility and pride of place,” Beason explained. “I was doing a story about homelessness, right? But they wrote about what it was like to be home.”
That’s what made it all the more heartbreaking when the city cleared the homeless camps within weeks of Beason’s visits. He aired his dismay in an essay, written to accompany the individual stories.
“Wherever you lay your hat is your home: If only it were that simple,” he wrote with evident frustration. He used the essay to call out the city’s inability to address the poverty he witnessed, despite Seattle having “more brainpower than it knows what to do with.”
“Right now we’re going through a pretty historic economic and jobs boom, driven by the tech industry,” Beason explained to ivoh. “It’s raised these questions about affordability and livability, and as that progress has happened, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people at the margins, slipping into homelessness.”
The Seattle Times held an event this past May at the city’s Central Library, to address some of those questions. The event also served as the grand unveiling of an exhibit featuring the messages written by the homeless community.
That community had changed materially since Beason and Schultz did their reporting. The doll-maker from Tijuana, the neat freak with the layered sleeping bags, the couple who cleaned their camp to make sure their dogs didn’t hurt themselves on discarded needles — all the homeless people Beason met had been scattered to the wind.
But there at the presentation, a few showed up. One of them was Charles, the man whose photo was featured on the cover of the Seattle Times’ magazine. He announced he’d been placed in transitional housing. Eventually, Beason hopes to follow up with Charles, and some of the other people he met, for a future story.
“People want to leave a mark on the world ultimately. They want to be respected and valued,” Beason said. “I’m not a crusader. I’m not a hero for doing this. But what I do have the power to do is give people the space and the time and the welcoming attitude that allows them to express themselves.”
Related: How ArtLifting empowers homeless and disabled artists | The Third Pole draws attention to earthquake survivors who remain homeless in Nepal | Artist draws portraits of marginalized people to inspire unity and love | Meet Ally Karsyn: ivoh fellow and founder of live storytelling series Ode