These five strategies helped me present a more honest look at homelessness and addiction in LA

Date:

by CHJ Fellow Clara Harter

When I set out to investigate the realities of street drug use in Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to bring readers inside the world of people battling homelessness and addiction.

A lot of reporting on our drug crisis leans on experts who, clearly, don’t have all the answers. I wanted to gain a better understanding of how people become addicted to drugs like fentanyl, the challenges they face on a daily basis, and their ideas on what could help.

My investigation would therefore have to be built on the voices of people experiencing homelessness and addiction. The problem is they are often not the most reliable sources. For starters, it was very challenging to remain in contact. Most of my sources did not have phones or would have their phones stolen so frequently it was impossible to keep track of their current number.

Sometimes, it was difficult to capture clear information from my sources. They were frequently under the influence of substances, such as fentanyl, which can make people extremely lethargic. 

Many people I met on the streets struggle with mental health challenges and would share information that to me — a journalist and not a mental health professional — seemed paranoid, delusional or fictional. 

In addition, people’s sense of time and details in personal stories would often change. One day a source would tell me he had been homeless for three years and first got addicted to opioids after a sports injury. The next time we met he would say that he had been homeless for five years and became addicted when his mother gave him leftover pain pills to treat a toothache. 

These two main challenges coupled together — lack of reliable contact and communication difficulties — also made it challenging to ensure that sources were clearly giving their informed consent to be interviewed and possibly photographed. 

Lastly, there was the emotional challenge of grappling with human suffering on a daily basis, knowing that I was essentially going in to extract information to serve my needs. The goal of the project was to bring more attention to the crisis, point out potential solutions and spur people to action. Still, at times I couldn’t help but feel unhelpful and even exploitative. 

In face of all this, I knew I either needed to find an ethically and journalistically sound way to work with these sources or pick a new project. 

Figuring out how to proceed took a lot of time, trial and error, and important conversations with my assigned fellowship mentor as well as my editorial team.

Here are the five strategies I used to build an investigation on sources battling homelessness and addiction:

1. Embed yourself in the field.

I decided to focus my investigation on one specific neighborhood, MacArthur Park, and spent as much time there as possible. This made it easier to get to know the people living in the area. By spending lots of time observing activities and asking people questions, I also came to understand the underground shoplifting economy fueling rampant fentanyl use, which became a key takeaway in my stories. 

Sticking to one location also made it easier to stay in touch with sources. If I wanted to ask a source a follow-up question, there was a good chance that if I showed up, waited and asked around, I would eventually locate them. 

2. Be an early riser.

Following the advice of my talented photographer, Sarah Reingewirtz, who has lots of experience working with people experiencing homelessness, we started going out to MacArthur Park around sunrise

This turned out to be a great time to make contact with sources, as most people were sober and better equipped to consent to be interviewed and provide clear information. By midday people were often consumed by withdrawals or making enough money to purchase fentanyl. By late afternoon people were often using or sleeping. 

Connecting with people early in the day also provided an opportunity to build trust with sources and stay with them throughout the day, which brings me to my next point.

3. Build trust with sources.

Pretty much every person experiencing homelessness quoted in the story was someone who I encountered more than once. People who are quoted heavily and whose faces are shown are sources with whom I built a rapport and met on many occasions.

This was essential for many reasons. First, multiple interactions and interviews helped build trust and make sure sources were clearly consenting to being interviewed and photographed. It also helped me get my facts straight around people’s life stories as these facts would sometimes change.  

It gave me a chance to watch their daily life and the struggles they went through, as well as how they changed over time. 

Lastly, making friends with sources helped with my own safety when working in a dangerous area. It made me feel like I had a level of approval to be working in the area and it encouraged other sources to open up to me.

4. Be a human and tell a human story.

There are strict journalistic boundaries for a reason. It would be unethical for me to use money, goods, or food to coax an unwilling subject to be interviewed.

At the same time, it was emotionally challenging to spend so much time surrounded by suffering and do nothing to help. Small acts of kindness were necessary for my mental peace of mind and ability to continue doing the work that needed to be done for my project. This meant occasionally giving out water or a snack to someone — not in return for anything, but because they needed it. 

It was also important to occasionally open up a little with my sources; sharing a little bit about my life made them feel more comfortable sharing about their own. Having casual conversations about things like music allowed me to weave personal, humanizing details into my articles that helped readers see my sources not just as someone addicted to drugs, but as a whole person. 

5. Balance with expert voices

I knew from the start of my project that I wanted the voices of people battling homelessness and addiction to be front and center. I worried about the piece being too expert heavy.

But over time I came to see the important role expert voices could provide. Instead of going to them first for answers and insights, I would make observations from the streets and then present them to experts.

For example, I might say, “Hey, a source is telling me that quitting fentanyl is way harder than quitting heroin.” An expert can then verify that it is indeed common and explain the science behind it

My project was still driven by people with lived experience, but now it had helpful context and explanations from experts.

The process also worked in reverse. For example, an expert might tell me that expanding access to methadone (a drug used to treat opioid addiction) is a great solution. Then a source may tell me that yes methadone is helpful, but it’s impossible to quit and the process of picking it up brings you into contact with other people who use drugs, which can tempt a relapse. 

This back-and-forth dialogue between experts and sources with lived experience helped me compose a nuance and well-rounded series. 

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