"I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world." - Henry Luce
Many times, journalists are privileged with the opportunity of reporting on an issue near and dear to their heart. It's that personal connection to a story when the most rewarding work is done. That's how I feel about my recent special report on homelessness in SWLA, "Living in the trees."
As I talked about in the first part of the series, my connection with the local homeless population began shortly after moving to SWLA. After doing a few stories on Abraham's Tent and other local organizations for the low-income and homeless, I realized that the problem of homelessness so prevalent in big cities like my hometown of Chicago and even my college town of Washington, D.C. is also prevalent here. But it comes across in a different way.
As you heard Tarek Polite of the SWLA Continuum of Care say in Part 1, in rural areas like Calcasieu Parish, you're not going to see the stereotypical homeless man sleeping in a park or on a main street.
When I first went into the woods and saw people living there, I couldn't believe it. A Boy Scout for seven years myself, I've seen tents and campgrounds, but this wasn't a temporary camping trip. This was their life. As I began talking to the people living there, I couldn't help but be grateful for the little that I do have.
Journalists sometimes joke that the pay in this industry isn't great or that we live under the poverty line, which is true. But doing this story and meeting the people who really have nothing, for me, voids that joke. One of the hardest parts of putting the piece together was sitting with Doc during our interview that night and when it was over, having to leave. Knowing that the cold I was feeling was temporary and I could heat up when I got home, but for him, he would shiver through the night.
On to Doc. Some were weary of my choice of interviewing Doc because of his criminal past. His story was elaborate, no doubt, and many parts I couldn't independently confirm. I couldn't find any records of his wife or his serving prison time for killing a man. I did find an extensive rap sheet of trespassing charges and arrests in Florida and I found records of him being a sex offender registered in South Carolina. He didn't seek me out wanting to tell this story, I simply started talking to him one day and this is all that came out.
While I certainly don't condone any of his criminal past, the truth remains that he is still living in the trees. At a point like now, where he has nothing, my hope is that people would see his story and be moved to help, knowing that no one can get better without opportunity. I've spent many hours with Doc. For this story and outside of this series and I know his heart. So, for those who are skeptical of helping people like him, I don't blame you, but I ask that you look at the bigger picture.
Like I said in the final part of the series, I didn't set out to do this to make people cry or to make people sad. But I wanted to do something that was impactful and that could really bring about change in this community. What I've seen since living in SWLA from the community is a true sense of community. Everyone is always there for a fellow neighbor and that saying 'southern hospitality' is alive and well.
So, I KNOW you (WE) can do it! We can change the homeless population in SWLA. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to give monetarily … you don't even have to agree to shelter a homeless person in your home. But Joshua Lavergne of the Forgotten People USA said it best, "A lot of them don't want material things or things like that ... But they just want someone to listen to their story or laugh with them or cry with them, whatever it takes, just be there with them... Because that's a lot of what they miss out on."
I challenge you to do something small. When/if you come across a homeless person, don't look the other way. Don't brush them off quickly. Don't think that because they're dirty and smell bad they can offer you nothing. Smile, say hi, ask them how they're doing. Sometimes that's all they'll need to be motivated to keep on pushing!
We at KPLC always sign off by using the slogan, "At Your Service." But I ask that you join me in really being at the service of the men and women who really need, the sometimes forgotten people.
You can watch all three parts of my series HERE.