Defining “Family” Homelessness

When I am researching family homelessness, the question that continues to recur is, what defines a family? In 2009, a two-parent homeless family made up 13.5 percent of the homeless population in Washington State, while a single woman with children made up nearly 27 percent of the population.Not identified in this state report were children living in homeless situations with extended family members, such as a grandma or an aunt. According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly three million children lived with a grandparent without either parent present. That number increased to nearly seven million when parents had their parents living with them.The problem with identifying families as only parents and children is that it may leave out the true head of the household. For instance, a grandfather may be the sole income generator for a single mother, but if they lose their apartment or house, the grandfather and granddaughter will more than likely have to be split up into different transitional housing units because units in the state only take what they classify as homeless women with children.A broader definition of what creates a family needs to be determined to allow comprehensive services to be available to all types of families. There are families that are inter-generational and families with same-sex couples, families that take on the care for a friend’s child and families that consist of a brother and sister. Splitting these families up not only causes emotional stress, it also causes deep- rooted negative feelings towards agencies that may be trying to help them.

EPA allows experts to comment on oil spill; this looks like progress

We believe in giving credit where credit is due. And so after our recent outrage about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's news conferences where reporters were forbidden to identify government officials who briefed journalists, we today were pleasantly surprised by an EPA news conference that's back in the real world.Specifically, when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did a phone-in presser on the use of dispersants at BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notice specifically listed the names and titles of lower-ranking EPA staffers who would appear and provide information to the public: Paul Anasta, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development; and Dana Tulis, acting director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management. Jane Lubchenco, the Department of Commerce undersecretary in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also was on the call, along with Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.Thank you, EPA! This is as it should be: Public officials appear at a news conference tell the journalists what they know (and who they are). Then, that information gets transmitted to the public.Public officials who make statements to the public need to be held accountable for what they say, which can't happen when they journalists don't even know their names, as happened at the press conference last week on EPA's new rules for handling toxic coal ash. This was highlighted in an excellent story about the whole flap by Curtis Brainerd of the Columbia Journalism Review.Let's hope today's news conference is the start of a trend.– Robert McClure

The Communal Impact of Homelessness

Last week, I sat down with LaKesha Knatt, program development manager at First Place, an elementary and middle school designed especially for homeless children. First Place has been recognized for excellence in curriculum development, and relief services. It  can boast of successful graduates who have made names for themselves in local business and community activism. With a team of dedicated and highly qualified staff, First Place is more than equipped to care for the needs, educationally, emotionally, and psychologically, of its students. But as the daughter of a woman who works in education, and a peer of many local community volunteers and activists, I wondered if programs such as First Place offer anything in the way of psychological support for the very people who are assisting those in need—teachers, administrators, case managers, counselors, volunteers. I asked Knatt if her peers were offered, or required to take, on-site emotional-social counseling to ensure they can cope with hearing and witnessing daily tales of violence, neglect and abuse, given that such fields often see a high turnover rate.Knatt smiled and replied, “You know, we don’t. That’s something I should really talk to the team about.” First Place requires intensive and innovative training for their teachers, both at the beginning of the school year and at mid-year to help teachers and staff respond best to crisis situations, and has an on-site physchologist for emotional support.After being in First Place for only an hour, the training’s impact is clear—all staff speak with students with the utmost of care and sensitivity, ensuring them they are in a safe place where they are expected to succeed. Because First Place is entirely privately funded, their limited resources naturally and rightly go to places of highest need—providing education, food, clothing, and housing assistance for homeless families.

‘On Location’ with NPR is treat for InvestigateWest Editor

I was very honored over the weekend to be on a panel with National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling, whose tireless reporting on the homefront impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been amazing. The event was a weekend-long "NPR on Location" that brought together some of NPR's biggest stars, including foreign correspondents Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Anthony Khun and Quil Lawrence,  Morning Edition host Renee Montagne and All Things Considered host Michele Norris. For a veteran NPR listener like myself, who typically has one of the local stations tuned in while I work, it was indeed a treat.Zwerdling and I were joined by KUOW-FM's investigative reporter John Ryan for a discussion called "The New Watchdogs." It was a great discussion of where investigative reporting is headed, based on the trends in the news industry (bad – layoffs, newspaper closures), but new developments in collaborative and nonprofit journalism that bode well for continued strong voices. NPR, of course, is the veteran, broadcast model for nonprofit journalism, and InvestigateWest is one of a handful of new regional models that are working to keep investigative reporting strong and sustain public service journalism.It was great to hear how Zwerdling got his start in investigative journalism as a high school newspaper editor who was duped by his principal. His reporting on the shooting at Fort Hood that killed 13 people was stellar, including this story that uncovered a memo in which a top Army psychiatrist  warned about the shooter's – himself an Army psychiatrist – reckless behavior.

Live streaming investigative biz journalism conference

I'm in Portland at the Reynolds Center's Investigative Business Journalism conference.  Pulitzer winner Gary Cohn and former Washington Post investigative reporter Alec Klein are leading the day's instruction, which is streaming live on the Web.  You can follow it on Twitter: @BizJournalism, #BizJ.If you're too busy to tune in, check out these five investigative tips.The Reynolds Center's future free online trainings include Unlocking Financial Statements July 19-23 and How to be an entrepreneur as a business journalist from August 9-13.Today's agenda:

The health costs of war are lasting and monumental, UW conference finds

If there is anything that emerged from a recent, three-day Conference on War and Global Health at the University of Washington, it is that the full fury of war is felt long after the last bomb is exploded and guns go silent, when countries at war are forced to deal with health and social maladies that can linger for decades.In this, there are no victors. The aggressor and the victim, victor and loser, end up suffering big time. And not just in terms of health consequences. The grave after-effects include total destruction of health supply infrastructure as well as the cost of long-term treatment and care for military and civilian casualties of conflicts.It is often assumed that deaths, injuries displacement and other forms of social disruption characterize human conflict. But the conference underscored the fact that the gravest difficulties are borne years or even decades after the cessation of hostilities…long after media crews have re-directed TV cameras and laptops to other stories.With a long and celebrated experience of documenting how wars affect global health, members of the Nobel-prize winning Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) presented evidence of the monumental cost as well as severity of health complications occasioned by wars; the escalation in the numbers of war victims and how war situations have worsened global health.

Barriers of adulthood: Foster youth face homelessness

Where were you when you turned 18?I was a senior in high school, celebrating the chance to finally call myself an adult. My family threw me a big birthday party complete with grilled chicken on the barbeque, grandma’s homemade pie, and plenty of presents. I had worries about which university I would choose or how prepared I was for fastpitch try-outs. What was definitely NOT on my mind was homelessness.When a foster child turns 18, they are welcomed into adulthood with a notification that they are utterly on their own. Their foster family no longer receives benefits to house them. If the foster family is kind and able, the family will voluntarily agree to care for the foster child until he or she graduates high school, but not even half are so lucky.According to a 2004 study by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), only 50 percent of foster youth graduate high school or earn a GED. The study goes on to say that within the first year of turning 18 years old, 57 percent of foster youth were unemployed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that on average, only 23 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 19 years old are unemployed. Therefore, a foster child is more than twice as likely to be unemployed than a child not in foster care within the first year of adulthood.Without an education, employment, and traditional family support, many foster youth end up on the streets. Not only is it unfair to the foster child to be forced out of their home when they turn 18, it also creates a major roadblock to their economic survival. I can’t say it any better than the DSHS study, which concludes by saying, “Foster youth need more concrete services in the areas of daily living skills, skills in obtaining housing, employment and education to help them transition successfully to independence.”

Learning from the best

Thank you to the Knight Digital Media Center for accepting me as a fellow for their June 2010 "Multimedia Reporting & Convergence Workshop" at UC Berkeley.  I'll be honing my video editing and web design skills with Paul Grabowicz, Samantha Grant, Marilyn Pittman, Jeremy Rue, Jerry Monti and Scot Hacker from June 13 – 18.  I am going to hang around the Bay Area to do some reporting for upcoming stories.  InvestigateWest members, followers: if you want to meet up or trade tips, email me at  Also, a shout-out to the Reynolds Center for hosting a free workshop in Portland on Friday, May 7th: “Investigative Business Journalism on a Beat,” taught by Pulitzer winner (and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism) Gary Cohn and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Professor and former Washington Post investigative reporter Alec Klein.

Bringing Poverty Out of the Shadows

Rarely do we get to see such in-depth reporting on poverty as has just been produced by Claudia Rowe and Mike Kane for the Marguerite Casey Foundation.In a series of articles written for the foundation's Equal Voice online newspaper, Rowe illuminates how the recession has devastated families across the U.S. with lasting generational consequences.Together with Kane's compelling black-and-white photography, Rowe's reporting drills down on the systemic failures and problems of perception that are at the heart of class disparities in the United States.  I used to work with both of them at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, so I can attest personally to the diligence and discipline that they bring to their respective fields. Check it out for yourself at  

Art helps at-risk youth survive and thrive

The greatest risk for the development of a writer is self-censorship. Last night, I attended another session of a poetry group with Friends of the Children, where volunteers, mentors, and a therapist all gather to help foster youth express in poetry the anxiety of growing up in unstable situations. And weekly, we remind our teens that they can say anything they wish—they can swear, they don’t have to spell anything correctly, and they can talk about topics that their teachers forbid them to mention—gangs, abuse, rape, fights.And yet each week, I see these youth decide that something they want to say is not worth saying. They decide these things because they have been previously led to believe that their experience should not be encouraged and validated.During Seattle University’s first seminar on family homelessness for journalists and scholars, Vince Matulionis of United Way mentioned that one of the most difficult parts of being homeless can be the fact that people do not make eye contact with someone on the street or with someone asking for assistance. Each avoidance, he said, can take a little piece of dignity from someone who is homeless, just like each act of self-censorship robs a piece of confidence from these teens.Though it is commonly thought that the term “homeless” only refers to someone without a house over their head, the term, as Carol, Cassandra and I are learning, has come to represent a much wider variety of people for whom stable living is an issue—foster youth, detained youth, women who couch-surf to escape domestic violence, or someone who is just about to lose their home. So how does one learn to express oneself, to tell one’s story, when food, housing, and safety are the most immediate concerns?