Monday, December 06, 2021

HOMELESSNESS: The story that won't go away


PROPPED UP: A homeless man plays the flute and begs with a child.
Photo by student journalist Ming Yu

ONE of my favourite assignments to carry out with student journalists is under the general theme of ‘homelessness’.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Takes students out of their comfort zones, gives ideal interviewees who aren’t going anywhere in a hurry and provides for pictures and videos that just happen in front of you.

Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about why NOT to do it:

  • It’s potentially dangerous as the homeless may be disease-ridden or have mental health issues that make them unpredictable. Ditto the animals they have with them.
  • They ‘reside’ in unsafe parts of town that could leave students vulnerable.
  • They could be under the influence of drugs or alcohol that make them violent.
  • Well-dressed, well-nourished young people will not be on their usual calling card list and may lead to unwanted attention.

Of course, these are exactly my arguments FOR doing this assignment. Over the years I’ve had the familiar student response – grumpiness, tears, even actual sickness – but these are far outweighed by those young people who learned that they could do something different and difficult, and even maybe turn in a piece of work that does some good for society as a whole.

student journalist Nora Mao
Latest on my roster of ‘Student Homeless Journalists’ are second-year international journalism group from university in Guangzhou (Canton in old money) in southern China. It is a city of 14 million people – twice the size of London – so you don’t even need to do the math to know there will be homeless people around.

One student found homeless elderly people who lived on the street because they “didn’t want to bother their family”, another was begging with a child who brought “higher benefits” and one ingenious beggar was beseeching alms via a QR code on his mobile phone!

It’s a big test for both aptitude and attitude. As I keep telling them, journalism is actually rather straightforward but great journalism takes effort, persistence, imagination and a real hunger to want to do it.

When asked why she had only other people’s pictures from the internet rather than her own photos, one student replied: “This is a photo I found on my microblog, because I haven't seen a tramp for a long time near my home at the weekend.”

Last word with one of the better students in the class: “The Homeless Project is a real challenge. A few years ago, there were homeless people everywhere, but now we can't even find them if we try. A classmate said he wanted to dress me up as a hobo for pictures!”

Some you win etc etc…

A portrait of homelessness by Ming Yu


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