When homelessness is all around you, which is the best way for a journalist to cover the issue?
We’ve all seen the numbers reported in the news about the rise in rough sleeping in this country, but I felt there was a lack of understanding about what life on the street actually entails.
Somewhere like Chelmsford, for example, homelessness is something you can’t avoid when you’re going out into the city centre.
It’s only a small city after all but a recent estimate suggested that there were 48 rough sleepers in the city centre alone.
I first came up with the idea to sleep rough a couple of months ago with two primary aims in mind.
The first was to garner some sort of snapshot into what you do on a daily basis as a rough sleeper – without any place to go to or job to be at.
The second was to try and find out about the people who find themselves in that situation. To delve into the humanity of those in that situation I felt I needed to spend a prolonged amount of time with them.
There’s only so much someone will tell you in an hour-long interview after all.
Chelmsford hit the headlines in February when rough sleeper Rob O’Connor died underneath the shutters of the former Argos building in the city centre following a night of freezing temperatures.
Essex Live covered his death extensively and just under a month later I found myself covering a vigil that was held for Rob on a freezing cold night when we were all suffering from the Beast from the East.
Off the back of that coverage I struck up a relationship with Brian McGovern, the founder of [homelessness charity] Cool to be Kind Chelmsford, and we have stayed in contact since.
When I came up with the idea originally the biggest question I had was who to do it with and how I could do it safely.
In July, Brian came to me with the exact same idea and said he could help make it happen.
Just like that the gears then started rolling.
Thanks to his work with Cool to be Kind’s outreach team he suggested I meet Chris and Sarah – two rough sleepers in Chelmsford.
I asked to meet them beforehand, so I could explain what we had in mind, but also to build a relationship and some trust with them ahead of the 24 hours.
Once that was sorted we set a date and a time and it all got underway.
Once the investigation got underway I knew I wanted to write it up and make a podcast – I just didn’t know what material I would have to work with.
As it turned out, Chris and Sarah were as open with me as I could ever have asked for.
Word had also spread among the homeless community and plenty of them knew who I was and what I was doing. Plenty of them were happy to open up and divulge on life on the streets.
For those that read the article the two most striking things that came about were the sheer humanity of the people who sleep rough – particularly Chris and Sarah.
Additionally, there was also the drug side of life. Everyone knows that it goes on in a city like Chelmsford but one of the biggest discoveries was just how prevalent it was.
The first eight hours of my 24 hours were completely dominated by trips to get drugs and we were incredibly active as a result.
After the 24 hours were complete it took me the best part of two days to put the written piece together and well over 10 hours to edit the half-hour long podcast episode.
However, the reaction to the piece has been phenomenal not only from work colleagues but also from people all over.
Chelmsford City Council got in touch to say how insightful the article was and plans are already in place to meet more of the city’s homeless community as well as other aspects of life in the city that we don’t truly understand.
A final thing to take away from something like this was the online engagement time on the article.
In a world where the audience’s attention span is often the bane of a journalist’s life, I was understandably worried about how an article that was almost 5,000 words in length would be received.
The real challenge to the write-up was trying to break it down into manageable chunks but also convey the right amount of Chris and Sarah’s stories as well as my own take as the outsider in the homeless world.
Thankfully an engagement time of well over four minutes suggests it seemed to work.
It just goes to show that the appetite for long reads is still well and truly there.
Alasdair’s full piece can be found here.