November 19, 2018

Homeless in Brentwood: When journalism fights

Journalists cover stories—we don’t make them. Once in a while, though, stories find us, and they move our hearts so much that we can’t help adding to the original story.

This is what happened to my friend Sharon Waxman, founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of the popular entertainment and culture news site, The Wrap.

I’ve known Sharon for years. Before starting The Wrap, she covered Hollywood for The New York Times. One of the things I’ve always admired about her work is a no-nonsense quality to covering glamorous subjects. She’s not starstruck, she’s storystruck. Earlier in her career, she covered foreign affairs in Europe. Now she covers cultural affairs in Hollywood. She’s still the same journalist looking for real stories.

On her way to a Brentwood restaurant on a recent Friday night, she stumbled onto one of those real stories. She noticed a 40ish woman sleeping beneath an outdoor heater at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Next to the woman were her two teenage daughters, slumped against one another.

They were in the same position when Sharon came out of the restaurant. She couldn’t resist. She doubled back and asked the woman, Katherine, if she needed help. They were homeless, Katherine explained. She and her 19-year-old twins had nowhere to go.

One thing that caught Sharon’s eye was that Katherine was well-dressed and articulate, while her twins were beautiful girls with wide eyes that said “they expected nothing from anyone.” As they laid there with no place to go, they even charged their cell phones.

Sharon decided this was a story. So she stayed and asked questions. Here’s what she wrote later on her Waxword blog:

“In a resigned monotone, Katherine said that all the shelters were full. That since her daughters weren’t pregnant and none of them were drug addicts, they could not get into city programs. A Veteran Administration facility was less than a mile away on a huge federal plot of land, but they weren’t veterans.

“Family would not help them, she said. She had a car up until a few weeks ago but it was repossessed when she learned the payments she’d been making on a friend’s car were going elsewhere.

“I asked when was the last time they’d slept in a bed.

“Three weeks, they said.”

But here’s where the story takes off. After Sharon published the story, a group of people started reaching out to help. Within a week, the “Wrap community” was able to raise $2,000 via a Gofundme campaign to put Katherine and her girls in temporary housing. Of course, Sharon knew this wasn’t a longterm solution. So she set her investigative eye on city services. Here’s what she wrote on April 3:

“Social services that claim to exist to help families like this—I keep hearing about this terrific, phantom thing called ‘Rapid Rehousing’—have been missing in action.

“The two local organizations, OPCC or The People’s Concern, and St. Joseph—where everyone tells me the people are hard-working and professional—need to do their part. So far a case worker from St. Joseph has failed to show up to two appointments. I’d love to know why. Where’s the OPCC?

“Katherine and her daughters are burning through the money we’ve raised at a local motel. Scott and Lori Sale are willing to provide support for longer term housing, but not without the support of a case worker, which is critical. What’s the deal, social services?”

Yes, what’s the deal?

Sharon is not letting go. She’s tweeting about the case and moving the story forward. When I emailed her saying how much I loved the initiative, she used the term “nightmare” to describe the case. Her focus now is to help publicize the plight of Katherine and her two daughters and get them longer term help.

Knowing Sharon, I’m sure she would have preferred if my lead to this story was an appeal for help. I do hope the help will come through and that this story has a happy ending. But I can’t help seeing another story here that I stumbled upon—that of a journalist who walked out of a restaurant on a Friday night and decided not to ignore human pain.