I took it as an opportunity to talk to our readers about potential solutions.
Homelessness is a significant issue across the United States, including in Houston, and the part of the city we serve is not immune. The Coalition for the Homeless said there are about 100 people without homes in the six zip codes where The Leader delivers newspapers, and we see them when we drive underneath Loop 610 or go up and down North Shepherd Drive.
Encountering a homeless person, or group of homeless people, can be sad, startling and even scary. Some are homeless because they have mental health issues, which can make their behavior unpredictable, so we might worry about what they’ll say or do if we engage them. Some of us — like the Garden Oaks resident who emailed to ask what could be done about the homeless people in and around the neighborhood — try to avoid them.
A critical role of a community newspaper such as ours, though, is to look such issues right in the eyes and confront them. So that’s what I did, putting together two stories about homelessness that were prominently displayed in last week’s edition.
I wanted to tell you about the scope of the issue and what’s being done to address it, so I spoke with the aforementioned coalition, the pastor at a local church and a staffer in the mayor’s office who deals specifically with homeless initiatives. I also wanted to provide a glimpse into the life of a homeless person, so I went out looking for some.
I met a man under the 610 overpass named Kyle Rimel, who was approachable, engaging and answered all my questions while offering plenty of unsolicited insight into his life and those of other homeless people. And just a few minutes into our conversation, a clean-cut area man with a home and a nice car parked it nearby and joined us. Brad McPhee, an unemployed petroleum engineer who assists the homeless, met Rimel a few months earlier and stopped by to bring food and a new wheelchair to a man who struggles to walk.
It was an encounter I was surprised to witness, and I felt compelled to relay their relationship to our readers. It was touching to see two people with seemingly contrasting circumstances treat each other as equals, even as good friends.
Judging by comments on our website and reactions on social media, many of you enjoyed reading about them. But some of you reached out to raise questions about their character and question why they were portrayed as good people with good hearts.
The answer is we don’t pretend to know everything about every subject in the stories we write. We can’t in most cases. This story, along with just about every story, is merely a snapshot of a person, a place, an event or an issue.
That was especially true during my two decades as a sportswriter, when I chronicled the ups and downs of athletes without knowing much about the other aspects of their lives. I didn’t know if they were gentle souls or jerks when they got home, and I didn’t always know where they came from and what they were going through when they weren’t competing.
That’s OK, and it’s also the nature of journalism. We report what we can as soon as we can, and when we learn more we report that, too.
With that said, we also must be responsible with the information we obtain and maintain a healthy level of skepticism. The word “said” is critical, and it’s used to convey the fact that information is attributed to a source and might not be verifiable otherwise. We still research people online and try to corroborate what they tell us — this story was no different — and we also strive to be fair.
For example, while reporting that Rimel studies the Bible and looks after fellow homeless people, I also included what he told me about his drug use and criminal past. That was confirmed by a 2012 story I found from the Journal Review in Rimel’s home state of Indiana, which reported that his criminal background included convictions for dealing in a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, check deception, furnishing alcohol to a minor, battery, reckless driving and invasion of privacy.
The purpose of featuring him was not to glorify him or denomize him, but to tell his story as accurately as possible and let readers make their own determinations. My story was a snapshot into his life and that of McPhee, who by helping a homeless man was going against the wishes of a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless throughout the Houston area.
Ana Rausch of the Coalition for the Homeless said donating food and money to those living on the streets generally is counterproductive to helping them get off the streets. If someone can get their needs met without the benefit of a traditional home, Rausch said, they are unlikely to take steps toward having one.
Whether you feel sorry for the homeless or are sorry you have to encounter them, eliminating homelessness should be a goal shared by all of us. And that objective is impossible to achieve without bringing the issue to light and trying to understand it.
If you know more about homelessness than you did two weeks ago, that was the idea.