Alastair Gee (homelessness editor), Julia Carrie Wong (reporter), Paul Lewis (editor), Adithya Sambamurthy (video editor), Charlotte Simmonds (copy editor)
Data analysis and visualization
Data visualization and web development
Carla Green, Erin McCormick, Winston Ross, Thacher Schmid, Luis Trelles, Amanda Waldroupe, Joanna Walters
Daniel Hollis, Sara Lafleur-Vetter, Michael Landsberg
Cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate elsewhere for at least three decades. In recent years, homeless relocation programs have become more common, sprouting up in new cities across the country and costing the public millions of dollars. But there has never been a systematic, nationwide assessment of the consequences. Where are these people being moved to? What impact are these programs having on the cities that send and the cities that receive them? And what happens to these homeless people after they reach their destination?
In an 18-month investigation, the Guardian conducted the first detailed analysis of America’s homeless relocation programs, compiling a database of around 34,240 journeys and analyzing their effect on cities and people. We found that while there were cases in which a journey could be transformative and even life-saving, leading someone out of homelessness, this was not the whole story. People are routinely sent thousands of miles away after only a cursory check by authorities to establish they have a suitable place to stay once they get there. Some said they feel pressured into taking tickets, and others described ending up on the streets within weeks of their arrival. Cities routinely do not track the outcomes of journeys despite portraying them as a homelessness solution.
What makes this project innovative?
The visualizations in the story are at the forefront of the field in their own right, but they are also melded with the written story and films to produce a seamless and completely immersive interactive experience. We did not use visualizations merely to illustrate the text story; instead the visualizations are an integral part of the narrative and move it forward, enabling readers to understand the issues at stake in a much clearer and more visceral way. Journalism experts have recognized the game-changing nature of the piece. Patrick Stotz, of Spiegel Online, described the work in a tweet as a “masterpiece”, while data visualization expert James Cheshire, from the University College London, said it was “absolutely stunning”.
Finally, rather than relying on standard line or bar charts, we allowed the data to dictate the perfect form of representation. In the case of the visualization showing the flights from New York, for instance, we decided that instead of a map, lines arcing along an X-axis was a better way to suggest distance and also mimicked the trajectory of an aircraft taking flight and landing. The finesse and complexity of the end results are astounding. “There are maps. And then there are maps,” said Ben Welsh, Data Desk editor at the Los Angeles Times.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The investigation has been featured by PBS, MSNBC and NPR, as well as publications across the country. The Guardian shared data about homeless relocations with local journalists who wish to continue pursuing the story.
In the world of homelessness advocacy, the story has been lauded. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, called it “a devastating read in so many ways.” Glide, a major homelessness charity in San Francisco, said the story revealed how the city “owes it to our people to find lasting, compassionate and humane solutions to homelessness”.
Source and methodology
We submitted FOI requests under state law to dozens of cities and counties including Baton Rouge, LA; Berkeley, CA; Broward County, FL; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Chico, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; El Paso, TX; Fort Lauderdale, FL; Fort Worth, TX; Hemet, CA; Houston, TX; Humboldt County, CA; Jacksonville, FL; Las Vegas, NV; Long Beach, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Miami-Dade County, FL; Memphis, TN; Nashville, TN; New York, NY; Ocean County, NJ; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia, PA; Portland, OR; Reno, NV; San Antonio, TX; San Jose, CA; San Francisco, CA; Santa Barbara, CA; Santa Monica, CA; Sarasota, FL; Seattle, WA; Washington, D.C.; West Palm Beach, FL.
We also sought documentation from entities not bound by FOI laws, including the Atlantic City Rescue Mission in Atlantic City, NJ; Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, CA; the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District in Boston, MA; the Downtown DC Business Improvement District in Washington, D.C.; the Downtown San Diego Partnership in San Diego, CA; the Hospitality Hub in Nashville, TN; the Institute for Human Services in Honolulu, HI; the Nashville Downtown Partnership in Nashville, TN; the Sulzbacher Center in Jacksonville, FL; Travelers Aid in Washington, D.C.; The Road Home in Salt Lake City, UT.
Ultimately we gathered usable records on around 35,000 journeys from the early 2000s onwards from 16 cities and counties. These were generally in the form of spreadsheets.
We produced numerous preparatory graphs and analyses. For instance we:
- plotted on a US map all the cities to which at least one person had traveled in order to get a general sense of the distribution;
- created airline-style maps with all the journeys plotted as arcs to illustrate trends;
- made bar charts showing the most popular destinations from each city, then charted the most popular destinations based on the absolute numbers of journeys from all cities, and then adjusted these results to account for the relative size of cities;
- use line charts to explore whether people were generally traveling from larger to smaller cities;
- plotted gender and age in bar charts to try to discern trends;
- tallied and graphed “last known status” indicators;
- illustrated all these trends over time.
A large majority of cities and counties do not gather long-term follow-up information on whether their bus-ticket programs successfully resolved homelessness for ticket recipients, so we set out to interview as many recipients as possible and discover their outcomes.
Most of the cities supplied spreadsheets documenting the destinations and dates for individual journeys, some provided the names of travelers and three gave their phone numbers. We called the hundreds of numbers we received, and for the 700 names for which we did not have numbers, we searched for contact details on the Nexis database and sent messages on social media. In addition, reporters in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Key West and San Juan spent several days visiting shelters and homeless encampments.
In order to accompany a homeless person embarking on a bus journey, we requested introductions from city programs. Owing to reticence from officials, however, two San Francisco-based reporters stationed themselves outside the city’s Homeward Bound office several days a week over a period of a month in order to meet and chat with ticket applicants. Two reporters also rode along with the Reno police department to meet travelers.
In total these efforts yielded more than 35 narrative accounts of journeys, and we were also able to travel with two homeless people on buses. Complementing these were numerous interviews with program managers and homelessness experts across the US.