Journalist breaks bread with homeless coast to coast
We get a lot of press releases at DigBoston. Most of them are bullshit. So when the following note came in (just hours before going to press) from a recent Boise State University journalism grad named Justin Doering, we nearly tossed it in the trash with so much other junk:
I am … traveling the country for my non-profit project to humanize the homeless … I will be conducting interviews in Boston from November 3rd to the 6th … Fifty Sandwiches is a registered non-profit journey dedicated to presenting the public with a rare glimpse into the lives and stories of America’s homeless. For three months I will be traveling city to city, offering to take homeless people out for a free meal in exchange for an interview.
Upon further inspection of the Kickstarter that launched Doering on his mission, we also discovered the following gem explaining his perspective, “First of all, I’m a nobody, a middle man. These aren’t my stories or my experiences. I’m just the medium through which they are told.” Which was enough for us to toss the kid a couple Qs about his 13,000-plus mile trek that swings through the Hub this week.
DB: What inspired this journey in the first place? Is it more of an experiment in journalism? Or in humanity?
JD: I always found the way homeless people were treated by society rather surprising. The homeless population is an aspect of American culture that is often profiled or even demonized by the rest of society. I was 16 when I originally came up with this project … These people didn’t start out on the street, and I have always been curious about the path that lead them to where they are.
What major goals did you set out with, and how have they changed already? If at all?
The original intent was to travel the country and try to capture a collective face to homelessness. It took less than a week of the project for me to realize that is not an option. Homelessness is such a complex and circumstantial issue, I would have to interview 500,000 people to accurately give a face to homelessness. The new mission is to simply exemplify the diversity. Fifty Sandwiches aims to present all these stories to prove that homelessness is a complex [situation] that anyone can find themselves in.
What have been some of the differences between the homeless populations you’ve encountered thus far?
I have encountered all sorts of homeless people. I have talked to those who suffer from chronic homelessness, whether it be due to addiction, mental illness, or abuse, and I have spoken to people who have recently found themselves on the streets due to financial hardships or unforeseen tragedy. Perhaps the most intriguing thing I have realized in these differences is the variation that lies in stereotypes. If I speak to two different people who suffer from heroin addiction, for example, their experiences may vary greatly. One person may have resorted to heroin after an abusive childhood as they gradually succumbed to their addiction to the point where they lose their home, where another individual may have turned to heroin only after they found themselves sleeping on the streets at rock bottom.
Is a project like yours able to cut through some of the politics and rhetoric surrounding the national homelessness epidemic? How so?
I hope to use these stories to dispel a lot of this rhetoric. Statistics can be informative, but often simplify the issue to numbers. This project hopes to pair statistics with anecdotes to show the faces and stories beyond the numbers.
What are you expecting to find in Boston, and how might you document it?
I will be heading to both a women’s and men’s shelter in Boston. Because I only conduct three to four interviews per city, I do not have nearly the sample size to make the claim, ‘This is what Boston’s homeless looks like.’ My goal in Boston is simply to hear stories and backgrounds that I have not yet heard.