In the city of Calgary, more than 3,000 homeless people don’t know where they will sleep tonight. In 2008, a coalition of social agencies launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Calgary.

As the end date for the homelessness plan approached in 2018, the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun launched an in-depth, multi-media public service project to explore the issue of homelessness and myriad related topics. It was a project aimed to inform the public interest, to demonstrate journalistic excellence in covering a social issue, and to serve the common good by examining transformative methods to address this problem.

This project entailed publishing 31 pieces of content related to homelessness (in print and/or online) largely in March 2018. We wanted to publish a new piece of content each day of the month. On each of the five Fridays in March, we presented deep features on homelessness. On each Saturday, op-ed column writers debated related topics. On the other days of the week, we published a new piece of content each day to keep the topic at the forefront of conversations via Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram stories, photos, graphics, and videos.

Bob Patrick struggles with mental illness and lost his home as a result. He says he is “blessed to have affordable housing” found under the housing first model at Bob Ward Residence operated by Horizon Housing. Photo by Al Charest/Postmedia.
Bob Patrick struggles with mental illness and lost his home as a result. He says he is “blessed to have affordable housing” found under the housing first model at Bob Ward Residence operated by Horizon Housing. Photo by Al Charest/Postmedia.

We created six videos, a podcast, and used social media platforms to initiate conversations, solicit questions, and bust some homelessness myths. We invited people working in the field to contribute guest blog posts and columns, while also publishing an entire page of op-ed content at the end of the project, including an editorial, a cartoon, and letters to the editor.

A team of 20 Postmedia Calgary journalists participated in the project at various points as we investigated solutions, success, and failures in the fight against homelessness. An umbrella group, Resolve Calgary, met with the Herald and Sun to offer insights and access to the people its member agencies serve. They worked with us to provide permission to visit housing projects and shelters normally off limits to media.

We spent hours on the sidewalks and in the alleys of our city at all hours of the day and night to cultivate relationships with those living on the streets. Some of our journalists caught up with the same homeless individuals four or five times to gain their trust and encourage them to tell their stories on video and through photos.          

We worked to present these individuals’ stories in groundbreaking ways. We wanted to portray them as the unique people they are, rather than just as members of a marginalized, oft-ignored group living in the shadows.

The impacts and identifiable results of the project were many: It informed the public interest, served the common good, and enlightened many. New voices were heard. New faces were seen. Those who advocate for the homeless called the work transformative, and homeless advocates across the country reached out to discuss this project.

Local agencies reported an invigorated interest in their work by Calgarians from all walks of life, and they reported improvements in attitudes towards the homeless. We heard from readers who said the project gave them a new perspective on the homeless. Some thanked us for the project.

Another impact of this initiative was that many of our staff members acquired new sources, insights, and skills in working with members of the homeless population. One man who’d been teetering on the brink of homelessness created a painting for one of our journalists who took the time to get to know him and tell his story. Two of our photojournalists continue to check in on some of the homeless people they met.

The project was a difference-making highlight of the year for those of us at the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun.