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The San Diego Convention Center set up beds to serve the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Congress passed a pandemic relief package that included $4 billion to help homeless people – among the most vulnerable populations in the COVID-19 pandemic – potential recipients saw great possibilities. But eight months after passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, many communities have yet to benefit from the unprecedented aid. Others have had to derail plans because of delayed and confusing government spending guidelines. And some simply don’t have the strategic planning necessary to capitalize on the one-time windfall.
Those are among the findings of a three-month multimedia investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, a national reporting initiative at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“Caring for COVID’s invisible victims” focuses on the impact of the CARES Act funding and examines the various ways that homeless service providers around the country are and are not using the taxpayer money to help their homeless populations.
Howard Center reporters analyzed government data on the CARES Act aid and found that fewer than half of the eligible 362 counties, states, cities and territories had accessed all of their emergency funding by the start of December, and 37 communities hadn’t tapped any of their homeless aid.
They also found that funding delays and confusing spending restrictions had hampered efforts to protect homeless communities as the pandemic worsens and winter sets in. Because Birmingham, Alabama, was too slow to access its share of the federal funding, the city has been unable to use those funds to make up its reduced shelter capacity due to distancing guidelines. In South Carolina, while the state accessed funding, it had to abandon plans to purchase new property to use as shelter. The same for Wenatchee, Washington, which thought its three-year search for funds to start a new shelter was over.
“Our society makes it easy to see homelessness as something that’s always existed, but the experts we spoke to insisted the opposite: that with the right investments, homelessness can end. This project was a chance to look closely at $4 billion in homeless aid and measure its ability to help people who are trying to survive the pandemic in shelters or on the streets,” said Helen Wieffering, who completed her master’s degree in investigative journalism with this project.
Researchers warned at the start of the pandemic in March that at least 1,700 of the country’s estimated 568,000 homeless people could eventually die of COVID-19. However, the Howard Center reported in an August prequel to the latest investigation that no government entity was tracking homeless deaths.
Another major finding of the latest Howard Center investigation was that the way the government calculates homeless aid has nothing to do with actual homelessness. Reporters learned that for decades, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had used a formula to calculate homeless aid that did not take into account the number of homeless people living in a given area. Because the CARES Act contained an unprecedented amount of homeless aid, Congress mandated that HUD devise a new formula based on an area’s actual homelessness.
The one-time CARES Act formula resulted in millions more going to places with larger homeless populations, such as California, New York City and Washington state. The Howard Center applied the new formula retroactively around the country and found that had it been used since 2011, areas with high homeless populations would have gotten tens of millions more than they actually did.
"The Senate acknowledged America’s homeless funding formula has nothing to do with homelessness in 2001, yet 20 years later, nothing has changed. It was shocking to hear public servants tell us things like, ‘Yes, we agree this is not working, and we’ve been saying so for years,’” said Austin Fast, another graduate student in Cronkite’s master of investigative journalism program who led the formula data analysis.
"The Howard Center gave me the opportunity to dig deep into a data analysis project and build coding and mapping skills I likely wouldn’t have had time to develop elsewhere, considering all the demands upon reporters’ time in modern newsrooms," Fast said.
The project also compared and contrasted pandemic homeless efforts in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It studied how the history of homeless aid influenced how new grants were being used in Houston and San Diego. And it examined whether aid was benefiting homeless people in Puerto Rico, where the territorial government has a troubled history of federal aid management. The package also features multimedia portraits of homeless people telling their own stories, as well as a searchable database of CARES Act aid payouts and maps showing relief aid over time.
Arizona State University received $3 million from the Scripps Howard Foundation to establish the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. It offers multidisciplinary, graduate-level programs focused on training the next generation of reporters through hands-on investigative projects.
“In less than two years, the Howard Center for Investigative Reporting at Cronkite has established without a doubt that student journalists can produce the kind of investigative reporting that usually requires years and years of experience to master,” said Kristin Gilger, interim dean of the Cronkite School. “In particular, this project stands out for its rigorous methodology and compelling storytelling about the most vulnerable victims of COVID.”
Maud Beelman, former U.S. investigations editor for The Associated Press and founding director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is the executive editor of Cronkite’s Howard Center, and Lauren Mucciolo, who has produced award-winning documentaries for "Frontline" and the BBC, is the executive producer.
The Howard Center at ASU has released four multimedia investigations. In addition to its summer 2020 project on homelessness during the pandemic, “COVID’s Invisible Victims,” the reporting group released two investigations into ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit and its agents’ involvement in civilian shootings and botched sex-trafficking investigations.
Contact the Howard Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.