Chicago Sun-Times, Laura Washington: News gives homeless short shrift – SHELTER/CHICAGO

CCH is a sponsor of Tuesday’s SHELTER/CHICAGO show

By Laura Washington, columnist

They are everywhere, yet invisible. Huddled in a bus shelter, sprawled on the sidewalk, digging in a garbage can, living under a viaduct. We walk, sprint and stumble by. We might offer the guy a buck, but we won’t look him in the eye.

Homeless people are a slice of humanity. About 116,000 Chicagoans were homeless during the last year, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. More than 40,000 were children. Have we written them off?

The Illinois Humanities Council asked The Chicago Bureau, part of the Medill School of Journalism, to research the question. “The issue of homelessness goes relatively unacknowledged in the media as compared to, say, the Illinois pension crisis,” write Assistant Professor Eric Ferkenhoff and graduate student Caroline Cataldo, who researched the study.

Their search of topics related to the pension crisis in the Chicago Tribune on the research database Lexis Nexis produced many thousands of results — too many to process, they found. A search for references to homelessness from March 1, 2011, through March 1, 2014, returned just over 2,100 hits in the Tribune. About 2,000 references to the pension crisis turned up in the Chicago Sun-Times, compared to 570 mentions of homelessness.

On Tuesday, the Illinois Humanities Council’s program “Written Off?” will examine the roles and responsibilities that journalists, advocates and the public have to tell and understand the homeless story. “Written Off?” will include a staged reading of a unique play, SHELTER/CHICAGO, followed by a public conversation about homelessness and how the media covers the story.

SHELTER/CHICAGO is a collaboration of homeless Chicagoans, advocates, theater artists and journalists. Three years ago, Lisa DiFranza was volunteering her time tutoring children at Cornerstone Community Outreach, a homeless shelter in Uptown.

“The stories I heard from them, and from their parents, captivated me. It felt important to get these stories out of the shadows and into the light of day, for people to hear,” says DiFranza, a senior lecturer at Columbia College Chicago.

She launched The Living News Project, which takes a page from “Living Newspapers” of the 1930s. That WPA theater project brought together unemployed journalists and theater artists to stage productions about the news of the day.

DiFranza calls it “journalistic theater.” She directs SHELTER/CHICAGO, which stars a military veteran, recovering addict and a mother and child, all homeless. There’s an eager cub reporter and a grizzled editor. Their stories were gathered on the streets of Chicago.

In one scene, the editor barks at a reporter: Homelessness, “it’s old news. . . . We’ve heard this story a thousand times. Homelessness goes back to before you were born.”

Richard Thompson, a formerly homeless man who plays himself, bravely shares his story. People misjudge the homeless, he says. “You never know their background or experience before they became homeless.”

I will moderate “Written Off?,” the first in the Council’s “Media Remix” series of public conversations, funded by the McCormick Foundation. Experts, members of the homeless community, and journalists, including Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, will be there. Join us.

There will be a reading of SHELTER/CHICAGO at 5 p.m. on Monday at the Cornerstone shelter. “Written Off” takes place Tuesday, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Chicago Cultural Center. All events are free. For more information, visit