HomelessCast: A History and Investigation of Homelessness

Image from NY Post (https://nypost.com/2022/10/15/dc-tent-cities-stain-the-nations-capital/)

For my digital history project proposal, I hope to shed light on a growing problem in Washington D.C. and most cities across the country: homelessness. Moving into the city, I was struck with the extent of homelessness in all parts of the city. Although the root causes are often perceived as mental health and drug abuse problems, I believe that there are other salient causes that should be investigated further.

Interestingly, according to The Economist, homelessness in D.C. has gone down by 47% since 2016 despite appearances of it getting worse. It will be important to further investigate whether it has continued to decrease and why. Additional consideration of how COVID-19 changed or worsened aspects of homelessness will be important as well.

The method for this investigation of the history and current status of homelessness in D.C. will be in the form of a podcast. I believe that this approach will be beneficial in that the audience can hear from relevant people first-hand. These relevant people will include homeless people themselves, city officials, academics focusing on this problem, and other pertinent individuals.

I think that having a mostly unscripted, long-form, multi-episode podcast will be most conducive to learning about homelessness myself but also sharing that knowledge with wider audiences. People living in cities that see homelessness everyday or people without direct knowledge of homelessness will find something to learn by hearing stories from homeless people themselves and experts who understand the topic deeply.

In this podcast, I hope to cover several different aspects of homelessness. First, in interviewing homeless people, I hope to ask them about their own history and how they got to where they are. I believe that hearing homeless people’s stories will be a powerful aspect of this project. They will also be able to relate insights that can only be gleaned from actually living through homelessness. Additionally, I hope to interview people that are attempting to support and solve the homeless problem such as organizations and individual citizens. There already is a multitude of podcasts related to homelessness but none that encompass a wide ranging focus of stories from homeless people to high-level discussion of the causes.

Another aspect of the podcast that will be important to understanding the history and current problem with homelessness will be interviewing academics and others who study the problem. These people will help to provide context for the problem by explaining its history and other insights that are more complicated and not easily seen. It is my hope that the podcast can be around 10 episodes, each around 30-60 minutes, with a mostly unscripted interview of homeless people and relevant figures in the field.

There are several aspects of homelessness that I would like to cover throughout this project. Firstly, I would like to understand the history of homelessness in America and specifically in this city. It will be important to explore how governmental policies and other crises such as drug abuse and the rising cost of living have contributed to homelessness. As noted above, I would also like to learn about the personal stories of homeless people. These stories will help to humanize homeless people who often do not get the time of day from people passing them.

Finally, I would like to learn from experts on homelessness and poverty in academia, non-profits, and other organizations. These people will help to inform the high-level issues of homelessness. Specifically, It will be important to explore how city governmental policies that either allow or disallow encampments either help or hurt the homeless problem. They will also be able to provide comparative context for how other cities and countries face this problem.

In terms of outreach, the most basic way will be print advertising around AU, metro stations, and similar locations. It could also be digitally advertised through the AU community and on sites that hope to solve or support the homeless problem.

In terms of evaluation, I think that completing all of the episodes and producing them to be listened to as a podcast will be the first criteria. The second criteria will be outreach to evaluate how well I was able to successfully advertise my podcast so that people within and without the AU community can hear about the problem of homelessness.

In conclusion, I hope this project can help to document a major problem within our time. Understanding the history of homelessness as well as documenting history in the present remains important in not only fixing the symptoms but also its underlying causes.

2 Replies to “HomelessCast: A History and Investigation of Homelessness”

  1. Hi Patrick,

    Homelessness and the experience that unhoused people go through in D.C. is a really important and significant topic and I think there could be a lot of good that could come from developing a podcast focused on this topic could be a really valuable project.

    Your focus on working to ensure that the podcast includes perspectives of the unhoused is important to the project. With that noted, it’s worth underscoring that there are some additional concerns to bring up about working with and featuring vulnerable people like those facing homelessness. To that end, if you do decide to pursue this as your class project, I would encourage you to potentially think about tackling a slightly less ambitious scope. Ten 30-60 minute episodes would be a lot of work to pull together. I think you could do have of that, or even just 3-4 episodes and focus on doing them well and satisfy the goals for the class.

    One other big suggestion I would have for you if you do pursue this is, if you haven’t already, do check out some of Dan Ker’s work on oral history and homelessness. For a jumping off point, you can look at this https://www.american.edu/cas/news/daniel-kerr-homelessness-oral-history.cfm Dan did his dissertation work on oral histories with unhoused people in Cleveland and a lot of his work there had to do with how to engage in that work in ways that are ethical and supportive.

  2. Hi Patrick! This project sounds really cool! Formatting it as a podcast that includes unhoused people directly, people who study homelessness, and folks who work at organizations that support unhoused folks ensures you’re including people with various types of expertise, which is definitely important when discussing homelessness as a political issue. Even more importantly, including all of these voices but privileging those of unhoused people is, I think, the best possible way to use all of these voices in an equitable way! They are both the folks who are properly experiencing homelessness rather than dealing with it in a more theoretical or otherwise disconnected way, plus it tends to be harder for them to publicly advocate for themselves and actually be listened to and taken seriously. In this model, you could do some really interesting cutting together of the direct experiences of an unhoused person as the centerpiece of each episode, being contextualized with what you hear from all the other folks! There’s a lot of options structurally within each episode and between them.

    I’d also like to also shout out the Humanities Truck on this, as we’re in the last few stages of finalizing a project to be archived and put on our website and all that called Mobilizing Against Homelessness. It’s very similar to Dan Kerr’s work that Trevor pointed out in his comment, and is based in DC instead of Cleveland. This project involved creating a standardized interview guide, then training current and formerly unhoused folks to interview other people experiencing homelessness. The point of the oral histories was to see what those folks have experienced, and what solutions they think could help prevent homelessness and support unhoused folks in the future.

    All that to say, if you went forward with this, I love the model that you’ve already laid out, and the Humanities Truck Project (at least once the public-facing side is finished) could be a helpful reference point as well!

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