Just three days after the first known U.S. coronavirus death occurred in King County, the reporting team behind “Outsiders” gathered into an auditorium in Seattle with a few hundred guests to talk about the team’s new podcast on homelessness.
It was still too soon to know on that evening in early March how greatly, and how quickly, our lives would change. Or that large gatherings would become a thing of the past.
Days after the event, the team behind the podcast — staffers from The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless and KNKX Public Radio — decided to pause the project with three episodes left to go. Trying to complete the podcast at the onset of a global public-health crisis quickly became too much. And since “Outsiders” required in-person visits to Olympia, there was a fear that reporters could expose an already vulnerable population to the virus.
Seven episodes were released before the series paused in March.
Now, seven months later, we are picking up where we left off. “Outsiders” will return starting Wednesday, Oct. 7. We set out to document how one city — Olympia — responded to a rapidly growing homelessness crisis over the course of a year. Now, in a three-episode finale, we’ll tell you how it all turned out and what’s happened to many of the people you’ve come to know in the series.
“At the time, I think I imagined pretty naively that space would open up maybe in a month or so to resume production,” said Will James, reporter for KNKX. “What I didn’t realize was how devastating, how disruptive and how long-lasting this pandemic would be.”
The team has been away much longer than we ever expected, but with a global pandemic to cover, uprisings over racial justice, wildfire season and so much more, we’ve been busy reporting the news of 2020 and trying to make sense of what these changing circumstances mean for people who are homeless.
“When I talk to homelessness providers in King County about it, a lot of them talk about seizing the opportunity in the crisis,” said Sydney Brownstone, reporter for Project Homeless. “And I think coming back to the podcast, I kind of came into it with that lens: Whether the system we were looking at was able to seize opportunities in the crisis and what that looked like for people on the ground.”
The first episode back, Episode 8: “A Ticking Clock,” will be released next Wednesday, Oct. 7. In this episode, we examine if the unconventional approach Olympia tested in 2019 by opening a mitigation site in the center of town to meet a rapidly growing homeless population actually worked. Now, more than a year later, we’ll look at the city’s results and whether they can point to a way forward. The remaining episodes will be released on subsequent Wednesdays.
Much has changed since the team first set out to document the lives of people living outside in Olympia and how city leadership was addressing the issue.
“The premise of our series in the beginning was very 2019,” James said. “Outsiders” used a microscope approach, focusing on one city, to help explain a giant issue: Why homelessness on the West Coast was rising to crisis levels at a time of historic economic growth and prosperity.
“Now with so many people out of work and in poverty, so many cities whose revenue has just dropped off a cliff, that premise doesn’t really seem to be true in 2020,” James said.
Despite those big shifts, much remains the same for many people living outside in Olympia.
“I guess a lot of what we’ve been focusing on in our daily coverage of coronavirus and homelessness is how coronavirus is transforming the system in really significant ways, but I think that coming back to ‘Outsiders’ made me realize how little has changed in some of the lives of the individual people we follow,” Brownstone said.
“When you talk to some people who are unsheltered about the pandemic,” James added, “you get the sense that when your daily life is an existential struggle, a pandemic might be the fourth or fifth or sixth thing on your list of worries.”
One worry for the “Outsiders” team was whether the reporters would be able to reconnect with some of the folks whose stories they’ve told in the series.
At least for one person, Sara, that concern has proved to be valid.
Earlier in the series, Project Homeless reporter Scott Greenstone visited Sara’s camp in the woods along I-5 in Olympia, and we learn how Sara became homeless, about her life outside and what she’s hoping to find.
If Greenstone ever needed to reach her, Sara told him, he should just come looking for her. Without a phone or Facebook account, that required Greenstone to travel to Olympia and start asking around.
“We thought we knew where she was camping,” Greenstone said, “but when we went back she wasn’t around. I’m definitely worried about it.”
Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case for everyone. For most of the people in the series, we were able to pick up right where we left off in this unpredictable year.
Learn more at outsiderspodcast.org.