It all started in a parking lot on an early winter day.
Will James, a reporter for KNKX Public Radio, remembers a lot of windbreakers. People gathered together in the mist and the cold to hear what the city of Olympia had to say about the rapidly growing unsheltered homeless population in its downtown.
In a matter of weeks in late 2018, the number of tents there swelled from around 30 to more than 300. James was there to cover what the city planned to do about it. Olympia would open its own encampment, called a “mitigation site,” officials announced that day. It would buy tents, put up fencing and get security, creating one central place for many people to camp and live outside, hopefully, more safely.
The announcement was supposed to be a short, daily story for James, but then he met Jessica, a woman who was homeless in Olympia. She stood close to him during the event and kept asking questions. Afterward, he walked over to her to talk more.
“I have a lot of history with this place,” Jessica told him, “and I’ll be damned if it’s going to break me. … Olympia will not take my hope.”
That conversation with Jessica, her declaration of determination, was the catalyst, James said, for creating the “Outsiders” podcast, a series on homelessness in Olympia. This week, the series will conclude with its final episode releasing Wednesday. The episode focuses on the person who planted its earliest seeds of inspiration, Jessica.
To mark the series’ close and answer listeners’ questions, the reporting team behind “Outsiders” — The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless team and KNKX Public Radio — is hosting a free, online event at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22. The team will discuss the series, share what it was like to reboot the project during a global pandemic, play some of their favorite clips that didn’t make the final cut and answer your questions. Register now at st.news/outsiders.
In the first episode of “Outsiders,” the first voice you hear is Jessica’s from that day James met her in the parking lot.
“Usually when someone sets out to make a documentary, they painstakingly choose their subjects,” James said. But meeting Jessica and listening to her speak sounded to James like someone at the beginning of a journey.
“I always knew the last episode would involve her, but I never knew what the story would be.”
Tune in Wednesday to find out where Jessica’s journey has taken her.
“I was really interested in the idea of figuring out a way to tell a story that shows people changing over time, which is not something that journalism usually does,” James said. “A lot of journalism is a snapshot in time … a moment that is frozen in amber.”
But covering something in real time, showing change, requires being present for when things happen. James said that between himself and the Project Homeless team — Sydney Brownstone, Scott Greenstone and Vianna Davila — dozens and dozens of trips were made to Olympia to see how the city’s mitigation site unfolded and to follow the lives of some of people living outside.
Sometimes a trip would consist of wandering around the woods looking for a person who never turned up and then driving home.
“And that’s the reality of reporting on homelessness,” James said.
If you have questions for the “Outsiders” team that you want to ask in advance of Thursday’s discussion, email Project Homeless engagement editor Anna Patrick at email@example.com. To learn more about the podcast and listen to the episodes, visit Outsiderspodcast.org.