WTTW brings first-person perspectives to yearlong coverage of homelessness

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Lloyd DeGrane/WTTW

Yolanda, a homeless woman in Chicago, is the subject of a WTTW "Firsthand: Homeless" documentary.

WTTW’s Firsthand initiative launched a new documentary series Monday that focuses on homelessness in Chicago. 

The series follows five people from different backgrounds who are experiencing homelessness, documenting their daily lives and telling their stories in their own words. 

Release of the “Firsthand: Homeless” documentaries coincided with news coverage on Chicago Tonight, WTTW’s flagship news program. WTTW also hosted a launch event attended by Yolanda, a grandmother of four who is the subject of one of the documentaries. 

As with earlier installments of Firsthand, the multiplatform initiative aims to create programs, news coverage and events that help to humanize a specific social issue in the community, said Dan Protess, co-executive producer. Firsthand has previously covered gun violence, poverty, segregation, post-prison life and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Media coverage of social issues often relies on data or stigmatizing stories, Protess said. With Firsthand, WTTW takes a different approach to building understanding and looking for solutions. 

“For an issue like homelessness where so many of us, our daily experience … is driving by someone holding a sign or living in a tent,” Protess said. Opportunities to “really hear their story in their own voice” are rare.  

The initiative will run throughout the year and present community screenings, conversations between policymakers and community members, news coverage and Firsthand Talks, digital shorts in which experts discuss solutions. 

The Firsthand team had wanted to focus on homelessness for a few years, Protess said. The pandemic’s effects on homelessness made it a priority for 2024. 

“During COVID, there was this real urgency to try to get people off the streets, not just in Chicago, but nationally,” he said. The federal government’s response to the pandemic included significant spending to address housing insecurity. “And in fact, the homeless population went down in Chicago during COVID. But we’ve kind of reached this critical moment where those dollars are drying up and the political will is dissipating.”

‘Understand the life they’re living’

Managing the production was particularly challenging because it was hard to find and stay in contact with people experiencing homelessness, according to Mario Tharpe, producer and director. 

Frequent no-shows and cancellations were part of the process. “There were times I kind of wanted to throw my hands up, but at the same time, I had to understand the life that they’re living,” said Tharpe. “I can’t expect people … to just be present knowing that they don’t have a place to stay. The night before, they were maybe moving around, trying to find a safe location to rest.”

Mario Tharpe, producer and director of WTTW's Firsthand: Homeless

Community engagement will be supported by an online discussion guide that looks at homelessness as a public health crisis and explores solutions to improve access to housing.  

The strategy helps WTTW bring attention to different facets of homelessness, said Anne Gleason, co-executive producer.

One event will focus specifically on women who are experiencing homelessness, she said. “We’ll do more of a deep dive in real-time with people that have been featured in the project, people outside of that and people working in this space.”

WTTW also has partnered with the Chicago Public Library system to present screenings of the documentaries for homeless communities. 

“How do we get in front of the people who are both talking and thinking and working on these topics, but also experiencing them?” said Gleason. “We have given thought to that and will throughout the year, what are all the different touchpoints in our community and across various communities so that we can meet people?”

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