On June 9, 2016, Street Sense held its seventh annual David Pike Excellence in Journalism awards, honoring Will Sommer and Petula Dvorak for their articles on the realities of homelessness, and Aaron Draper for his photography that captured it.
Sommer and Dvorak participated in a panel discussion on the ways in which they covered homelessness, as well as why they chose to cover it in the first place, moderated by former honoree, Aaron Wiener.
Wiener began by asking the honorees for background on their stories, as well as any developments that have occurred since their original publication. In Dvorak’s article, she discusses how storage units have become quasi-neighborhood spaces for members of D.C.’s homeless community, and how development risks the removal of those communities. “We have a storage unit, it’s very simple” Dvorak said, explaining how the story of the people living in neighboring units entered her radar. “After years of going there, we became friends.”
Sommer, whose article discussed a law that is often abused to arrest people for simply standing on the sidewalk—often protesters, the homeless and Black men—explained that, prior to writing his article, he had been unfamiliar with the laws that lead to these sorts of arrests.
“Often times these are young black men who are just standing on the corner near houses, and then they’re being arrested,” he said.
In response to all questions—from Weiner and audience members—the importance of quality media coverage on issues of homelessness was consistently reinforced.
“You can never write enough about homelessness.” Dvorak said. “Few issues can compare to the issue of people who do not have a home.”
Dvorak talked in length about what it was like to really engage with the subjects of her article, which included establishing enough of a relationship to get a truthful narrative, and convincing them that their story needed to be told—something that is difficult when a group of people have such strong pride. “They don’t fit the traditional stereotypes of people overcoming homelessness.” Said Dvorak, whose article gave a holistic, and truthful portrait of individual, relatable people who made lives for themselves in the storage units. “You see them in the morning, getting ready for work just like we do.”
Other topics that were covered included the D.C. General transition, a journalist’s limited ability to participate politically, how public officials can be held accountable and be encouraged to do better by the homeless population and the challenge that is covering such an intense subject when one has never experienced themselves.
During the audience question and answer period, vendor Michael Craig questioned this kind of second-hand coverage. “That’s a multi-faceted issue, and the best we can do is continue to cover [homelessness]” said Sommer in response.
“That’s the beauty of Street Sense” said Dvorak, “you give real voice to these issues.”