When we landed back in America in August 2018 and I walked around our Venice neighborhood, what struck me was the astonishing number of homeless folks on sidewalks and in tent encampments. The stark income divide seemed unfathomable — just to rent the Airbnb in that neighborhood cost $10,000 a month.
Los Angeles County counts some 66,000 people living without shelter, whether it’s in tents or in their cars. When COVID19 spread, the many agencies trying to solve the problem worked together to get as many at-risk homeless off the streets and into the hotels fast-emptied of travelers. It worked … kind of. Here’s my piece for Vice News Tonight, produced by the unstoppable Sarah Svoboda.
They use the term “the streets” as a catch-all for beat reporters who “work them,” but you don’t actually have to be ON the streets for it. But this week for reporting with my latest new employer, VICE, we were literally on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, with the homeless. The official number of those experiencing homelessness in LA County is something like 66,000.
For me this was a return to the field — or streets — for the first time since the original stay-at-home order hit California in early March. I’m working with VICE News as a correspondent on the West coast now, made possible by becoming a project person earlier this year. (I’m not contractually tied to any org exclusively anymore, wheeeee!)
The crew and I were talking over tacos on Wednesday, saying we were honored to be telling a story about the emergency effort to get vulnerable homeless off the streets as the virus raged, because it’s an opportunity to tell the stories and flesh out those experiencing homelessness. Humanizing people who so often go unseen in our communities even though they live among us and are full and complex human beings, is what journalism is here for.
But of course, reporting during COVID19 is a different, eerie ballgame. We had risk assessment people monitoring us and our reporting environs. We had a doctor who made sure we kept enough distance or that we were never in any indoor space for longer than a few minutes. We were sanitizing nonstop, we were temperature checked everywhere, we were gloved and SO masked that I will technically be appearing on your television but largely unseen, because I and others are all masked, all the time.
So much delight to note from behind the scenes: I love watching documentary camera men do the dance of keeping out of each other’s shots and figuring out who is going to position where, all while rolling on the action. They just gesture at each other and communicate with their silent movements. I love our LA native musician who worked sound, Defari, who made all our mics invisible. I love being with a crew again, especially a producer who handled all the logistics and booking and planning and made sure that if I missed a question, it was covered.
Sarah the producer and I became fast friends and ended up laughing over drinks on patios after each long shoot day; it made this upside down time in our upside down world feel a little bit normal, and that’s a huge gift.
On a Wednesday a couple of weeks ago, North Korean state media announced it was examining a plan to bracket the U.S. territory of Guam (land mass the size of Columbus, Ohio) with four simultaneous missiles. Our president responded by saying something about unleashing “fire and fury” and then tweeted some other overheated rhetoric, so for a few days Guam was the center of the news universe.
On the Wednesday night of the announcement, I decided I needed to get to Guam right away. But I am nursing Luna 100 percent, as in, her only sustenance is from me. And Guam would be an open-ended trip, which meant I did not have enough of my pumped, stored milk ready for her. So Luna needed to come, which meant her dad needed to come to take care of her while I worked, which meant we’d have to tote along the other two girls, too. Suddenly all five Hu-Stileses needed to be on a plane to Guam. The plan came together after the girls had already gone to bed for the night, so on Thursday morning we woke the girls early to announce their bags had been packed and we were “going on a holiday, to a beach”! (Not factually untrue, for them.)
I LOVED GUAM! I mean, I slept four hours a night for several nights because there were so many shows to report for and so many stories to put together on tight deadlines. But Guam was delightful. It’s shabby — there are some real rundown places and parts of it and it has a small-town USA feel with pool halls and gambling joints. But I prefer that to a completely antiseptic resort area. I thought a lot of the tropical setting mixed with Americana — we were greeted with a giant Home Depot and K-mart when we drove out of the airport in our rental car. I also got to know the folks at Guam Public Radio (total staff = 4) and they were the most generous colleagues to work with for a few days.
In the end, North Korea decided it would not launch toward Guam, at least not for now.