For “Project 50: Four walls and a bed,” our latest Notable Narrative, reporter Christopher Goffard spent two years following a Los Angeles-area program aimed at finding the most at-risk homeless and giving them a place to live. Goffard, who has had several stories selected as Notable Narratives across the years, is also a novelist, and in 2007 was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing. In these excerpts from our email interview, Goffard shares his thoughts on rendering unsympathetic characters likeable, his distaste for sentimental stories about the homeless, and his ideas on “giving stories the engines they need.”
It had been in the news, but it seemed to scream for a deeper treatment. Skid row’s our back yard, a few blocks from the Times building, and this was a chance to explore not just the lives of the people there but this increasingly widespread approach to chronic homelessness. All we had was a question, really: If you give the most damaged people keys to their apartments, could they keep them?
I’d read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece, “Million-Dollar Murray,” which is as fascinating as any Gladwell story but is essentially an ideas story, a top-down piece about how it’s cheaper to house the chronic cases than allow them to remain on the streets. Murray himself, being dead, couldn’t be interviewed.
So I wanted to know what this story looked like from the street level, from the vantage of the homeless themselves. I told the L.A. County government bosses, “We’d like complete access to this project and all its participants, please.” All these departments and agencies and nonprofits were involved, and they were very skittish, afraid of lawsuits, and the county gave us these very restrictive waivers that they wanted the people we interviewed to sign. The waivers basically said, “We agree to talk to the L.A. Times, but we can withdraw permission to use our names, quotes and photos at any point.” Which is obviously unworkable. I said, “Look, we’re prepared to invest serious time in this, and this sabotages the whole effort.”
So there was a lot of back and forth, weeks of it, maybe months, before we could get in. And then I started going down to the Project 50 headquarters and just hanging out once or twice a week between other stories, trying to gain people’s trust, making my face familiar to people. At the start I didn’t take out my notebook. They had a chess set, and I played chess with whoever was there. If you draw the game out, you can have an uninterrupted 45-minute conversation. That’s how I had my first real talk with Cliff Butler.
You have a number of central characters whose fates you follow, from the program coordinator to a half-dozen of the homeless who were given shelter. What kinds of things did you do to manage several stories simultaneously?
Well, after winning access and some trust, the next big challenge is how to pick the people you are going to follow. You obviously can’t follow 50 people, and any choice you make is going to be a gamble. Between us, Genaro and I paid close attention to probably 10 or 15 people, and some of them didn’t work out. They were arrested, or they got hostile, or their stories repeated stuff we already had, or nothing happened. Addicts are not inherently interesting, dramatically speaking, because their lives are consumed by one thing, and so they’re kind of static.
People who are striving for something are dramatically interesting. Paul Sigler wanted his business back, and Maurice Lewis wanted his seaman’s license back, and some of the others were striving to get straight, so they seemed natural picks. Millie Quan was my editor on this, and the six clients we picked for the narrative had to justify their place in it, to propel the story or illustrate an important point. And we knew that Carrie Bach would be the force tying it together structurally. She’s not just the person most readers will identify with – our bridge to this world – but also the narrative spine.
In an email to me, you mentioned the challenge of rendering unsympathetic characters sympathetic. What were your strategies for doing that?
Well, you’re striving to convey a sense of the inner life of the characters, the kind of thing novelists do and the great nonfiction writers like Gary Smith do. When you’re writing about drug addicts with mental illness, some of whom are career criminals and hustlers, some of whom may be giving you false or delusional or self-serving accounts of their lives, you have to be very careful. There are barriers, and you don’t want to counterfeit an intimacy you can’t legitimately claim. So the narrative’s very sparing in getting inside their heads. As a narrative writer, you’re losing a crucial weapon, and you have to find other methods.
In the case of Paul Sigler, we used the mystery about his past – was he a millionaire or is he delusional? – as an engine for the story. And we used Carrie Bach’s uncertainty about the clients to stand in for our own. As for whether they’re sympathetic to the average reader, I don’t know. I wound up liking a lot of them. But I really dislike maudlin, soft-focus homeless stories that ascribe a sense of special nobility to them. I wanted to write about them in a way that didn’t judge them but didn’t apologize for them or sentimentalize them. I wanted to respect the complexity of their lives. I mean, I can’t explain why Cliff Butler won’t give his landlord 30 percent of his government check, which is all he needs to do to keep his room. Human will is a stubborn and mysterious thing.
While the homeless remain invisible to many people, there have been a lot of well-done narratives on homelessness. Were you hoping to do anything specifically new with yours?
It’s a rare chance to tackle the macro and the micro in one story. You’re seeing social policy at work, and you’re getting a close look at hidden lives you almost never read about. I’ve seen a lot of stories about people rendered desperate by the economy, people tumbling into hotels and shelters, but this is a different type of homelessness, one that seems almost independent of the economy’s vicissitudes.
I see that the Los Angeles County Supervisor called for a report on some of the events he read in your story. Did that surprise you?
That particular supervisor had misgivings about the program from the start, so not really.
How did you and the photographer, Genaro Molina, divide your work? Were you thinking of the print stories as interlocking with or independent of the slide shows?
We tried to make the stories and the slide shows as harmonious as possible, but Genaro and I shadowed different people at different times, and his best stuff wasn’t always my best stuff. He got great shots of the outreach workers, for instance, but they got almost completely dropped from the final draft of the narrative.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about how the project came together or your own thoughts on rendering two years of reporting down to a four-part story?
For a few years now I’ve been thinking consciously about how to apply the idea of giving stories the engines they need. The same thing that’s going to make people sit through a movie will make them sit through a 10,000-word series. If it’s a murder story, you want to know who did it. If it’s a medical story, you want to know whether the surgery worked. In this case, the overarching question is, “Will this program work?” And embedded in the stories are smaller mysteries – mini-engines. “Is Paul Sigler who he says he is?” “Will Maurice pass his test?” “Why is Carrie Bach’s desk empty?”