Top of Mind: Behind an Investment for Reporting on Homelessness

This summer, over 80 media outlets in San Francisco took the extraordinary step of jointly ratcheting up coverage of that city's homelessness crisis. It was an effort to break through the numbness that has come to surround a seemingly intractable problem that is visible everywhere, and yet so often ends up on the public policy back burner. 

Homelessness in California — with its high housing costs, numerous veterans, and mild weather, among other factors — has soared in recent years.  With roughly 10 percent of the nation’s population, California harbors a full 21 percent of the nation’s homeless population.

But even if people want to do something, the problem can seem too entrenched to address in a meaningful way. That’s where smart media coverage comes in, spotlighting solutions that work and keeping the pressure on elected officials to take action. Yet such coverage is expensive and — let's face it — not exactly the kind of content that's likely to boost ratings or newsstand sales. 

Which is why this is a great area for philanthropy to step in. And recently, one major foundation did exactly that. A $550,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds The Guardian U.S. to undertake a year-long reporting series to shed more light on the problem.

This is an interesting development for a couple of reasons. While Gates is a big funder of work on homelessness in the Pacific Northwest, we haven't seen it make many grants outside that region to tackle this problem. And while the philanthropic behemoth has long supported education reporting to the tune of millions of dollars a year, we haven't often seen it support journalism outside that issue area in the U.S. Meanwhile, we don't tend to think of The Guardian U.S. has a major magnet for grant dollars, in contrast to some media outfits that have vacuumed in such money lately.  (Although Gates did make a $5.6 million grant to The Guardian in 2011 to cover the Millennium Development Goals and The Guardian U.S. has received grants for other things, such as backing from the Knight Foundation to fuel its mobile-centric approach.)

Optimists in the online activism debate will be pleased to note that the Guardian's homelessness project “bridges the gap between journalism and activism” via the “Action Button” from the company Speakable. The mobile-enabled button presents readers with immediate ways they can impact the situation. These range from making a donation to signing a petition to communicating with an elected official.  

As with every big grant to a media outlet, we wonder about questions of editorial independence—will such money will impact what gets covered and what doesn’t?

We’ve reported often on the dangers that lurk in the burgeoning world of nonprofit journalism, as funders with strong agendas make grants to publications that have vowed to avoid conflicts of interest. The gusher of Gates money for education reporting has been especially troubling. 

That said, homelessness awareness isn’t exactly controversial, at least from a broad humanitarian viewpoint. Specific policies impacting public spending, affordable housing, or local land use can be a different matter. But it's hard to see Gates having a bias regarding these issues that raises concerns about this grant. 

If anything, the fact that Gates is seemingly broadening its mandate on homelessness is encouraging, given the scarcity of national grant dollars in this space. Locally, its anti-homelessness giving has been substantial and quite innovative. Among other things, Gates has been a proponent for a “housing first” strategy that has caught on in homelessness hotspots like Los Angeles.