In December, we published our biggest story of the year, a nationwide investigation into the cities that give one-way bus tickets to homeless people in the hope they will find housing elsewhere. The reporting took 18 months, and one aspect was especially thorny. By making public-records requests we were able to gather information on tens of thousands of journeys, but we knew very little about the travelers themselves beyond their names and destinations. How had they become homeless, and what became of them?
The answer lay in old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism. We plugged hundreds of names into databases in the hope of finding contact information, but because homeless people are by definition hard to trace, the success rate was low.
Reporters in seven cities, from San Juan to New York and Portland, Oregon, visited shelters and encampments in a bid to turn up leads. A colleague and I spent hours hanging around outside a San Francisco social-services office that dispensed tickets with the goal of meeting a would-be traveler.
There was a morning in August when, for me, it all seemed to pay off. On the street outside the ticket office I approached a tired-looking 27-year-old named Quinn Raber, who had just been approved to travel to his hometown of Indianapolis on a bus leaving a few hours later. At lunchtime we met again at the Greyhound station, where he told me he’d been homeless off and on in the western US for three years, that he was exhausted, and that he hoped returning home would be a new start for him. Five minutes later, his bus was called, and we agreed to stay in touch. Just like that, a chance meeting became the personal story with which we began and ended the piece.