02/17/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Late last November Senior Writer Michael Small suddenly realized he had passed the same man lying on the sidewalk near his Brooklyn apartment every morning for weeks. Covered by a blanket, legs wrapped in filthy rags, the destitute figure sparked a sense of concern and urgency in Small, 28, normally a writer of "light" topics. After calling an outreach program to get help for the man, Small coincidentally read a New York Times article about a former Harvard classmate who had become a street dropout. "Just like me, he'd had the best education, and now he was wandering the streets," says Small, a cum laude graduate in English and French history and literature. "That day I knew I had to do something." Soon afterward Managing Editor Pat Ryan gave Small the go-ahead "to find out what was true and not true about the homeless."
The task quickly developed into a four-part series involving scores of staffers and photographers. "When we started," says Small, "we didn't know how to help the homeless or why the problem existed. We discovered they're not just bums who want a free ride and there are ways people can help." Adds series editor Dick Lemon: "The project gave us a firsthand look at a variety of homeless, better than anything I've seen in print."
A collective sense of mission soon took hold. "This is the reason I got into photojournalism—to do stories that mattered," says veteran Detroit-based photographer Taro Yamasaki, 40. Series reporter Denise Lynch, who sifted through bureau reports and interviewed subjects, says, "It was the most personally satisfying assignment I've ever worked on." As big and difficult as the project was, adds Small, "no one complained or bickered. We loved working on it."
Reporter-photographer teams scoured likely spots to find their subjects, looking under bridges, poking into culverts and alleyways. They hung out in bus terminals and shelters. In Pittsburgh, correspondent Jane Beck-with. 41, dressed up in her "backyard work clothes" and lived in a woman's shelter. In Portland, Oreg., Senior Writer Peter Carlson and photographer Dale Wittner spent several days with Shantytown indigents (page 94) to record their lives. And in New York, Small did soup kitchen duty at a shelter. Explains Chicago correspondent Civia Tamarkin, 38, who found the once-wealthy housewife Tanya Young and her three children in a South Side shelter (Jan. 27): "It's a reporter's job to use ingenuity to find and touch human life on the edge. But it was tough to walk away from them and back to our warm houses. I hope our coverage makes a difference."
Readers have been profuse in their offers of help for the victims, profiled in Part 1 by David Van Biema. Tanya Young, for instance, though still at St. Martin de Porres shelter, is gratefully considering job offers.
As our series on the homeless concludes, Michael Small finds himself left with vivid impressions of "the cold and the indifference suffered by so many thousands of homeless in America." He is also convinced that "individuals do make a difference. The man on the sidewalk near my apartment is being helped now—and that shows what a single phone call can do."