After a day of working the downtown streets, a 30-something panhandler dressed in a tattered bomber jacket and dark tuque makes his way home to Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. Even in the city that radiates prosperity, the face of homelessness is everywhere. The man crawls inside his sleeping bag and prepares to bed down for the night, lodged under a concrete pedestrian ramp fortified with cardboard boxes, his only protection against the frigid December winds.
But this is no ordinary homeless man. This is Globe and Mail reporter John Stackhouse, who spent seven days and six nights on the street to find out about homeless life firsthand. The result was a controversial three-part series published in December 1999 called “Living with the Homeless.” The response was electric. One defender applauded Stackhouse for emotionally engaging readers in a topic previously debated between “agenda-ridden left and right-wing pundits.” Another critic attacked him for demonizing the poor.
This was not the first time Stackhouse challenged the status quo. He spent most of the 1990s living in India as the Globe ‘s first development reporter, travelling to more than 40 countries in eight years. In a decade where Canadian papers’ coverage of international development issues lacked scope and continuity, Stackhouse made a name for himself writing difficult stories that weren’t being told. He focused on the forces that contributed to the slow-moving social, political and economic development of some of the world’s poorest people, acting as a surrogate for his readers back home and trying to understand a world most of them would never see. Stackhouse covered wars, droughts, natural disasters, authoritarian regimes and the effects of failed development schemes. He saw death and human suffering on a scale unimaginable to most people. But he also witnessed accomplishments and small victories that reinforced his faith in the strength of the human spirit.
Along the way he’s had victories of his own. His awards coffer, which holds five National Newspaper Awards, a National Magazine Award and an Amnesty International-Canada media award, coupled with his prominent play in the paper’s International and Focus sections, attests to his skill as a feature reporter. He’s survived the often rocky transition from working out of a suitcase to working out of a newsroom. And now the Globehas rewarded its marquee player with a new mandate: the opportunity to cover a mix of the best foreign and national stories, and the privilege to experiment with some more creative reporting. But when he’s on his home turf, looking for innovative ways to tell Canadians stories about themselves, he may be facing his biggest challenge of all: the temptation to trade in-depth reporting for gimmicky, “slice-of-life” journalism.
Sitting across from me, in one of Toronto’s ubiquitous coffee shops, is an unassuming young man who bears little physical resemblance to the scruffy-bearded character in the pictures published with the homeless series. Dressed in a blue denim shirt and green corduroy pants, he’s slighter than I expected, clean-shaven and younger looking, except for tired-looking hazel eyes that mark 38 years. Noting his dark, tousled hair and crooked front teeth, I scrawl “boyish” in my notebook.
This isn’t our first meeting, but he seems reserved, almost wary, even though I’m only lobbing a few easy questions. A friend of his later assures me this is characteristic Stackhouse-someone who would forgo celebrity status if it meant an intrusion into his private life. I ask Stackhouse what it’s like to be known as the guy who wrote the homeless series. “It was upsetting for a time,” he says, swirling the coffee in his cup. “I’d done what I thought was this great body of work overseas and then came back, and this became what people knew me as. It was like eight days of work overshadowed eight years of work that I thought was more meaningful.”
Stackhouse’s hunger for meaningful work has its roots in a comfortable middle-class upbringing. In 1976, after his theologian father became principal of the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, Stackhouse moved from a scrappy public school in Scarborough, where he was at the top of his class, to a more challenging environment: the venerable and exclusive private boys school, Upper Canada College. From Grade 9 to 13, while his classmates spent their summers on cruises or at country clubs, he mowed lawns and painted to pay part of his tuition. He says he wasn’t a rags-to-riches kid, but adds, “One of the things that attracted me to journalism was at UCC I was always an outsider, and I was able to sit at the back of the classroom and watch a different type and class of people that I really didn’t fit in with.”
Wanting to avoid the plight of unemployed English degree graduates hit hard by the recession, in 1981 Stackhouse entered the bachelor of commerce program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, expecting to go on to law school. In his second year, craving a creative outlet otherwise absent from his accounting classes, he started writing for the Queen’s Journal and soon became assistant sports editor, followed by sports editor. When he was appointed editor in 1984, he initiated a radical redesign for the school’s then 110-year-old student newspaper. After university he wanted to go to Asia to live and work, but decided on a Toronto Star summer internship instead, having already worked part-time at the Kingston Whig-Standard. He finally got to Australia and Southeast Asia in August 1986, but returned after four months for a job at The London Free Press. He later moved to Financial Times of Canada, before joining The Globe and Mail‘s Report on Business Magazine as a senior writer in late 1989. Throughout this time, though, in the back of his mind, was the idea of returning to Asia.
That chance came with the Globe in 1991 when William Thorsell, then two years into his tenure as editor-in-chief, introduced a groundbreaking model for the paper’s new foreign bureau based in New Delhi, India: a beat bureau with an almost exclusive focus on development issues in South Asia and Africa. “It was a much more ambitious and self-directed assignment,” says Thorsell. “We weren’t just covering the events as they came to us-we were bringing an agenda to bear on our foreign coverage.” Many noteworthy newspaper people clamoured for the job, but Stackhouse was awarded the position in June, having won the favour of senior management for his storytelling ability and voracity for development issues. He travelled back and forth between Toronto and India for six months before he and his wife, Cindy Andrew, a freelancer for the photo agency Gamma-Liaison, settled in New Delhi in January 1992. But the Globe ‘s “star” reporter had been born two months earlier, when Stackhouse officially opened the development issues bureau with a three-part series on Ethiopia. In the first part, his poetic, grassroots way of telling development stories was evident as he introduced his readers to a poverty-stricken widow who had to walk 70 kilometres in search of food:
“The drought has come again,” she said, standing in line with about 300 families. “My farm can’t produce anything. My cattle have died. Maybe we will be next.”… What is remarkable this year is that Mrs. Fatuma and tens of thousands like her have received any food at all. For this year’s hunger season has been made worse not by the cruelties of nature but by the cruelties of man.
In May 1995, when former Middle East correspondent Patrick Martin was made foreign editor, Stackhouse was told to redirect some of his attention to the political forces at work in the region. Stackhouse complied, but continued to maintain his relationship with the villagers of Biharipur, 300 kilometres southeast of New Delhi. While most western media dropped in to report the standard “death and destruction” stories in the Third World (tales of tragedy with a few quotes), Stackhouse wanted to immerse himself in this village, a microcosm of the tragedies and triumphs he saw elsewhere, to try to understand the complex human dynamics of poverty. “I used to drive my colleagues mad because I would have hour-long interviews with a poor village person because I wanted to know their life story,” he says. He visited at least 20 times and listened to the testimonials of villagers over those of government officials and aid agency staff, to get a sense of poverty from the ground up.
It was this grassroots approach that appealed to Stackhouse’s loyal following back home. Peter Desbarats, former dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate School of Journalism, praises Stackhouse for his ability to write the difficult stories about development issues and capture the attention of Canadians used to reading sensational reports about wars, riots and famines. “He had the ability to bring you right into the villages, without romanticizing at all, to really give you a feeling for their problems and their achievements,” says Desbarats.
But by fall 1999, Stackhouse and his family had been in New Delhi twice as long as most foreign postings. For almost eight years he had shared his ground-floor flat with rats, weathered threats of malaria and breathed polluted air that left his lungs permanently scarred. He and his wife had one small child, and another on the way. It was time to go home.
The transition from autonomous foreign correspondent to newsroom-based reporter can be notoriously difficult, but by all accounts, Stackhouse weathered it relatively smoothly. He spent two months finishing his first book, Out of Poverty and into Something More Comfortable (published by Random House Canada in May 2000), a personal account of his experiences overseas. (The best-selling book was shortlisted for the $10,000 Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.) He returned to the Globe ‘s newsroom in November 1999 with a new title-correspondent-at-large-and a mandate to cover a mix of foreign and national issues.
It is inevitable that time overseas changes the way you see not only your adopted country but also your home. “I think that I see this country through slightly different eyes, even today, and I’ve been back here for three years,” says CBC correspondent Dick Gordon, who shared the international beat with Stackhouse and crossed paths with him on some stories. Stackhouse was surprised by the number of homeless people and the level of public debate surrounding the issue of homelessness. Even more surprising was the absence of voices from the street. He was irritated by newspaper reports that focused on the “experts”-commissions, discussion groups and social agencies that spoke of homelessness in terms of simple solutions like more government funding-and the lack of imaginative, probing journalism.
In India, when he wanted to learn about poverty, Stackhouse lived with poor villagers. Back in Toronto, after seeing his own reflection in the face of a young panhandler, he decided to live on the streets as a homeless person. There’s a rich journalistic tradition of going undercover to explore another world, from Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Madhouse, first published in 1887 (she spent 10 days in a mental hospital to capture the ill treatment of patients) to John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me , published in 1961 (he darkened his skin to better understand the experiences of black Southerners). Although Stackhouse isn’t the only modern-day journalist who favours this kind of participatory research, the approach still raises ethical concerns within the profession and has been the subject of criticism from those within the communities being infiltrated. Their charge? That a reporter who parachutes into someone’s life for a short time is just a tourist who can never know what it’s really like to live like that, day in and day out, with no end in sight. Call it a twist on the appropriation of voice argument-appropriation of life.
But Stackhouse saw no other way to do the story. “To identify myself as a reporter would have undermined the whole process,” he says. “This wasn’t an investigation of the shelter system in Toronto. This was a reporter trying to understand what it’s like to be homeless.”
He brought his idea to Richard Addis, who had replaced Thorsell as editor-in-chief in August 1999, and asked for a month on the street. He says Addis argued most papers would send him for a few days at most. They agreed on a week, a decision Stackhouse caught flak for later. (In a recent email, Addis disagreed with this account, saying he gave Stackhouse all the time he wanted.)
Day 1: I did not appreciate the true meaning of homelessness until a white stretch limousine stopped beside me in Toronto’s downtown theatre distrct, blowing its exhaust in my face for five, then 10, then 15 minutes as I slouched against a fire hydrant, panhandling for dinner. It was the humiliation more than the pollution that grated me….
On the frigid morning of Monday, December 6, 1999, Stackhouse started his day on Yonge Street rather than in the cozy comforts of the newsroom, scrounging through a garbage can looking for a coffee cup with which to panhandle. He had with him a change of clothes, a sleeping bag and $5, and he had no idea how he would get lunch or where he would sleep that night. Over the next seven days he spent four nights in various shelters and two nights out in the cold in Nathan Phillips Square with the drunks, the bag ladies, the squeegees and drifters. He learned enough about the art of begging to net $350 (which he donated to charity). And he met a cast of characters, the voices of whom he used to tell stories about living on Toronto’s streets. At the end of it all, he returned to his middle-class north Toronto home to write about his seven days. He was completely unprepared for the torrent of public reaction that would be unleashed the following Saturday, when readers read his diary and learned about his “life without a home.”
When I ask him about the criticism-including the charge that a week wasn’t long enough to really experience homelessness-the previously understated and reticent Stackhouse becomes animated. “I don’t do what I do to change government policy,” he bristles. “I’m just trying to help my readers understand and try to understand things better myself.” The instant celebrity status, the intense scrutiny, the massive public outcry-most visibly on the Globe ‘s Web-based discussion forum, which received almost 800 postings-all left their mark, though. “It was overwhelming. It was humbling. Some days it was very upsetting. I was attacked viciously by a lot of people, and I wasn’t prepared for that, that it would become so personal.” He tells me of a letter he received from a friend of Indian descent who wrote that he could understand homelessness no more than he could understand what it’s like to be a brown female. “That’s an absurd, absurd link,” he stresses. “The whole point of this is that any one of us could be homeless.”
Reading through the scores of letters to the editor and email messages, it is clear Stackhouse’s story struck an emotional chord, ranging from charges that his “flirtation with homelessness is an incendiary for the flames of intolerance and (willful) misunderstanding,” to suggestions that he, a privileged member of society, was only playing homeless and exploiting the poor to further his career. But for all this criticism, there was an outpouring of support, praising him and the Globe for “having the courage to run this story, and all its gritty realism,” and applauding him for bypassing the rhetoric and presenting the simple facts of life on the streets. (The series would win him his fifth NNA.)
His week on the street captured the unique perspective of an outsider who had missed the politically charged social policy debates of the ’90s. “This was very much a series of someone just back in the country,” says John Fraser, National Post media critic and the Globe ‘s former China correspondent. “It’s invidious to some people’s ears to even be compared to a Third World country, but in fact there are some interesting parallels which someone like John Stackhouse would see particularly clearly when he first came back.”
So how does a reporter who spent eight years living with some of the world’s poorest people write about Toronto’s own “untouchables”? “It isn’t strange to me that people sleep on the streets,” says Stackhouse. In India, he explains, he lived in a city where two million people sleep on the streets and he’d step over bodies on his way home. Does having seen conditions of such abject poverty make him unsympathetic, predisposing him to view a church basement breakfast as luxurious? Or does it give him clear eyes and perspective?
“I wasn’t shocked by anything that I saw. I wasn’t horrified. I wasn’t scared. I think all of those years overseas gave me a context, and that’s how I see pretty much everything now,” he says. He agrees that he has seen people living in far worse conditions, but it’s not as if he used a “scale of suffering” to compare people’s circumstances. “I didn’t fall to my knees in pity the way so many journalists do because they see people living in a certain hardship,” he says. “I thought I could really see beyond the initial conditions of a person and try to understand other things going on in someone’s life, rather than just the visible signs of poverty that a lot of journalists cling to and that’s all they write about.”
While Stackhouse’s criticism of other journalists sounds severe, he’s equally critical of his own work. With a reputation for demanding high standards of himself and the people he works with, he says he owes it to his readers and subjects to spike his own first drafts when the story “deserves better words” than he has written.
Stackhouse is known for his intensity and doggedness, but also for his frankness. “John is always willing to take a contrary position and defend it, if that is what he believes to be the case. He’s a great one for not particularly liking the prevailing wisdom,” says Mark Nicholson, a correspondent for London’s Financial Times and Stackhouse’s friend and former colleague in India. He says Stackhouse is loath to take complex stories at face value and praises him for being “one of life’s natural skeptics.”
An example of this skepticism lies in Stackhouse’s opinion of the experts. “A lot of activists present social problems [like homelessness] as being a simple problem with a simple solution,” he says. “There are no simple problems, and no simple solutions.” It’s the kind of line that could sound naive, except that it’s grounded in his firsthand experience of complicated realities and the shortcomings of experts. For instance, Stackhouse saw the dramatic results of failed expertise in war-torn Somalia, where starving villagers died before him while food was stockpiled in the capital city. Such incidents have left him with little or no patience for quick-fix solutions, but this doesn’t mean he thinks he has the answers. He says his take on an issue should augment-not supersede-what the social agencies are saying. He posted this entry to the Globe ‘s “Living with the Homeless” discussion forum: “I certainly have not tried to trick readers into believing I know anything more than I saw and experienced.” The diary, albeit candid, was his perspective, and never purported to be anything different.
And yet he’s not a crusader because he sees his work as more of an intellectual quest. “One of the things that attracted me to journalism is that it’s a constant search for understanding,” he says, crediting his success to “unending curiosity and ignorance.” John Fraser sees something more. “There seems to be a steely resolve in the man. He’s a reserved human being, yet quite passionate. I think there’s a lot smouldering there, and I think he’s quite capable of finding an expression for that in his journalism.”
But does his recent work in Canada live up to the reputation he established as a foreign correspondent? He’s denounced other journalists for writing superficial stories about complex development issues, and yet his own portfolio is full of what some might see as gimmicky quick hits: “Running on Empty” (24 hours riding with a trucker), “ER Diary” (a week with paramedics and emergency room staff at Hamilton General Hospital) and “Notes from the Road” (a month hitchhiking across Canada). One newspaper reporter, upset with Stackhouse’s line that Winnipeg is “awash with social problems,” even joked his next project would be from the windows of a tour bus.
Yet others familiar with his work overseas would see these projects as classic Stackhouse, recognizing, for example, that his approach to the hitchhiker series is reminiscent of his NNA-winning “After Midnight” series (3,000 kilometres across India and Pakistan by train), published three years earlier. It’s a trademark theGlobe is trying to capitalize on, positioning Stackhouse prominently in its showcase of brand-name writers. He still has to fight to do work that’s different, though, and he doesn’t always win.
But he’s not out to be intentionally provocative, he says. He’s just trying to bring some clarity to confusing, complicated issues by exploring them from every angle. In doing so, the man who often appears to be rushing off somewhere admits to having wondered whether he’s now flitting from subject to subject. But Stackhouse says he weighs the risk of generalizing an issue against the benefit gained from looking at the broader picture. He uses the hitchhiker series to illustrate how he’s purposely transplanted a foreign correspondent’s extensive style of reporting and applied it to a domestic story. “I spent a total of five days in Quebec, so that’s a pretty quick trip through such an important part of Canada,” he says. “Had I spent a whole month in Quebec, I would have been able to write in more detail and probably with more authority, but I would then lose being able to write about it in the context of a larger picture, that being all of Canada.”
Perhaps Stackhouse takes for granted that because Canada is his own country, he has an intrinsic connection to the people he’s writing about. His creative storytelling leaves him vulnerable to accusations of becoming a parachute journalist himself. But he can’t be faulted for his ambitions: to breathe new life into stale debates and to bring fresh eyes to issues other Canadian papers sometimes disregard because the story has been done before. Over the course of his career he’s developed a range of reporting tools that he uses to try to tell a story. Often it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But no matter what the critics say, Stackhouse seems to know where he’s going, and he’s not going to let anyone else tell him what to see, what to think-or how to get there.
Day 5: A social agency with its own van also serves soup and cookies, and offers to take me to a shelter if I want. One of the volunteers, realizing I am one of the only people in the square still sober, warns me of the risk I’m taking outside. He says I can call any time in the night and be picked up, and for a moment I feel patronized, like a child on an overnight camping trip. My freedom has been compromised, but I thank him just the same.