Reflecting the body politic, local TV news lost interest in the homeless decades ago. Instead, the homeless are used as props. When an Atlanta station needs to do a story about freezing temperatures, it’ll send a warm body to a homeless shelter. When it covers stories about panhandlers, the storyline is about how they’re nuisances to respectable folk, rather than the demons, bad luck and / or choices they made that drove them to the street.
The last serious TV story we can recall about the homeless was when Ron Sailor walked the streets with Andy Young dressed in homeless garb. Now comes Julie Wolfe (who was probably in grade school when the Sailor piece aired in 1987) with a two-parter on WXIA. This is not a piece the WXIA consultants would have suggested.
Wolfe approached it admirably: She spent 24 hours at a NW Atlanta shelter for women and children and watched the routine. It left her without any “wait til you see what we captured on camera!” teaseable moments. Instead, the story immersed the viewer in lives led in quiet desperation. The routine tended toward an effort to restore normalcy to lives that had nearly fallen apart — meals, games, job searches. On the surface, the storyline seems ill-suited to a medium drawn to the abnormal.
At a time when memorable moments define “great TV,” this wasn’t great TV But this was the essence of TV journalism. It helps that Wolfe, a backpack journalist, has a great eye with her camera viewfinder and a solid, understated writing style. Delivered in a casual first-person, part one drew the viewer to the women and children in the shelter and not to Wolfe. Wolfe showed her sleeping quarters, but never made the story about her. It might have livened up the story had she done so (it worked for Ron Sailor), but Wolfe’s instinct against it was inarguably solid.
Wolfe delivered a second piece focusing on the children staying in the shelter. This series probably made an impression on only a fraction of WXIA’s viewers, most of whom are likely among the millions inclined to tune out the problem of homelessness. It’s unlikely this story would have aired on any other Atlanta TV station.
But at a TV station that seems to prefer the real estate outside of the formulaic TV news box, this was good stuff, and long overdue. Grade: A