I ran into Sam Kwarteng the other day. Sam is a tall handsome man, an artist and a gardener with a long, thoughtful face framed by dreadlocks. That day, Sam’s hair was still wet from a shower he had just taken at the Interactive Resource Center; we stood in the sun outside the industrial building where he has set up a little living space and talked about pain — specifically the pain and deep sense of betrayal we both still felt in the aftermath of Susan Ladd’s early June series on the Interactive Resource Center in the News & Record.
It was Sam who had set the whole thing in motion. Early this past spring he had asked to have a solo show of his artwork at the IRC. I had given him permission after certain conditions were met, but two weeks before the show I became aware of an incident that I believed made it inadvisable to have the show right then, and I withdrew the offer for wall space. Sam still maintains that he was not involved in any wrongdoing and that my decision was an unfair one. Sam was angry and hurt; he sat down and wrote an open letter to the community pouring out his feelings.
“This kind of nonsense is intolerable,” he wrote, “leaving me no choice but to turn my back on the center and its longtime corruption issues.” Sam posted his letter online and sent it to his entire contact list.
One of the people who received Sam’s letter was Susan Ladd, who did what a good journalist should do: She began asking questions. And things went south from there.
I first became aware that Susan was doing some kind of story when I got a phone call from an IRC client who had just come from a free meal that’s served outside the courthouse every Monday night.
“There’s someone from the newspaper down there asking about the IRC and she’s talking to all the wrong people,” she said.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” I said. I had announced a couple of months before that I was retiring at the end of June. It seemed a likely time for the News & Record to do a story on transition at the IRC and entirely appropriate to start with the clients themselves.
“No it won’t,” she said. “Listen to who she’s talking to,” and she reeled off the names of some of the IRC’s most difficult clients, including a number who had been banned for everything from stealing to intimidation of other clients. “She’s asking them what they know that’s wrong at the IRC. That’s all she’s asking.”
It seemed a little odd but I trusted that basic journalistic ethics would bring some balance, if not to Susan at least to the editors who would be vetting her work. As the weeks went by, however, people kept coming to me, agitated and afraid.
“She’s back again, and the only people she’s talking to are…,” and what would follow would be the names of the people who, in many cases, had become personae non grata not just at the IRC but in the larger homeless community. I kept saying reassuring things, but I began to worry.
Then I started getting calls from decision-makers in the community. Generally they would start off with something like, “I just had the oddest phone call from Susan Ladd.” Some people reported multiple calls where Susan kept pressing them to change their original statement. Some people reported that Susan did most of the talking, not giving them time to respond. Some even said that Susan was audibly crying on the phone. As one person said “She had a story already in place and was just looking for information to support it.”
Here I have to say some uncomfortable things about homelessness. There is no doubt that homelessness is simply the lack of a home; for the vast majority of people who experience it, homelessness is nothing that a living-wage job and affordable housing can’t fix. It’s different for people who have been homeless for a long time — the people who Susan talked to — for whom homelessness is often a byproduct of something much more profound. Often it’s mental illness or an addiction, itself a common way of self-medicating in the aftermath of trauma, abuse and abandonment. Sometimes a person’s difficulties mean that he or she has burnt every bridge and is looking for more to set afire. In adversity we all develop survival tactics and some of them are not pretty. Some people are very hard work.
When middle-class people with big hearts reach across the divide between stability and homelessness, they often come ready to believe anyone and everything. I know I was — I’m amazed when I look back at some of the outrageous things I accepted as truth in my early days. Befogged by our own guilt at our unearned privileges, filled with a self-righteous belief that we alone have the compassion and wisdom to make everything right, we enjoy a brief but intense sugar high of hubris and self-righteousness. Then, if we’re in it for the long haul, we start the long slow climb up the learning curve; we come, often at some cost, to respect the best parts of people and forgive the rest. What we don’t have as we start our learning is access to the front page of the News & Record. Susan Ladd, sadly, did.
Finally Susan got around to me. Oddly enough, in her weeks of research she never spent time at the IRC, a place that she was to go on to characterize as a snakepit of verbal abuse and sexual harassment; when I raised that issue later she said defensively and a little oxymoronically that she had been plenty of times and had always written positive stories. On the day before my big goodbye party at the IRC Susan and I met at the Green Bean.
It was hardly an interview. Susan was very open about the identity of her sources and I countered as best I could while trying to respect client and staff confidentiality. As the hours wore on things got contentious. Several times Susan all but accused me of lying. At one point she said with a little quaver in her voice, “I’m not going to not believe them just because they’re homeless.”
Of course not, I wish I had said, but it’s equally demeaning to believe someone just because he or she is homeless. People are individuals and should be evaluated on more than their situation. In the end it was a wasted four hours — as I was warned, Susan already had her story in place.
Finally, on June 1 the Sunday newspaper landed on my front lawn with a banner headline and a huge picture of Sam.
“No one told me I was going to be on the front page,” he said when we talked. “I just had that one thing I was upset about. I didn’t know it was going to turn into what it turned into. I had no idea.”
For two more days Susan stretched her threadbare material into a hyperventilated series of front-page stories followed by an editorial and another story. There were two villains: Will Howard, then the IRC’s assistant director and employment specialist, and me. Will took the worst of it, accused of sexual harassment, abuse, dishonesty and unfairness. It didn’t matter that I had consistently investigated every grievance that had come to me and had not found any evidence to support the accusations. It didn’t matter that the rumors and allegations weren’t true. Will was tried by the News & Record and found guilty and I was characterized as remote and incompetent, too burnt out to care.
I spent the Monday after the series reassuring and comforting the IRC community. Clients were hurt, angry and afraid. I was surprised at the number of them who took the articles personally, who saw this not as an attack on the IRC but as an attack on Greensboro’s homeless community. I was also surprised to see that several of Susan’s sources were back for services that Monday as though nothing had happened.
“They’re trying to get rid of us and they’re starting with the IRC,” several people said. I assured them that that was not the case. “How can we get our side of the story out?” others asked. I encouraged them to write letters to the editor and some took it a step further and went to visit editorial page Editor Allen Johnson in person, a courageous visit that appeared in print as a single dismissive quote.
The rest of the time I systematically called the people in the community who had been the IRC’s greatest supporters. I was gratified by their responses, and by the many emails and letters to the editor (only a fraction of which were printed) that people forwarded to me. I braced for calls from other news media but, tellingly, those calls never came. No one seemed to take the News & Record seriously except the News & Record.
I retired at the end of June with everything I had done for the last five years shadowed by Susan Ladd’s reportage. Sadly, Will Howard was not able to make the transition. His leaving had absolutely nothing to do with the allegations printed in the News & Record, except that in the atmosphere of grief, hurt and high emotion created by Susan Ladd’s accusations, missteps were almost inevitable. Michelle Kennedy, the IRC’s new director, walked into a difficult job made infinitely more difficult.
I cancelled my subscription to the News & Record. The woman I talked to in the subscription department tried to talk me out of it, but I was sure.
“If you change your mind later please give us a call,” she said. “We really need the readers.”