In early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic, KNKX and The Seattle Times' Project Homeless team joined forces to make Outsiders, a documentary-style podcast that gave listeners a close-up view of unsheltered homelessness.
Seven months later, Outsiders is back with a three-episode finale that seeks to answer some of the questions the podcast laid out in the beginning.
KNKX reporter Will James, the host of Outsiders, talked with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about bringing the series back in the middle of the pandemic. You can listen to that conversation above.
Outsiders takes place in Olympia, Washington, a city of about 50,000 people that serves as a microcosm for communities up and down the West Coast grappling with a rise in people living in tents and makeshift shelters.
At the start of the story, in late 2018, sprawling encampments appeared in downtown Olympia, where the number of unsheltered people swelled from around 30 to more than 300 in a matter of weeks. City officials tried to contain the crisis by creating a "mitigation site," a sanctioned camping place, in the middle of downtown.
Throughout the series, reporters learn about the lives of people who enter the mitigation site and follow them through through ups and downs in 2019.
The series also looks back on four decades of history leading up to the explosive growth of homelessness; probes intersections of race, trauma, mental illness, drug use and homelessness; and unravels complicated questions like whether people who are homeless move to certain cities.
Outsiders halted production through much of the spring and summer so the reporters working on it could focus on the pandemic, the protests for racial justice, and other stories that dominated the news in 2020.
The series set out to document the year 2019, but now covers much of 2020 as well. The new episodes touch on how the coronavirus has upended the lives of people living outside and added to the strain on communities that were already in states of emergency around homelessness before the pandemic started.
Episode 8, the newest installment, returns to the question that opened the series: could Olympia pioneer a new way to manage unsheltered homelessness? The episode lays out how Olympia's methods defied the status quo and evaluates whether they worked to change the lives of unsheltered people and clean up the city.
Episode 9 takes some of the questions posed by listeners throughout the series, and gives people who are homeless a chance to weigh in. Why are piles of trash such a common feature of encampments? Should someone give cash to a person flying a sign on the side of the road?
Episode 10 is a search for Jessica, the central character in the series, to find out what happened to her.