Justin Huggard died last December. In April, the Deseret News ran a 4,000-word story about him. The remarkable thing was not that the News took four months to write his obituary, rather it was that they wrote anything at all.
Justin was homeless. Addicted. Invisible.
While he died on Main Street in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City; his passing was so anonymous that even those good-hearted activists who track the casualties of homelessness each year missed his death. At the annual vigil for the homeless who die in Salt Lake, the names of the year’s victims are read, remembered and honored fleetingly. But not Justin.
Daphne Chen, a reporter for the News worked four months on the story, stalking family and friends on Facebook, piecing together the life story of Justin Huggard. In a sense, she resurrected Justin so that he could be remembered as the human being he was.
Daphne made Justin into a proxy for the homeless people living and dead in our community.
Writing a story like this is difficult, on many levels. As Daphne points out, “There are no press releases when Justin Huggard dies.”
Daphne acknowledged that she didn’t expect the story to be so emotionally difficult–she’s covered tragedies many times in the past. “It started as this gray, plastic box of ashes.” But as she took Justin from an anonymous homeless man to a full-fledged human being with a family, friends, a kind personality and a history, she began to feel a sense of loss.
Daphne works on the “In Depth” beat for the Deseret News, so she works on stories for months, several at a time. While working on Justin’s story she was also working on a story about Utah’s mental health hospital. Patients assigned to the hospital by the courts often wait for five or six months for placement. Some die in the interim.
At the same time, the paper assigned Daphne to cover the controversial firing and re-hiring of the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the subsequent firing of the CEO of the University of Utah Medical Center followed by the resignation of the President of the University of Utah. Daphne wasn’t bored looking for things to do.
Daphne, originally from Dallas, Texas, has been with the News for one and a half years. She previously reported from New York and North Carolina where she covered crime, health and education.
The key to the Justin Huggard story was Aimee Rolfe, a friend of Justin who was eager to help Daphne find the family and tell the story. They had shared a great deal together, including struggles with drugs. While Justin struggled with alcohol and “some heroin,” Aimee’s nemesis was meth. With her help, the story came alive.
Ultimately, Daphne told Justin’s story too late for anyone to do anything for him. But that isn’t the point. Daphne Pulitzer-caliber story didn’t just “give a voice to the voiceless” but also changed our understanding of who those experiencing homelessness are: human beings with families, friends and hopes who are suffering a life and death trauma in plain sight.