Why It’s Best To Call Journalists Back

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I’d call me back. Selfie by R.V.

All I really wanted to know when I called the Good News Rescue Mission’s office a week-and-a-half ago was one simple thing: What, pray tell, is the Mission’s capacity?

That number was important to the story I was working on, “Is Redding Cruel and Unusual?” which concerns the Redding City Council’s revision of the city’s anti-homeless camping ordinance. The revisions, passed unanimously by the city council last week, were in response to a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision last September declaring such ordinances unconstitutional if there is not enough “available shelter” in the area.

In order to leap this hurdle—the Eight Amendment provisions against laws that are “cruel and unusual”—the city claims the Good News Rescue Mission, the only major homeless shelter in Shasta County, never reaches full capacity.

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Good News Rescue Mission building

Therefore, since the Mission is always available to anyone found camping on public property in the city, the Redding Police Department can cite them without violating the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

As I pointed out in my article last week, the city of Boise posed a similar argument to the Ninth Circuit and was rejected, leading to its decision such laws are cruel and unusual. Boise is two-and-half times the size of Redding but has a similar number of homeless people, upwards of 750 people, figures that just about everyone agrees are an underestimate. Boise has three faith-based homeless shelters compared to Redding’s one, the Mission.

Like the Good News Rescue Mission, two of Boise’s shelters, operated by Boise Rescue Mission, belong to the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, which the court found has a policy of stating their shelters are never at full capacity—even when they are. The Ninth Circuit found this incredulous, as it did Boise Rescue Mission’s claim that its services were primarily secular.

Now the city of Redding is making precisely the same claims about its revised anti-homeless camping ordinance. There’s always “available shelter” at the Mission.

That’s an impressive claim, especially considering no one from the city, during its deliberations on the revised ordinance, has ever stated what the actual capacity of the Mission is.

I figured the man to ask about the shelter’s capacity was Good News Rescue Mission executive director Jonathan Anderson. So I called the Mission’s office, asked for public relations, identified myself to the woman who answered and told her I wanted to talk to Anderson in regard to the shelter’s capacity and Redding’s revised anti-homeless camping ordinance.

This was late Thursday morning a week-and-a-half ago. She said he’d probably get back to me late in the afternoon.

He didn’t, and he didn’t call the next day either.

Nor did Anderson call over the weekend, while I was working on the story. Faced with a midnight Monday deadline, I searched the local news coverage on the ordinance issue looking for any mention of the Mission’s actual capacity, by the city attorney, the city council, the Mission, anyone, and came up with nothing.

Good News Rescue Mission executive director Jonathan Anderson being interviewed by Redding Chamber of Commerce on site, screen grab from CoC’s Facebook page.

In last week’s story, I finally went with a statement on the Mission’s website that it provides shelter to approximately 200 people nightly. Later, also on the Mission’s website, I found the number of people it claims it sheltered overnight in 2017, some 77,461 people, and divided it by 365, arriving at an average of 212 people sheltered nightly.

Of course, these numbers in the neighborhood of 200 people don’t indicate what the Mission’s capacity is when full, or if it’s ever been at full capacity.

However, in a Nov. 2017 story by KRCR-TV on the Mission’s just-completed “Building Hope” expansion project, which added 36 long-term beds for the women’s recovery program and 105 beds to the women and children’s shelter, Anderson told the station the added bed space would quickly fill up.

“Anderson said the facility is already expected to exceed capacity,” the station reported.

Yet since the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year, the Mission appears to have taken on quasi-magical properties enabling it to expand infinitely to accommodate all of the people camping on the city’s streets.

Anderson was indeed busy on the Thursday I called him—he was standing in front of a wooden cross at the Mission giving a video interview for the Redding Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page.

In the video, which may have been recorded at an earlier date, Anderson explains that commerce, tourism and law enforcement must thrive if Redding’s economy is to prosper. He says it’s a myth that the Mission has ever been at full capacity, so there’s no excuse for anyone sleeping on the streets.

He then immediately undermines his own claim by offering a rather lengthy list of people—the severely ill, the severely mentally ill, known criminals—who can’t get services at the Mission for one reason or another.

The video’s main focus is on a van Anderson plans to acquire. The plan with the van is to approach homeless campers and coax them into the Mission. Just in case they say no, Anderson says he is bringing along the RPD for backup.

As you might imagine, I was a little bit sore that this guy, a man-of-the-cloth after all, didn’t call me back. He’s the one person who can definitively answer my question, what is the Mission’s actual capacity?

I’ve been a professional journalist for 30 years, and experience tells me it’s always best to call me back. People who don’t call me back before the story comes out usually do one of two things. If the story doesn’t involve them, they let is slide. If the story involves them, they return the call claiming they didn’t get my original message.

Jonathan Anderson: Photo source – Good News Rescue Mission website.

Sure enough, the day after the story came out, Anderson contacted A News Cafe on its Facebook page, via Messenger, claiming he never got my call. Here’s the message:

“Hello Mr Scheide,

“Someone just sent me a link to a recent article you wrote. I would love the opportunity to talk. Can you email your contact info to my work email or on here?

“I apologize for sending this through messenger, I couldn’t find any contact info on the article. I am back in town this week but have a board meeting tonight that I will be preparing for all day. I would love to give you a tour of the Mission first hand so you can formulate your opinions on first had experience with us. Would you have availability for that?”

I’m willing to grant Anderson didn’t get my original message because he’s oh-so-busy, giving interviews to the Chamber of Commerce and raising money at Bethel and other such duties.

But what sort of journalist would I be if I fell for the “Gilligan’s Island” routine? The one question I wanted answered at the time didn’t require a three-hour tour.

Meanwhile, the list of questions I had for Anderson had grown considerably while I was waiting for him to return my call. I let him off the hook for not calling me back, but ignored the tour offer when I replied to him via email:

“Greetings Mr. Anderson,

“I left a message with someone in your office Thursday that I wanted to talk to you about the Mission and the city of Redding’s revised anti-homeless camping ordinance. I guess you didn’t get the message before the story came out. Here’s a few of the questions I wanted to ask. You can also reach me at [my redacted phone number].

“1. What is the actual capacity of the Good News Rescue Mission? By this I mean the total number of beds, as well as the number of people that can sleep on the floor. I’d like both numbers please.

“2. Although there are well-known incidences of the Mission being overcrowded in the past, the city of Redding and you are now claiming you’ve never been at full capacity. Is it accurate to say what you’re saying?

“3. In the Mission’s case, is it the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions’ policy to state they are never at full capacity?

“4. Is sobriety a condition of continuing to stay at the Mission?

“5. Does the mission have any non-faith-based drug and alcohol programs?

“6. Does the Mission keep a list of people who’ve been denied services because of behavioral reasons, i.e. repeatedly breaking the rules, acts of violence, etc.?

“7. If the revised ordinance goes into effect, RPD or other law enforcement will be contacting you about homeless individuals they encounter camping. Do residents or past residents have privacy rights?

“8. If RPD contacts you about a homeless individual who’s been previously disruptive at the Mission, will that individual now be able to stay at the Mission?

“9. Is the Mission capable of providing shelter to all of Shasta County’s homeless population?

“10. As a Christian, do you feel the city of Redding has put you in an awkward position of supporting a law that has been found unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment?

“That’s all my questions for now. You can write your answers or give me a call and I’ll ask the same questions, your choice.

“Sincerely,

“R.V. Scheide”

See why it’s always better to call journalists back the first time? If you ignore me too long, I start thinking up lots of questions. Number 1 being, why aren’t you calling me back?

I didn’t expect Anderson to answer my questions, and he didn’t. Instead he doubled down on the tour offer in a reply via email and Messenger last Thursday morning:

“Hey RV,

“[T]hanks for getting back to me. I just finished up my two days of board meetings (thank you for your grace in my slow response).

“I saw the questions, great questions. I think we will actually post your questions with the answers on our new website in the near future as I am responding to those exact questions almost daily.

“I have a personal policy that I like to meet a journalist and give them a tour before I engage in their questions, this is so they can have the full context and transparency of both myself and the Mission.

“I have had too many journalists misquote or misrepresent my character based simply off their interpretation but changed that interpretation after they actually met me and took a tour. I have found many times the interpreted information was based heavily on faulty outside influences which most times were very libelous.

“The soonest I am available for a tour would be Friday but I am fairly open next week as well. Would you be available either Friday or sometime next week?

“I will start working on your questions now so you can have them in writing as well. Reading through the questions I can see it will take me some time to fully answer all of them as these will have lengthy responses. I may start with answering the questions in the order you sent them and reply with one or two at a time instead of try to answer them all at once.

“If you are open to it, we could do a tour and then go across the street for lunch, debrief, and go over any additional questions that may arise from the tour.

“Does any of that work for you?

“I’ll copy and paste this from my work email as well which I hope to have cleared out tomorrow. Board weeks are atrocious for my email. I can get up to a hundred emails a day that need to be answered but can’t read/respond to any of them until the end of the board week, it’s crazy!

“Blessings my friend.

“Jonathan D. Anderson”

Gilligan and the Skipper heading out, courtesy of Gilligan’s Island.

See? He really was talking about a three-hour tour! This is a prerequisite to answering questions from any journalist about the Mission, a policy he says he implemented after all the negative experiences he’s had with journalists misinterpreting and libeling the Mission.

I dunno. Any local journalists out there misquote the padre? Anyone change their story at his request?

At any rate, journalists can’t tolerate these sorts of preconditions placed on gaining answers to what were originally simple questions about a legitimate public interest news story.

In his reply, Anderson implies that somehow the answers to the 10 questions I’ve already sent him will change to his advantage if I go on a tour of the Mission. The only way the answers would change is if I changed the questions—no doubt the intent of the tour.

Sorry, I can’t do that. One of my favorite things about this story is I get to write “Mr. Anderson” several times. I felt just like Neo in the Matrix responding to his offer:

“Greetings again Mr. Anderson,

“Thank you for your response and your offer to tour the Mission. I’ll get to that visit later in this message.

“However, your office should have informed me that a tour is a prerequisite to the Mission’s executive director answering any questions about a legitimate news story about public policy decision involving the Mission. If your office had told me that I would have told them, “Then I’ll put the Mission down as “no comment.”

“For the record, I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, I’ve won many awards, and I’ve never been accused of libel, misquoting someone or even taking someone out of context by any of my story subjects.

“That said, I know that some interview subjects feel like they’ll be misquoted or misrepresented, as you apparently do. The questions I’ve emailed to you already offer us a way around this difficulty. Simply answer the questions at any length you wish, return them, and A News Cafe will publish them as a verbatim Q&A stand alone article.

“As for the tour offer, a tour wasn’t necessary for me to write ‘Is Redding Cruel and Unusual?’ which is an analysis of law and public policy that happens to involve the Mission. That story is done and published, and as it stands now, the Mission didn’t respond to my inquiry.

“Meanwhile, I’m on to the next story, which doesn’t involved the Mission. If I can find time in my schedule, I would be interested in doing a profile on the Mission in the future, providing you would allow me to spend 24 hours — one day and one night — in the Mission.

“I encourage you answer the questions below. We can talk on the phone about this if you wish, but I would prefer, given your misgivings about being misquoted or misinterpreted, that you answer them in writing, so there’s no confusion.

“Sincerely,

“R.V. Scheide”

His response so far, as I face yet another midnight Monday deadline?

Crickets.

It’s bewildering, this sudden secrecy surrounding the Mission’s actual capacity.

Seeking the same number, homeless activist Chris Solberg recently contacted Patrick O’Connor, a fire inspector/investigator for the Redding Fire Dept. Solberg shared the email chain with me in which he gets no answer and what politely can be called the runaround. Solberg called it “a dodge.”

In the email chain, there was a link to a Record Searchlight story from last September in which then city council-candidate Michael Dacquisto claimed the Mission has a capacity of 500 people but only shelters 200 regularly.

The story did not cite where Dacquisto pulled those figures out of, but now that he’s on the city council perhaps he will enlighten us.

Nobody else seems to have the answer.

Maybe he’ll even return my call.

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R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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