How can delivering info to meet basic needs drive an entire newsroom?

By Malak Silmi

January 21, 2020

Since April more people have used Outlier’s text message information system to help them find food assistance more often than anything else. About 35% of our users have needed help with food since the pandemic started. Ebony Hamilton, a single mother living with her children in River Rouge, was in the same position in mid-November when she used Outlier’s info service.

Hamilton was homebound without access to a car, just like around one-third of Detroiters. Hamilton let us know the resources our system was connecting her to were saying they now had long waitlists, or that she couldn’t qualify for help. We reached out to our partners at the Detroit Free Press and asked if they could look into and then cover this gap in the safety net.  

Meanwhile, Gleaners Community Food Bank made a food box available I could drop off at Hamilton’s home while we looked for a more reliable source of food. (Disclaimer: our editor serves on Gleaners’ Board of Directors. We encourage our partners to cover issues with food assistance and don’t cover this issue ourselves because of this potential conflict of interest). 

Hamilton told me she was also struggling to get her landlord to make repairs on her home. She mentioned the landlord was not answering her calls. When I walked up to her front porch to deliver the food packages the smell of her flooded basement was overwhelming. There was no heat in the house.

“We’ve been having these problems since June, and I haven’t ever talked to the landlord or been able to contact them to get it all repaired,” Hamilton said at the time.

We found Hamilton’s house had been sold from one out-of-state LLC to a local investment property LLC called AVE FENIX 62 LLC in June. Hamilton had no idea and we still didn’t have an actual person identified as the landlord.

For food assistance, I connected Hamilton with the River Rouge School District, where six of her children are enrolled. The district agreed to drop off food every Wednesday. 
“I told them about our living situation and how I couldn’t get the kids logged into the school with everything going on,” she said.

Deputy Superintendent Alisa Berry-Brown said the district has wellness care coordinators who can visit families to better understand what aid they need and how the district could help. She says her district is well connected with statewide resources.


Within a few days,the school district managed to get an inspector sent to Hamilton’s home. They were able to accomplish what neither Hamilton nor we had been able to do, get the local housing commission to return our phone calls.

A supervisor with the Inkster Housing Commission later said the Commission told the landlord they would hold back their Section 8 rent subsidy if repairs were not made. The last of those repairs were finished earlier this month. 

Now that Hamilton’s situation has stabilized we’re reporting out if other tenants living in properties managed by the same company as Hamilton’s property are facing similar problems. We’re also interested in reporting, with our collaborators at Chalkbeat, how Detroit’s schools are approaching the housing challenges coming up for students during the pandemic. 

This is why we call our text message system the engine of Outlier’s reporting. Our text message exchanges lead to questions and answers we couldn’t have anticipated.

1 thought on “How can delivering info to meet basic needs drive an entire newsroom?

  1. Good morning please do an update on unemployment insurance in Michigan. People are still not able to claim weeks.

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