For the past year, Boston-based education writer Bianca Vázquez Toness took on the difficult reporting task of finding students who have slipped through the cracks since the pandemic and looked to Los Angeles, where advocates say the housing crisis is causing students to go missing from school. Toness set out not just to represent their stories, but to show their experience in an intimate narrative.
She met a homeless mother renting space in strangers’ apartments, sleeping on a twin bed with her two children. The situation had devastated the teenage son’s mental health and school performance. Instead of attending summer school to make up for course failures, Deneffy Sánchez stayed in his apartment, terrified the family’s roommate would change the locks and render them homeless again.
Earning Deneffy’s trust took weeks. After multiple visits to meet Deneffy ’s mother, and eventually Deneffy himself, he confided in Toness so she could follow their journey to another apartment — and, when that situation became untenable, to preparations for yet another move. Capturing the narrative was enough of a feat, but the family’s precarious situation with their roommates made visuals nearly impossible.
Los Angeles-based photographer Jae C. Hong waited weeks for the family to feel safe having him inside, and he captured the powerful visual of the family’s belongings piled onto one bunk, with their roommate’s bed feet away. Illustrations by Peter Hamlin anchored the story’s immersive presentation. Eunice Esomonu put the Spanish version of the story in the immersive design, a first for AP.
The piece was shared widely by education and anti-poverty groups, and education journalists and readers alike have reached out to share how remarkable and powerful they found Toness’ reporting. A dozen readers have expressed interest in offering rent assistance to Deneffy and his family.
For building trust with a family battling to save their spot in a tiny apartment, and cinematic reporting that showed the great lengths homeless kids must go to attend school, Best of the Week — First Winner is awarded to Bianca Vázquez Toness and Jae C. Hong.