Research is an important part of the writer’s life — especially for writers like me who haven’t worked in any of my characters professions. My general rule-of-thumb is if a fact is plot critical, I will strive to get that detail right. Such as, if a body is discovered in the woods, I won’t describe it as skeletal unless the environment and time passage would result in a skeleton. Or if the killer uses a poison, I need to at least understand how that poison works, the symptoms, and how quickly it can kill someone.
But research is not just about forensic details — albeit, they are important in crime fiction. Research is also about people and society. Some is subjective — as a mom of five, I have a different life experience than someone who doesn’t have children; I also have a different experience from mothers today or my grandmother’s generation. This is why reading widely and talking to not only friends but strangers helps to create believable characters — I want to understand people and why they do what they do. Real people in the real world help me create realistic people in my fictional world.
Sometimes, I need to do a deep dive into a subject that I think I know about, but barely understand. For The Missing Witness, that was the homeless crisis.
First, The Missing Witness is crime fiction — LAPD Detective Kara Quinn returns to Los Angeles after being on loan to the FBI for eight months in order to testify against a human trafficker who she’d arrested. But when Chen, the trafficker, is killed on his way to court, Kara not only needs to find out why, but locate a whistleblower who is now in grave danger.
When I started writing this book, all I knew was the set-up about Kara and Chen. Everything else came organically as I wrote. After Chen was killed, I needed a good reason for his murder. So I thought about what had to happen for him to be successful in his illegal business — he brought in Chinese women and forced them to work in his factory. After talking to a friend of mine who works in local government, I realized he must have bribed people. Inspectors. Politicians. Cops.
Then an idea started to form. I just needed a backbone for the graft and corruption that led to his murder.
I have read widely about the homeless crisis, specifically on the west coast. I have my own opinions about the situation. I embraced an article I read that discussed the different types of homeless people — from the temporarily homeless to the chronically homeless, from the drug addicts to the mentally ill — and what might be done to help them. I’ve read about harm reduction and housing first and homeless vets and drug addiction, specifically the growing fentanyl crisis. I think most of us have read a little about a lot of different things, and we generally gravitate toward articles and theories that we are predisposed to believe, and disregard those that are in opposition to our beliefs.
Once I decided I needed a specific graft and corruption scheme as the motivation for Chen’s murder, I started thinking about the way governments and non-profits fund homeless programs. I read an in-depth article by investigative reporter Katy Grimes in Sacramento that explained how some non-profits operate. One entity applies for a government grant to provide a service to the homeless population. That entity has two principles who each take a six-figure salary, then disperse the remaining money to another non-profit that is run by someone taking a six-figure salary who then disperses the money to other non-profits. There is virtually no accountability or transparency in these programs. They report their expenditures and because there are no strings to the money (a failure of the government grant program), they haven’t committed a crime.
Another article I read showed the astronomical cost per unit to build housing for the homeless — in Los Angeles, one project exceeded one million dollars per unit!
People are literally dying on the streets. They don’t need a million dollar condo. They need shelter.
These articles, and more, confirmed my beliefs of the waste and fraud in the homeless funding programs.
Then I started looking into the people who are homeless, and the obstacles in their way.
Before, I was jaded. We all see panhandlers. We see people sleeping under tarps at bus stops, in tents by the side of the road, taking over parks and paths. We see people clearly high, others talking to themselves, others looking vacant and lost. I blamed them. I was of the mindset that the choices they made in their life put them in this position and if they wanted to, they could get a job and support themselves. The state of California and local governments spend billions of dollars every year to provide shelter, food, and resources for the homeless, and if these people didn’t want to take the help, that was their fault. I was done — after billions of dollars, these people were still living on the streets, in garbage and squalor. Homeless crimes are up — as victims and perpetrators. They needed to “get their act together.” I considered most of the homeless “druggies” and didn’t have much sympathy for their plight especially knowing that there were options for them — they just had to try.
Then I talked to social worker Kevin Dahlgren who has three decades of experience working with the homeless.
I connected with him through his X (Twitter) page because he posted short videos of interviews with people who were homeless. (He now has a substack blog where he writes in depth about his experiences working with the homeless: https://truthonthestreets.substack.com). I wanted to understand why homelessness has increased even though we’ve spent billions of dollars every year to fix the problem. Kevin talked to me for hours about what he sees every day.
Kevin confirmed what I understood about the funding, the lack of accountability and transparency (much of which ended up in The Missing Witness as the backbone to the corruption.) But Kevin also talked about why people are homeless and why most of the programs in place fail.
Kevin believes in “empowering, not enabling” the people who live on the streets. That means finding out where they are right now — why are they homeless? Do they need drug counseling? Mental health treatment? He has worked with women who aren’t addicts but on the street because they left an abusive spouse. Too often government programs are cumbersome and it’s hard to figure out how to use the resources. For example, one homeless man Kevin worked with was desperate to get clean, but all the shelters had people using drugs next to him and he couldn’t resist. He wanted a place to sober up, but he was severely dyslexic and couldn’t read the forms to apply for a bed — and the government employee who handed him the forms wouldn’t read them to him. So he walked away.
And yes, there are people who don’t want to stop using drugs, and recognize they can’t keep a job if they’re high. Addiction and untreated mental illness are rampant among the homeless population. Many female addicts exchange sex for drugs. They talk about it as if this is just how it is and they expect nothing more.
These stories and more have shifted my perspective on how I view the homeless. Some people are temporarily homeless and they’re the easiest to help — they need a helping hand to get them into housing, job training, etc. Some people are harder to get off the streets. But if the billions of dollars the government is spending isn’t used to help people on a case-by-case basis — if employees won’t read forms to a man who wants help but can’t read — then the system has failed.
After all this research for my book, I realized my thoughts and beliefs about the homeless shifted. I realized that I had looked at the homeless as one entity, instead of individuals.
Now, I no longer lump them into a single group. I no longer look at them as a mass, but as unique human beings who each have a story. The only way we can truly fix the homeless crisis and bring it back to manageable levels is to fund programs that actually address each problem and give these people real options. Government doesn’t need more money — they need to spend their money on programs that work. As Kevin says, we need to empower these individuals to get off the streets, get clean, and become self-sufficient. We shouldn’t enable them to continue behavior that will certainly put them in an early grave.
I write fiction and my primary goal is to entertain my readers. I don’t endeavor to stand on a soap box and talk about issues I care about. But sometimes, there’s a topic that comes up that resonates so strongly, that I can’t help but write about it. So in The Missing Witness I used the very real homeless crisis — and the waste and fraud that seem to be built into the system — as the backbone for what I hope is a thrilling mystery.