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Lori Teresa Yearwood, Journalist of Life on the Edge, Dies at 57


Lori Teresa Yearwood, a journalist who after an excruciating spiral into two years of homelessness returned to reporting and wrote both about her ordeal and about people dealing with similar economic hardships, died on Sept. 17 at her home in Salt Lake City. She was 57.

Her death, in hospice care, was caused by ovarian cancer, said Sherry Long, a close friend.

Ms. Yearwood’s articles for The Washington Post, The New York Times, Slate, Defector, Mother Jones and other outlets established her as a prominent and empathetic voice of the unhoused, as she called homeless people. She referred to herself as a “trauma-informed journalist.”

“She had the chops of a great reporter with lived experience,” said David Wallis, the former managing director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, founded by the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, which gives grants to journalists like Ms. Yearwood, some of them on the brink of poverty, to write about social inequality for major publications.

“She had a unique voice, and was able to get stories no one else was getting,” Mr. Wallis said in a phone interview.

Before she covered others’ stories, Ms. Yearwood wrote about herself.

“My descent into homelessness felt as though it happened in the blink of an eye,” she wrote in The New York Times in 2021. “It was as if one moment I was standing in a meadow next to my horses, stroking their manes, and the next I was lying inside a plastic bag on a park bench wrapping clothes around my shivering body.”

But in fact it was a slow-motion fall, one she could not see coming. It took 14 years, and it started with her decision around 2000 to leave The Miami Herald, where she had been a reporter for seven years.

With an inheritance from her father, she started a nonprofit organization to help low-income children write, but it did not make enough money to pay its employees. She moved to Oregon, where she raised horses. While there, she developed a business making sugar-free treats for horses.

But the bank foreclosed on her house in 2008. Then, after living in a small carpentry shed on her mother’s property for five years, she moved to a cottage that burned down two weeks after she moved in. Her mother died. She was evicted from her next residence. She moved into a hotel in Salt Lake City, but her stay ended when she was unable to pay for her room.

From late 2014 to early 2017, she was in and out of shelters and slept on the street. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a man who worked for a homeless outreach center, where Ms. Yearwood picked up her daily hygiene kit.

“In that other life,” she wrote in a 6,300-word article that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post on Oct. 28, 2018, “I had thought homeless shelters were places of refuge. The Road Home, though, turned out to be an intensified replications of the chaos on the streets — the same desperation, the same violence — concentrated in a single building.”

She was incarcerated for six months for public lewdness after she bathed naked in a river — she said she couldn’t tolerate cleaning herself in a shelter’s shower stalls, which were littered with tampons and used toilet paper. She was taken to the psychiatric ward of a hospital for “bizarre behavior,” she wrote, which led to diagnoses of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and she was forcibly medicated.

The multiple traumas rendered her largely mute; she didn’t tell doctors about what had transpired in her life until then.

But she gradually recovered with help from a pastor at the Salt Lake City Mission and from Journey of Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps harmed women start new lives.

“When she came to me, she wouldn’t look up, she was looking at the ground; she couldn’t see because her glasses had been smashed,” said Shannon Miller-Cox, the founder of Journey of Hope. “I said, ‘It’s dangerous on the street and women are being brutalized’ and she said, ‘Yes, I’ve been brutalized.’

“I said, ‘A lot of our women are getting assaulted,’ and she said, ‘Yes, I was assaulted.’”

Then, Ms. Miller-Cox recalled by phone, Ms. Yearwood told her, “I used to be a writer.”

“And I said, ‘Honey, you’re going to write again. And you’re going to be powerful.’”

Lori Teresa Yearwood was born on Sept. 22, 1965, in Denver and grew up in the suburbs of Palo Alto, Calif. Her father, Vernon Yearwood-Drayton, was a Panamanian immigrant who worked as a microbiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Her mother, Marlene (Moss) Yearwood, was an administrative assistant at Stanford University.

Lori took ballet lessons at the San Francisco Ballet School as a child and, in 1991, graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She worked as a reporter for The Fresno Bee, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Syracuse Post-Standard and The Herald. She also wrote some articles for Tropic, The Herald’s Sunday magazine.

“I remember her as a very promising young writer,” Tom Shroder, Tropic’s former editor, said in a phone interview.

Her talent re-emerged after her homelessness ended and she found work. She was hired as a cashier at a Whole Foods Market in Salt Lake City, earning $11 an hour; as a grant writer for Journey of Hope; and as assistant program director at a refugee center.

Mr. Shroder, who had been following her on Facebook (“My ultimate goal: to once again write full-time,” Ms. Yearwood wrote on July 4, 2018), contacted her.

“I said, ‘You have an amazing story,’” Mr. Shroder said. “‘You experienced something that people write about with no insight.’”

He introduced her to his contacts at The Post, where he used to be an editor. The front-page article she wrote led Mr. Wallis to bring her to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

In addition to articles about her plight and others’, Ms. Yearwood wrote pieces in which she recommended that shelters relieve the constant fatigue that worsens the trauma of homeless people with better residential designs that encourage sleep, and that supported increased investment in government-subsidized housing.

When she delivered the keynote address at the Supportive Housing Conference last year, she talked about defying assumptions about being homeless.

“When I was living on a slatted wood park bench on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, the projections that people foisted on me were dire,” she said. “One, they said, ‘You’re going to die.’ Two, they said, ‘You will live the rest of your life in an institution.’”

No immediate family members survive.

Ms. Yearwood had been working on a memoir — Mr. Shroder said she had written a lot of it but didn’t have a publisher — and was consulting on a homelessness project for the Opinion section of The Times that is scheduled to be published this fall. She had been expected to write the project’s foreword.

Meeta Agrawal, the special projects editor of the Opinion section, wrote in an email that Ms. Yearwood “brought the full power of her brilliant thinking, hard-earned knowledge and deep passion to bear on our ideas, and in doing so she shaped the direction of the project.”

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