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Putting a human face to the numbers: A waiter made homeless by the pandemic

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Since the pandemic took hold in America earlier this year, the economic impact has been huge, with millions laid off or underemployed and struggling to make ends meet. While myriad stories have covered this, few have been able to capture how the chilling trickle-down effect is changing lives.

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Jeff Lello, who has been living out of his van since being laid off during the pandemic, poses in Orlando, Fla., Aug. 21, 2020. – Phelan M. Ebenhack

Enter Kelli Kennedy. The Florida reporter produced a compelling story with heartbreaking detail on one man’s struggle with the devastating economic effects of the coronavirus shutdowns. Orlando resident Jeff Lello lost his waiter job,ended up homeless and briefly lived in a tent in the woods. Kelli heard about Lello in early July while reporting on Florida’s unemployed and their glitches in receiving state and federal aid,and tried to make contact. He was difficult to track down and once reached, canceled several interviews before finally going forward.

Kennedy had to coax him on by sharing some of her own struggles in life. She learned some of the smaller details of Lello’s daily routine: searching for convenience stores where he could use the rest room,recharging his phone and checking unemployment benefits status at the library. She also learned about the setbacks,such as raccoons eating his stash of crackers and bagels, and Lello’s abject despair at his lowest points.

The story drew phenomenal engagement,and loads of feedback from readers,colleagues and even politicians. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s office contacted Lello to try to help secure still-pending benefits for him. “I was riveted,” assistant regional sports editor Dave Zelio wrote to Kennedy in a complimentary email. “Take a bow for getting the details to make this work.” The story scored a rare 100 in AP’s engagement rating,a combination of pageviews and time spent by readers. The story garnered 275,000 pageviews on AP News and was the fifth most-read of the week.

For a stark narrative of unemployment wrought by the pandemic, Kennedy’s story wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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