June 11, 2024

In February, Nicole Santa Cruz traveled to New Mexico to report on Albuquerque’s destruction of homeless people’s belongings. The journalist had heard about a lawsuit the city was embroiled in about this issue. ProPublica decided it was worth looking into and, prior to flying, Santa Cruz called around and learned it was a growing problem.

It was on this week-long trip that she met Gabriel Rodriguez, a homeless man whose black duffel bag had been hauled away after he left it outside a shelter. Gone were a stack of letters from his grandmother that held great sentimental value. 

Santa Cruz also met Margarita Griego, who lost most of her belongings, including a backpack that held her Social Security card and identification.

“The first impression, I would say, in Albuquerque was that in every interview, someone had experienced (having) their possessions thrown away. And oftentimes it was multiple times,” the reporter recalled. “And so I was struck by how frequently this was occurring, and by how much it was impacting people and impacting their mental health.”

Santa Cruz, who covers issues of inequality in the Southwest for ProPublica, was tipped off by a source about a woman who had lost her dentures. Christian Smith had gone on an errand, leaving behind a shopping cart with everything she owned near an underpass. The cart was missing when she returned. The 42-year-old Smith told Santa Cruz that it was hard to eat, hard to talk.

“I think in some reporting on homelessness, people are definitely hesitant. But what I have found with this reporting is that people are eager to tell you what happened to them because they feel like it’s wrong,” Santa Cruz said. “They feel like this is not the right thing to be happening to them, and so I think there’s that sense of speaking out.”

In May, ProPublica published Santa Cruz’s story about the city of Albuquerque’s escalating efforts to rid the streets of homeless encampments despite a court order prohibiting it from destroying people’s belongings without giving them a storage option. The journalist detailed the springing up of tents, makeshift structures and shopping carts in parks and sidewalks, and features the voices of some of the unhoused people she met. 

And with data she obtained from Albuquerque’s Solid Waste Management Department, Santa Cruz found that crews deployed by the city to remove these encampments visited more than 4,500 locations where people were camping in 2023. That was more than double the number from the previous year. The most surprising fact to Santa Cruz was the fact that the city program meant to store homeless people’s belongings was rarely used.

As a result, thousands of homeless people have lost personal property, according to interviews with community advocates, service providers and those who have had their possessions discarded,” Santa Cruz wrote in the story. “Some said their belongings had been taken by city crews multiple times. They described losing medication, birth certificates, identification cards, cellphones, chargers, carpentry tools, clothing, a car title, a dog kennel, treasured family photos and the ashes of loved ones.”

The investigation was copublished with other outlets like New Mexico In Depth, a local nonprofit news organization, and KOB, a television station in Albuquerque.

Some of the people interviewed were asked to fill out a prompt from ProPublica. The question at the top of the paper reads: What object was most devastating for you to lose, and how have you been coping?

Christian Smith wrote about her dentures. “It’s made me feel ugly, unworthy, can’t go get a job with no teeth,” she wrote in loopy cursive. “So how can get off the streets until another pair can be made?”

(Credit: Matt Rota for ProPublica)

Homelessness is a vast and complicated beat for journalists. The lack of stable housing is rooted in many issues and, if reporters aren’t careful, their stories can fall into clichés and stereotypes about the people living in these circumstances. At ProPublica, a concerted effort was made to protect the integrity of Santa Cruz’s sources and their stories — from how they were presented visually to engagement surrounding what will be an ongoing series.

Michael Squires, ProPublica’s Southwest editor, said homelessness has been on the nonprofit newsroom’s radar for a while with the rapid increase in housing costs everywhere. But he noted that the issue seems to have been “extra acute” in some of the cities in the region, which includes Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Both Squires and Santa Cruz said the idea for a deeper investigation into possession loss in Albuquerque first came from their colleague Ruth Talbot, a news applications developer at ProPublica who had noticed how frequent it is to see unhoused people lose their possessions as cities try to enforce their camping policies.

To Squires, there was an undeniable human aspect to this. “I think everybody can agree, you need your personal belongings. They’re yours. They help you live your life, wherever that is,” he said. “And to have them just — really without much process at all — tossed, you know, just seems like it is a real tangible harm, and one done to a very vulnerable population.”

When Santa Cruz began looking into the numbers of unsheltered people in cities across the American Southwest, New Mexico’s largest city stood out because it was embroiled in a lawsuit regarding this very issue. “And so I started kind of poking around in Albuquerque and realized it was a big problem there,” Santa Cruz recalled.

Before arriving in New Mexico, Santa Cruz (who is based in Phoenix) lined up ride-alongs with advocates who work closely with Albuquerque’s homeless population. “I wanted to actually see and meet people, so I used my time on the ground in Albuquerque, on the streets, exclusively,” she said. “I tried to make sure that I was talking to people for most of the workday. If I had to do sit-down interviews, I tried to keep them short because I wanted to be out and about as much as possible, just chatting with people.”

Squires acknowledged that homelessness gets written about a lot. In his view, though, much of it gets written in a way that he ignores. “And so we were very conscious about trying to do it in a way that helped readers to see the humanity of the people that were most affected by these policies,” Squires said. “And that involved a lot of the decisions with how they’re portrayed in the story. I think we all agreed that illustration was probably a better choice than photography. Taking photographs of people in their most vulnerable moments, likely of their lives when they’re living on the street, didn’t seem like the best approach.”

Santa Cruz said she felt very strongly about trying to center individuals’ voices. Illustration, she thought, could be a good way to humanize them.

Lisa Larson-Walker, ProPublica’s first art director, hired New York-based artist Matt Rota to render portraits of some of the unhoused individuals featured in Santa Cruz’s story. Rota, who has worked on projects for ProPublica for about a decade, got briefed on aspects that needed to be represented. He was provided with reference photos, stories from other news outlets that had videos of encampments, and photos Santa Cruz herself took of her sources. The resulting visuals include a striking portrait of Christian Smith, the woman who had lost her dentures in what some locals call a “sweep.”

Rota works in traditional pen and ink; he draws his illustrations with pencil first and then uses a crow quill pen on paper. He then scans his drawings and adds the color digitally. In the portrait, Smith is wearing a beanie hat and a tight-lipped smile. 

Larson-Walker said Rota is a gifted illustrator who can do great reportage in the way he draws. “The way that Matt was able to kind of present the faces of people, and the scene, kind of lent towards the thematic goals of the story in what we thought was the most effective way,” she said.

On the far right is another spot illustration of the denture case Smith lost. In the middle of both illustrations is Smith’s handwritten response to the prompt ProPublica provided.

Rota said he was at first given a long spreadsheet of items that had been discarded by the city of Albuquerque. They included canned foods, propane tanks, grills, clothing, blankets, books, tents, a mattress, a bicycle, a hoodie. Someone also had a computer monitor taken. They had been using it to work.

The prompt itself was inspired by court documents. Santa Cruz said she read affidavits written by volunteers who would go around Albuquerque and talk to people experiencing homelessness about losing their belongings. Some were typed. Others were handwritten. “I just thought, ‘Wow, the power of handwriting could be really amazing to illustrate this,” she said. “… Seeing the impact in the affidavits, in handwriting, was really powerful to me.”

***

Several minutes after ProPublica published Santa Cruz’s investigation out of Albuquerque, the newsroom released a callout to readers. The headline: “Have You Experienced Homelessness? Do You Work With People Who Have? Tell Us About Encampment Removals.”

ProPublica hopes to hear from people who have personal experience with having a belonging taken during a sweep, or those with insight into this issue. People can text, call or email ProPublica.

Asia Fields, an engagement reporter with ProPublica, said the engagement team routinely organizes call-outs for stories. Because homelessness is an issue across the country, Fields said they want to hear from as many different cities as possible. She has been working with fellow engagement reporter Maya Miller on this project.

“We have heard from people who’ve had personal experience with sweeps,” Fields said. “We’ve also heard from people who are in more like advocacy or outreach worker kind of roles, which has been really helpful, but we’d love to hear from more people.”

The nonprofit newsroom also plans to do some on-the-ground outreach in several cities. Fields said recently they were in Portland, Oregon. “So the work continues and it’ll be both on-the-ground and also there is a callout option, if people are able to access that and want to communicate with us that way,” she said. “But we know not everyone can, which is why we’re also doing on-the-ground.”

Santa Cruz said readers can expect more sustained reporting on this issue, with dives into different aspects of this issue. “And really trying to continue to center and focus on the voices of people who have experienced this.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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