What Journalists Need to Know When Covering Homeless Communities

This is the third of three student pieces produced in Montclair State University’s “On the Road: Reporting from the Field” multimedia course.

“Don’t be filming us! I don’t care!” a woman shouted from her lawn chair on the sidewalk of South 11th Avenue in South Central Phoenix.

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She was talking to my Montclair State journalism classmates. We were standing within the four-block radius where most of Maricopa County’s 9,000 people without homes were living, near nonprofit- and government-run services and shelters.

The scene was unlike anything I had experienced. Growing up in New Jersey, less than an hour from Manhattan, I am aware there are many people, who for one reason or another, end up living on the street. But the sheer number of people I saw in South Central without a bed or a makeshift shelter over their heads was a sight I still can’t shake. The few who were lucky enough to have tents seemed to have hit the lottery in comparison.

There was a line of 50 people waiting to get a meal from Andre House. There was another line of people on the sidewalk hoping for a bed at Keys Campus. Some were laid out on the sidewalk in the shade of empty storefronts. Others aimlessly walked through the road, no place to go, just moving. Any open spaces between buildings and in parking lots were jammed with discarded drinks, snack bags, cigarette butts and bottles of urine.

My co-producer, Brandon Ehly, and I were getting a tour of the street from local artist Joel Coplin, when the woman who had shouted at us earlier saw the three of us chatting. “Oh, it’s for Mr. Joel,” she told us. “OK, you can film us. Sorry. Come over here, you don’t have to be scared.”

The woman told us her name was Teresa Brown. She agreed to be on camera once we explained why we were there and how we wanted to understand what was happening to those living on the street.

She said she’d been houseless for 14 years. It starts to feel like the whole world doesn’t care about you anymore, she said. After a few minutes, she started getting upset and no longer wanted to answer our questions, so we thanked her for her time, and she thanked us for listening. She made us promise to stay in school and sent us off with a blessing.

What stuck with us since speaking with her was her trust. She didn’t want to speak to us at first because she was trying to protect those around her from being treated like they were just faces in the crowd, instead of real people. But her change of mind came from seeing someone she trusted — Joel — trust us.

After covering this story, I’ve realized how important it is to lead with empathy. Even writing this now, I wonder how she is doing, along with the many others we filmed on those blocks.

People might think we didn’t do enough, that we should have given them more than just a moment in front of the camera. But I say we gave them more than that. We gave them a medium to say how they feel. It was important we made them feel like human beings. We took the time to understand them and just listen.

Coming back to New Jersey, I felt privileged to be one of the people telling this story, to shine a light on a situation that needs to be illuminated. I felt honored that so many trusted us enough to be vulnerable with us.

Izzy Conklin

Isabelle “Izzy” Conklin was born for filmmaking — her parents named her after a movie character. While in the BFA film and television program at Montclair State University, she has produced and assistant-directed many projects, one of which was a finalist in Coca-Cola’s 2024 Refreshing Films contest. Izzy has also co-senior-produced many news specials at Montclair, including “Arizona Stories: Border, Water and Politics,” “FOCUS: Democracy: Our Election” and the award-winning “FOCUS: Food.” She is currently the senior director of content programming at Hawk+, the very first collegiate streaming service.


Brandon Ehly

Brandon Ehly is a recent graduate of Montclair State University’s film and television program. He has directed a production for an Eric Whitacre concert and was a producer for “Arizona Stories: Border, Water and Politics.” He never thought he would be a storyteller until he took Montclair NewsLab, where he produced three stories and later became TA.