By Trevor PyleIn opening paragraphs of her Chicago Reader piece about six deaths in Chicago last year, Katie Prout makes a rare and daring admission: She reveals that she keeps an altar and remakes it whenever a person she knows dies. She includes coins as one of its ingredients, writing:
… because metal, like us, comes from the earth, and because these hustlers loved money and deserve to go into the afterlife with full pockets.
It’s a jolt of an opening — elegiac, electric, mournful and angry — and Prout maintains the tone throughout. She’s mourning six people who, at times, were shoved to the margins of society. By the time she’s done, readers will mourn, too.
“She was somebody to us,” published in January 2023, was driven as much by Lloyd DeGrane’s photographs as by Prout’s reporting and writing. It isn’t afraid to draw a line between specific policy failures and the deaths of people struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental illness, and to point out the public’s complicity. As Prout writes:
Each one of these deaths was preventable, including the two accidental drug overdoses. (One cause of death remains undetermined.) Culturally, most of us shrug off overdose deaths as inevitable tragedies—the result of ravenous addiction, if we’re being bighearted, or the result of moral failing, if we’re not. What I need you to understand is that these deaths are policy choices; they are preventable, and we all are accountable for them.
It doesn’t shy away from being bound up with Prout’s own mournfulness:
I’m no expert, I’ve never been addicted or unhoused, and my grief and rage are not the biggest in this city, but still, six people I know died last year. I think you should know them too.
And it embraces being a challenge as well as a remembrance, as Prout writes:
… these deaths are related to us—the people who are housed and not addicted, who have access to health care and alderpeople, who take pictures of the visibly mentally ill or impoverished asleep on the Red Line and post them in online discussions about “crime” on the CTA—and the policy choices we support.
Prout agreed to an interview with Storyboard about her own unconventional background, her outreach efforts on the streets of downtown Chicago with DeGrane, and her efforts to draw individual profiles of Brittany Burke (1990-2022), Ron Jeschke (1985-2022), Sheila Hope Hecks (1971-2022), Valerie “Val” Clark (1986-2022), Rafael “Ralph” Fernandez Jr. (1980-2022) and Demarco “Polo” Hawes (1993-2022).
Fellow journalists may find lessons both practical and philosophical in her answers. A few that jumped out initially:
Emotion can give a story an engine.
Prout gives credit for the piece’s opening to editor and Chicago Reader colleague Taryn Allen, who encouraged Prout to use her own emotions as a runway to launch readers into the story.
“The beginning of the piece is what it is because of her,” Prout told me. “The first version was more news-speak/reporting, not at all personal. During a meeting, she asked me ‘How are you feeling?’ and then, ‘What if you told us some of that?’ I had been holding my feelings at a distance, partly because I didn’t want to make the story about me, and partly because I was really struggling and wanted to power through. With Taryn, I found a way to avoid doing either. Tapping into my emotions and my perspective, making the intro a little more personal, was great advice. It brought the readers in quicker, I think, and propelled them forward into the story.”
Conversations, not interviews.
Speaking to loved ones of someone who’s died can be a journalist’s most grueling task, but Prout didn’t try to avoid or even minimize it. She made sure she had robust discussions with the people she interviewed so they knew the purpose of her story. And that openness didn’t end when she flipped her notebook shut.
“The biggest challenge was just explaining to friends and family of the dead why I wanted to do this, why I thought it was important to write about their loved ones with honesty and sensitivity. There were conversations before, during and after interviews: if I was going to ask questions of other people, it was only fair I make myself available for them to ask questions of me,” she said.
Depart from conventional format when you need to.
It can be difficult to write one profile; Prout was faced with six, and had varying amounts of detail and background for each. She initially wanted each profile to be in a similar style, but scrapped that notion and instead was guided by the material she had. Her explanation offers journalists reasons to veer from a plan when it’ll make a story suit its subject better: “I thought about trying to keep a consistent style for each person, but decided to be flexible on that. Some folks I knew well, others I only met once, and everyone was their own self. Being open to changing the length, number of sources and style of each allowed for Lloyd (DeGrane, the photojournalist) to write about Val, for example, or for Dan to take the lead on Ralph’s story, or for me to write in a more creative-nonfiction register for Hope.”
The Q&A with Prout was edited for length and clarity.
The Chicago Reader is an established and well-regarded nonprofit alt-publication in Chicago. Tell me a little about your background in journalism, and how you landed at the Reader.
I went to undergrad for English, and my focus was actually poetry and creative nonfiction. I graduated in 2009 at the height of the recession, and worked whatever jobs I could get — a coordinator at a shelter, an after-school program educator, years in Chicago as a nanny and a stint answering phones in call centers. Throughout those years, I wrote erratically, then consistently, and slowly started publishing poetry, nonfiction essays and then freelance journalism. In 2015, I went to grad school and graduated with my MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. But after I moved back to Chicago in 2019, it was another two years of freelancing, nannying and working odd jobs before I landed at the Chicago Reader, where I am a full-time staff writer focusing on addiction, housing and culture.
That’s a long answer, but I share it all to (hopefully) demystify some of the journo job world. Not all of us go to J school or are phenoms by 25: I’m lucky, and in many ways I have an abundance of privilege. But it took me years of scraping by and hundreds of job apps before I got my dream position.
You mention early-on your weekly walks with photographer Lloyd DeGrane — more on him later — with backpacks of life-saving materials. Tell me a little more about these walks and how they came about.
In 2019 I was underemployed and had an abundance of time on my hands — and a family member with a substance use disorder had just relapsed. I wanted to learn more about this thing called Narcan I’d been hearing about, and so attended a free training on how to administer it put on by the Chicago Recovery Alliance, one of the oldest harm reduction orgs in the country. I started volunteering there weekly, packing kits of clean needles and safer smoking supplies.
When Covid hit, I wondered and worried about all the people I’d come to know through the CRA who relied on clinics for the medication they used to treat their opioid use disorders. Like everything else, those clinics were shutting down and folks were facing withdrawal or relapse. This is where luck comes in, and the generosity of others in the field: I told my friend Logan Jaffe, a journalist at ProPublica, that I wanted to write a story about this but wanted to work with someone on it. She, in turn, introduced me to Lakiedra Chavis, (now with The Marshall Project) who’d been reporting on the opioid crisis in Chicago for years. Lakiedra spent an hour with me on the phone, sharing resources and encouraging me to pursue this story before she suggested I call this guy named Lloyd DeGrane, a photo-documentarian who went on long walks in the Loop, sharing harm reduction supplies and building relationships with unhoused folks.
The resulting story we did came out in Belt Magazine, and shortly after that, I was walking downtown with Lloyd — masked and in my comfy shoes — almost every week. The phone call with Lakeidra really changed the trajectory of my life, and I’m grateful to her and Logan for taking the time.
How did you conceive this story, and what was the reporting, writing and editing process?
Last spring, when Ralph, Polo and Val died, two other people I knew from Lower Wacker Drive (Editor’s note: A multi-level street on the edge of the downtown Chicago) were really sick from preventable disease, and ended up losing the apartment they’d just gotten into after years of surviving on the street. I was sad. But more than that, I was really angry, because these deaths were part of a lattice of failure. I started drafting what I thought would be a short personal commentary/op-ed, but then got wrapped up in other stories. After Ron died in the fall, I returned to it, and realized there was a story here.
Reporting process: Identifying and reaching out to next of kin, to explain why I was writing about their loved one and my hope for their participation. While doing so, I reached out to the medical examiner’s office for causes of death and began interviews with unhoused friends and loved ones of the dead.
Writing: I made a brief outline — in my head, this would be six micro profiles-memorials, with an intro and an ending (I ended up dropping the ending). I started writing Ron’s memorial first. As I went, I noted any common themes, scenes or ideas at the top of the doc, to explore later when I wrote the intro. I thought about trying to keep a consistent style for each person, but decided to be flexible on that. Some folks I knew well, others I only met once, and everyone was their own self. Being open to changing the length, number of sources, and style of each allowed for Lloyd to write about Val, for example, or for Dan to take the lead on Ralph’s story, or for me to write in a more creative-nonfiction register for Hope.
I started outlining and jotting at the end of November, and finished the last profile — Brittany’s — four days before the story came out. Not ideal, but it had to happen. It was hard to write about that much death and I needed to take some breaks, especially when, the week before publishing, someone in my extended family overdosed and died. My editor, Taryn Allen, was incredibly understanding. When I told her I needed to take a couple days between that death and listening to my interview with Brittany’s mom Terrie, which I knew would be emotional, she was supportive, even if it meant I would be finishing the draft on a very tight turnaround.
Editing: Speaking of Taryn, the beginning of the piece is what it is because of her. The first version was more news-speak/reporting, not at all personal. During a meeting, she asked me “How are you feeling?” and then “What if you told us some of that?” I had been holding my feelings at a distance, partially because I didn’t want to make the story about me, and partially because I was really struggling and wanted to power through. WIth Taryn, I found a way to avoid doing either. Tapping into my emotions and my perspective, making the intro a little more personal, was great advice. It brought the readers in quicker, I think, and propelled them forward into the story.
How did you approach specific challenges specific to the reporting and writing?
Most, though not all, of the people I interviewed downtown, I interviewed in person, which just meant a lot of legwork. Much of what I’d heard about folks’ lives and deaths was anecdotal and difficult to verify. Some people I knew by nicknames rather than birth names. And the biggest challenge was just explaining to friends and family of the dead why I wanted to do this, why I thought it was important to write about their loved ones with honesty and sensitivity. There were conversations before, during, and after interviews; if I was going to ask questions of other people, it was only fair I make myself available for them to ask questions of me.
Words can bring people to life for readers, but so can photographs; it seems that Lloyd DeGrane’s photographs are an essential part of this package, and Lloyd himself is an important part of the story as he’s both mentioned and quoted at length. How important were Lloyd’s contributions to the story’s final shape?
Lloyd is my colleague, my comrade, my mentor and my friend. We learn from and with each other. We’re different people, with different perspectives and politics, who are deeply invested in both harm reduction and documentarian work. Often Lloyd has longer and stronger relationships with folks downtown than I do; I’m still relatively new here, and he’s been doing this for more than half a decade. He can provide insight and history to the communities we move in that I just don’t have. Just like I believe an overdose death is not one individual’s fault, journalism like this isn’t the result of one lone journalist’s work. The story is better with him in it.
Some publications might shy away from drawing a direct line from drug-related deaths to policy, but you name organizations trying to help prevent deaths and politicians who could likely prevent them but don’t. Would you like to see more journalists and publications take this step?
Definitely. I think it’s disingenuous not to. We’re storytellers as well as reporters, and pretending to be uncomfortable with that fact doesn’t make it any less true. What we choose to include and exclude is a narrative choice we — writers, editors and interview subjects — make all the time. And journalists don’t just identify the who-what-when-where: we also report on the how and why, the context from which readers can make sense of the other information provided.
I was struck by this sentence: “If you ask people what kind of housing they need, they’ll tell you.” It seems like people who are unhoused or struggle with addiction are often boxed out of policy and political stories that affect them directly. How crucial is it that their voices are included in writing about Chicago, or any community?
I don’t think any reporting is complete without including perspectives from the people who have the most at stake.
There are vivid details in every profile, but one paragraph particularly moved me: Hope’s litany of questions to you about yourself; it shows a piece of her inquisitive personality.
As many questions as I had for her, Hope had for me. “How much you spend on cat food? Do your cat eat a lot? What color is he? Is he very friendly? You got cable? You never watch My Cat From Hell? Y’all don’t watch too much TV. How do you like your husband? Ooo, he’s not your husband yet? Well, when will he be? Y’all thinking about getting a big house pretty soon? You have a good job? Can you afford your rent? Is there a lot of crime over there? Mixed neighborhood? Lotta Black folks over there? Puerto Ricans? Lotta good restaurants? Walmarts? Walgreens? You know how to get out of a lockhold? It’s good to know self-defense. Are you safe down here?”
Can you tell me anything but how you came to write it, and how you had made notes of or remembered all those questions?
Thanks for asking me about that paragraph — it was really important to me. I’m so glad I was able to include it. Those questions are from an interview I did with Hope in summer 2021. It’s a good reminder to me ask folks if I can record them, even if we’re just casually talking, because I don’t know if/when I’ll see them again, and because having a rich store of recordings to revisit helps make stories more complex and real. She asked me all those questions, pretty much as they’re written; I just tightened up the language and removed my responses so that the effect was a cascade of curiosity. Hope had a keen interest in people and how we live, and loved to gossip. Being able to show a little of who she was, in her own words, was good for the story, and it meant something to me personally, too.
On a similar note, you end with two wrenching lines in which you recall telling Hope you’d visit her apartment soon. How did you land on this as the best place to end the piece?
I thought about ending a wrap-up paragraph, but decided I didn’t want the ending to this story to feel resolved for the reader, because that isn’t the truth. It also felt important to subtly implicate myself, too, though I don’t know if it read that way — I told Hope I’d come visit soon, and then just didn’t. I’d like to tell myself I would have if I’d had more time, but unhoused people are promised all kinds of things by those of us who are housed and, for all kinds of reasons, we don’t make good.
Who were you most hoping to reach with this piece? Related: What kind of response did you hope to get?
I wanted to reach people who think addiction and homelessness don’t have anything to do with them and people who are community orientated but to whom harm reduction is unfamiliar or even scary. Basically, I wanted to challenge general readers to think about addiction and housing in a new way, and to consider the people and systems in power who could do better. If an alderperson or mayoral candidate read this story, great. But it was more important to me that the people who can hold them accountable do.
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Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and now works as a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.