It’s no secret that sex workers often don’t trust law enforcement and don’t ask police for help after incidents of violence. Officers around the U.S. are themselves arrested for trafficking, raping and abusing people on the street. Here in New Mexico, those stories pop up, too. And people who do that kind of work here say there’s a feeling that it’s either not safe, or that police won’t respond well if they report they’ve been attacked or assaulted. That can mean serial offenders go unchecked.
Plastic tubs of donated clothes sat out in the sun next to a long-closed grocery store on East Central in Albuquerque. People crossed the big parking lot from all directions to dig through them. Pairs of shoes were lined up. This is weekly outreach for a local nonprofit called Street Safe.
Volunteers offered snacks, water, toiletries, condoms, sometimes little makeup kits that someone donated or a bus pass. Lena—who doesn’t want to use her real name for safety reasons—spotted a volunteer with a new box of clothes. "I don’t want to blow you off, but I want to see what she’s putting out real quick," she said.
This gathering has happened every Friday afternoon for the last decade. Two women started Street Safe because the bones of 11 people—nine women and two teen girls—were found on the West Mesa. Police said they were targeted because they did sex work.
On this day, women pull shirts and pants out of the bins, hold them up to the light and look them over. Lena was excited to find a sweater.
Once they’ve got their stuff, the women can also talk with the volunteers about their week, and if they’ve been attacked or assaulted, what that person looks like, what kind of car they drive. That info goes into what’s called the Bad Guy List, handed out to people during outreach.
The list is a public safety tool by and for people who don’t feel safe talking to police. Lena explained why. "They made you feel kinda like guilty for whatever happened to you," she said. "They made you feel bad for whatever happened to you. Like, you were wrong for being there at the wrong place at the wrong time kinda thing. You know?"
That made it so she didn't talk to them when she experienced more violence, she said. "I know a lot of people who just deal with things," she said. "There’s a lot of stories out there where people aren’t going to the police because of the way they treat victims."
But in a world where they come to her, looking for info about assailants, it would be a different story, she said, because she’s sick of violence, and she’s lost too much. Lena said she’s not a sex worker, but she keeps her friends who are updated about additions to the list.
This wasn’t always Lena’s life. She used to go to college, she said, just down the street really from where we’re standing. "You know, I’m used to being a wife and a stay-at-home mom. I was also a full-time student at CNM," she said. "So, that’s what I’m used to. That’s what I like doing, and that’s what I’m trying to get back to."
Someone needed to notice when women who live on the street or do sex work go missing, Christine Barber said, and that’s why she co-founded Street Safe. It’s not just about noticing people, she said, it’s about making folks feel seen. "It really is more about kind of just going up to the women and being like: Hey! It’s good to see you again this week!"
Here in this parking lot, Barber said, women have shared their stories of assault at least 1,500 times. Some women died. "We, in the middle of this parking lot, this very unforgiving parking lot, we have memorial services, and we mourn them, and we come back the next week."
After 10 years doing this work, Barber just got a call this month from police Sgt. Amanda Wild wanting to talk about fixing this broken system—and broken trust. "I’ve already taken a rape report tonight here at outreach," Barber said, "and just to have the hope that in the future when I have to do that, we might have a path for her to report and to get medical attention, and then a way that she’s not going to get arrested but get him arrested ... "
The news of APD’s efforts floored Barber, because she said she’s met compassionate officers here and there, but the department itself has always seemed immovable. "That is just … I can’t even tell you. It is really different. It is a very different day."
Sgt. Wild is heading up a special team of allies, advocates and law enforcement. "The whole hope is to try to build that bridge of understanding, respect, communication, and to re-engage these victims, so we can prevent any additional serial rapists," Wild said.
And Barber said that might make those last 10 years out in that parking lot all worth it.
This is the first part in a series.