Special series on homelessness

Finding Home Part 1 – Out of the Storm

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 11/21/18

Night monitor Brian Price saw the line begin to grow outside Taos Men’s Shelter before the worst of the storm hit on Veteran’s Day.

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Special series on homelessness

Finding Home Part 1 – Out of the Storm

Posted

Corrections appended.

Night monitor Brian Price saw the line begin to form outside Taos Men’s Shelter before the worst of the storm hit on Veteran’s Day.

The snow started falling well before the sun went down, and then it blew in sheets in the cold dark, the freezing flakes darting in the beams of car headlamps moving up Albright Street and building under streetlights in deepening drifts. The temperature would drop to -3.

Some of Taos County’s homeless emerged out of the blizzard on foot, picking their way through the freeze. Others were trucked in through the storm in a neighbor’s vehicle, or in a police cruiser. Many clung to the fruits of a day’s work or a day’s hustle.

Men, about a quarter of them veterans – and a few women – shook out their jackets and stomped their shoes in the light of the doorway, leaving tracks of snow that said something of their readiness for the storm and where they had been by the patterns their soles left behind.

“Hey, hey, how y’all doing?” Price asked as he ushered them through the door.

A hot meal prepared by local volunteers waited for them inside. Each person filled a plate and found a seat at a table, on a couch or in front of a computer at the far side of the room.

Dustin Lister, a former resident who now works for the shelter, took a count to see how many residents had returned for the night and how many new faces had crowded into the room.

Taos Men’s Shelter is one of two overnight homeless shelters for adults in Taos, but the beds they offer are only available to men, ages 18 to 80. Women and children can stay for dinner, but have to leave when the lights go out. DreamTree Project also serves the homeless, serving people from ages 12 to 24.

More people knocked at the door. The storm blew harder.

Price knew the shelter’s 18-bed limit would have to be pushed beyond what regulations would safely allow. The people at the door had few alternatives.

“We went as high as 28 beds during the storm,” Price later noted.

Out of the woods

Price sought refuge at the men’s shelter on another day when the weather turned three years ago.

After a career in corporate jobs that left him feeling empty and a divorce that was enough to “break the camel’s back,” he found himself homeless, wandering the public lands of New Mexico.

“I hung on as long as I could, and then I decided I was going to go live in the woods,” he said. “I thought I was done with it, and I expected to die, but low and behold I didn’t die while I was out there.”

In the fall of 2015, he made his way into Taos to find food for himself and his dog, but the temperatures outside had already begun to drop.

“I was woken up by police three times that October,” he recalled.

By the third time, he said an officer directed him to Taos Men’s Shelter.

He said local law enforcement in Taos makes an effort to direct the homeless to shelter, which often means a ride on the Blue Bus to warmer areas further south in New Mexico. Taos Police Chief David Trujillo said his officers refresh their training in dealing with the homeless population twice a year.

Price chose to stay at Taos Men’s Shelter. His first time was “pandemonium,” he said.

One resident had stolen from another person staying at the shelter, an act Price described as “about the worst thing you can do in the homeless community.”

But Price kept coming back, and by the spring of 2016, he was asked to join the staff as a night monitor, an experience, he said, that has opened his eyes to the root causes of homelessness among adult men.

“I think a lot of it goes to their childhood,” he said. “We get night terrors over there. People have horrible dreams. And it’s either veterans on the battlefield, or it’s other people that are reliving a childhood trauma.”

Not your typical Taos story

Many who arrive in Taos under less-than-ideal circumstances tell a common story: The struggle to find a job and a lack of affordable housing has even forced some of them to spend a few nights in their car.

That’s different from chronic homelessness, defined as an extended period without permanent housing, according to Ethan Naszady, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who works at the shelter.

“Experiencing homelessness itself is a crisis,” he says. “It’s a traumatic crisis event and a very significant mental and physical situation to be in.”

Roughly 2,500 people will find themselves in that situation tonight in New Mexico, according to 2017 data provided by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which further estimates the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in the state at around 800.

Throughout the United States, an estimated 554,000 people are homeless, a number that swung as high as a million and a half people after the housing bubble burst in 2008.

Pinning down numbers for small localities, like Taos County, is less precise.

So far this year, Price said they’ve served roughly 320 different people. Of those, he estimates 30 percent are from Taos County, 20 percent are from other parts of New Mexico, and 50 percent are from outside the state.

He said the population they serve at the shelter is highly transient and is generally divided into two groups: those who arrive for dinner each night, which is open to the public – including women and accompanied children – and those who stay overnight at the shelter.

The latter is also divided into two groups: people in emergency situations, for which there are six beds capped at a maximum of five nights per person each month, and 12 beds reserved for residents engaged in the shelter’s case management program, run by Dan Wohl.

Rebuilding

Four days after the storm cleared, the ground around the county still lay frozen, and a young man staying at the shelter, who asked to remain anonymous, got up to start his day.

He first walks to the Hanuman Temple in Taos, where he meditates before attending a session with the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Then he goes to the library to post his resume on employment websites. Later, he goes to work at a local restaurant where he buses tables.

“Staying here is helping me to save money to get my own place,” he says of his time at the shelter. “The guys here support each other.”

He came here after losing his home in Santa Fe, an experience that worsened a drinking problem he’s managed to shake in recent months. Part of his regained stability has come from working with Wohl on a set of goals he hopes will get him a good job at Taos Ski Valley and a place of his own in Taos.

Addiction is a common factor among clients at the shelter, Wohl said, as are other behavioral health problems. Some clients are former patients at Tri-County Community Services, which created a hole in the community’s safety net when it shut down earlier this year.

“We tried to prepare ourselves for the shakeup at Tri-County,” Naszady said. “Things didn’t get too bumpy. I think the main concern was continuing to access medication.”

Wohl works with clients from the most basic level necessary to participate in society. Acquiring a copy of a lost birth certificate or social security card is a common goal. Residents can use the shelter as a temporary address to accomplish such tasks.

One of the most important services offered at the shelter, however, is the dinner that brings many members of this marginalized community together each day.

Game night

“Does everybody know that we have food on the table?” Price announced, as people started to return to the shelter that evening.

Containers of fried chicken, baked yams and vegetables steamed on a long table in the main room. One resident turned on Thursday night football. The Packers were playing the Seahawks. The announcers began to call the game as the teams took to the scrimmage line, adding to the din of chatter filling the room.

Roberta Lerman, one of a 10-member crew of volunteers with the Taos Jewish Center who prepares meals each month, stood by the door as a man walked in.

“Thank you, folks,” he said to her as he went for a plate.

“It’s a really good feeling doing this,” Lerman said. “When I’m making this, I think, ‘One of these guys could be my son.’ ”

But it’s not just men who come to dinner.

Alicia Stine, a recent arrival from Nevada, picked at a plate of chicken at a table with two other men and a family with two small children.

“I’ve been stuck here for a couple weeks now,” Stine says as she pulls some meat off the bone. “I was going with a traveling sales crew, where they go door-to-door and sell all-purpose cleaners. When I first got here, I got beat up and everything was stolen from me, all my clothes.”

She says she knows how to survive, but when dinner ends at 8 p.m each night, she often has to a find a new place to stay.

And doing so can be dangerous.

“A lot of people want to trade sex,” she said, “and that’s just not me.”

Several other staff members at the men’s shelter said a women’s shelter is a priority.

“We needed a women’s shelter here like yesterday,” Price said. “That’s a community effort and we need to get behind that.”

Heart of Taos, a nonprofit that provides transitional living services to homeless women, has been at the forefront of those efforts, but currently offers no equivalent of the men’s shelter for women.

Families, too, who find themselves homeless, have to make a decision about whether they will stay together on the street or split up at shelters that aren’t equipped to serve different ages and genders together.

Sitting over plates at the end of the table, Nick Mikrikov and Cynthis Eggink, said they had to live in their car for several months with three small children after moving from California to Taos last year.

“We literally arrived with about $2 in our pocket,” Eggnick said, recalling how their house in California fell through during a landlord-tenant dispute.

They fed themselves by selling precious metals and antiques around Taos. Mikrikov, a skilled laborer, would pick up odd jobs working construction. For a time, he worked at a local salvage yard, but even with both of them working, they would remain homeless for many months.

They started bringing their family to the men’s shelter this fall. Eggnick said it was an experience she was somewhat wary of. Price said he is always on alert when small children come to dinner.

Eggnick said she had only seen one other family at dinner time, but was reassured by her partner, who had visited the shelter earlier in the year.

“I feel comfortable in there because of Nick’s whole attitude about the place and his relationship with the guys,” she said.

A breakthrough came recently when a local man they met through the shelter heard about their situation and offered them a deal on a house he was looking to rent.

Ever since, they’ve been working to rebuild and stabilize their lives for their children.

The men’s shelter, including the staff and the residents that live there, continue to be an important part of that process when they return for dinner each week.

“It was warm. There was food,” Nick recalls of his first experience at the shelter. “I noticed people weren’t picking on each other. I noticed there weren’t groups just coalescing and being alone. Everybody was very together. There was a togetherness, more like a family.”

Correction: The original version of this story gave an incorrect title for Andy Chiaraluce who is the Executive Director of the Taos Men's Shelter. The Case Manager is Dan Wohl.

Correction: DreamTree Project also shelters homeless adults, in addition to homeless youth, its primary demographic.

Read the other stories in the ongoing series “Finding Home.” The Taos News takes a look at the people who rely on the Taos Men’s Shelter, women and families struggling with the different faces of homelessness, and young people who are increasingly facing housing instability. Also read our editorial about the series.

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