It’s a brisk 50 degrees outside as half-brothers Jon Barney and Shorty Ambro enjoy a hearty lunch of Frito pie outside Daily Bread in Farmington. But on this night the temperature will drop to 17 degrees, and Barney and Ambro will be sleeping in a tent on the other side of the San Juan River.
As Barney said, he and Ambro are “homeless, but not hopeless,” and they’ll try their best to stay warm in the dangerously cold weather.
As public health measures to slow the coronavirus pandemic continue to wreak havoc on the economy, pushing Americans living paycheck to paycheck deeper into poverty, and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s temporary moratorium against evictions is set to expire Dec. 31, academics and experts have warned that many are in danger of losing their homes and becoming unhoused.
In Farmington, homeless service providers don’t have hard numbers, but they say they’ve seen an increase in the number of people in need, and as they work to provide adequate services, they’re bracing for an even bigger increase in the number of residents who might need help in the near future.
Around 11:30 a.m. every weekday, Daily Bread serves as many hot meals as possible to those in need from its small kitchen on the south side of Farmington.
Ambro and Barney said that before the coronavirus struck, there was a network of churches that served free meals for those in need, but now, those are all closed because of concerns about spreading the coronavirus. Besides the occasional free burrito from a local food truck at the end of the night, Daily Bread is the only place Ambro and Barney can go that is still serving free hot meals. Often, it is their only meal for the day.
During their Thanksgiving meal distribution, Ursula Begay, assistant director of People Assisting The Homeless, or PATH, the agency that runs Daily Bread, estimated about 150 people picked up meals, many of whom picked up multiple meals for friends and family. On a normal weekday, Begay estimates 70 to 80 people pick up meals at Daily Bread.
Rick Martinez knows how important those meals are. He helps pass out meals and masks every weekday at Daily Bread. He hasn’t always been on this side of the operation; at one time, he slept on the streets and used to visit Daily Bread for meals.
“I know what it’s like to be homeless. It’s tough,” Martinez said. Some people don’t empathize with people experiencing homelessness, he said.
“They’re having hard times. They’re humans, too,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he was able to get back on his feet, and into a home, with rental assistance programs provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Now he tries to give back and help people at his jobs at Daily Bread and at the VA.
The frigid temperatures give him pause. “I just don’t know where people sleep at night,” he said.
One place people sleep is at PATH’s other operation, a shelter.
The shelter has space for 60 beds, but because of social distancing and other precautionary measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, it has only 30 beds available.
Although San Juan County doesn’t keep data on the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county, Amanda Lobato, executive director of PATH, said the shelter, and other services in the community, has received several phone calls in the past couple of months from county residents in precarious and fragile housing and economic situations who are scared and don’t know where to turn for help.
Lobato was quick to talk about the work being done by Totah Behavioral Health Authority, a program run by Presbyterian Medical Center. Totah operates two important services in town: the Sobering Center, where people dealing with addiction and substance abuse issues have access to mental health services and holistic and traditional spiritual wellness services; and The Expansion, a shelter where people can spend the night during the winter months.
Christine Carlson, director of Totah Behavioral Health Authority, said both services have seen about the same number of people this year as they did last year, which she said doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t more people who need help, just that more people without stable living situations might be staying temporarily at friends’ or family members’ houses, or sleeping in cars and other vehicles.
“I think we are going to see an increase in homelessness with the unemployment numbers,” Carlson said.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, STOUT, an investment banking and advisory firm, estimates that 50,000 to 105,000 renters across New Mexico are at risk of being evicted from their homes. A nationwide survey done by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 14.3 million renters across the country are behind on their rent.
Even though the CDC issued a nationwide eviction moratorium, and the state of New Mexico’s Supreme Court issued a complementary eviction moratorium, both have their problems.
The CDC moratorium was set to expire Dec. 31, but Congress extended the moratorium until Jan. 31, in a new stimulus package that Congress passed late in the night Dec. 21. However, President Donald Trump has asked Congress to rework the bill to increase individual stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000.
The stimulus package also includes $25 billion in rental assistance through the Coronavirus Relief Fund. The state Supreme Court’s moratorium includes a loophole that gives landlords the ability to evict tenants whose lease has expired. Carlson mentioned the eventual end of those eviction protections as a triggering point for an increase in evictions.
Both Carlson and Lobato said San Juan County is supportive of their services, but the county lacks comprehensive services for people with behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues, something the county itself concluded in 2019 in a report titled “San Juan County 2019 Behavioral Health Gap Analysis.”
The report concluded that not only is there a lack of treatment and service capacity in the county for behavioral and psychiatric health needs, especially for children and adolescents, but there’s a lack of affordable housing in the county, and a “limited understanding of social determinants of health, such as housing,” which contributes to people stigmatizing those experiencing homelessness, alcoholism or behavioral issues and either ignoring them or dismissing their situations as personal behavioral flaws.
Both Ambro and Barney said they experience that stigmatization. Both described Farmington as hostile toward people experiencing homelessness.
“People don’t like us around here. They treat us rough,” Barney said.
“They don’t like us here,” Ambro added, “Durango, they care about people over there.”
Ambro described Durango as not only having more shelter space, but also as a place where people are kinder and more empathetic to unhoused people.
Both Carlson and Lobato said they know people in Farmington are largely supportive of the work they do, but they would like to see those sometimes hostile attitudes toward people in need transform into an attitude of understanding and willingness to help implement change.
“Often, people refer to them as ‘the street inebriates’ which is very derogatory. Everyone who comes into the facility has a family,” Carlson said, “We really try to help people see the homeless as human beings. There’s a perception that people who come into the facility are loners, when in reality, most of them have families.”
“It helps to have a more stable and prosperous community if people in the community are sheltered, housed, employed, sober, living lives that are more full and meaningful,” Lobato said, “Being able to house more people in the community, and to have them have a full and meaningful life, that helps the whole world.”