With the holidays in full swing and the sting of winter upon Albuquerque, many people are donating to charities and thinking of those less fortunate.
However, for people in the city experiencing homelessness, winter conditions do not change problems they face year-round.
“Especially when you’re sleeping overnight outside in the winter months, it’s very cold and that makes it very difficult,” said Lisa Huval, associate director of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “But really, the experience of being homeless is difficult throughout the whole year.”
Huval works with members of the organization to bring solutions to homelessness, ranging from prevention to long-term housing.
The coalition is a membership organization, providing housing, shelter and other services for people experiencing homelessness, she said. One thing that makes the winter a little bit easier is the opening of the winter shelter, formerly the old Bernalillo County Jail.
“Trying to survive without a home is difficult at all times but there’s the same issues throughout the year, regardless of the weather,” Huval said. “People that are homeless are much more likely to be victims of crimes. Living and sleeping outside makes you very vulnerable.”
Paul Lanier made a living as a chemist until he grappled with substance abuse and mental illness, eventually experiencing homelessness in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Lanier now serves on various boards and committees to help those experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque, as well as being on the board for the coalition.
“A lot of people that have never experienced homelessness feel like, ‘Well, why don’t they just go get a job?’” Lanier said. “A lot of us wanted to work, (but) nobody would hire us.”
Lanier was able to utilize medical services at Healthcare for the Homeless, since they offer free services for those experiencing homelessness, he said. But day to day, his schedule revolved around finding breakfast, lunch, and dinner and, eventually, shelter at night.
“You don’t know where to go. So you walk the streets all night, try to fall asleep in a field or something like that,” Lanier said. “I ended up feeling exhausted most of the time. It’s emotionally draining and it was bad for my mental health.”
Jimmy Lujan experienced homelessness for six-and-a-half years after being devastated by the passing of his wife.
Lujan said it literally sprung him, pushing him to the point of not caring about anything and being unable to focus at work.
Now, Lujan has been opiate-free for nine years, alcohol-free for four years, housed for six-and-a-half years, has his art showcased in galleries and sits on the board of directors at Healthcare for the Homeless.
“When we would camp out, there was three of us camped out together. There’s of course safety in numbers,” Lujan said. “We always found really good spots to camp out in. If we would have gotten caught though, we would have gotten citations for criminal trespassing.”
Lujan said there is a stigma when it comes to people carrying backpacks and sleeping bags.
Sometimes he would hide his things so he could go into stores without feeling watched, he said, and many times, his things were stolen and Lujan would be forced to start from scratch.
“Sometimes you have a sense of hopelessness when you’re living on the streets, and I think substance abuse has a lot to do with that,” Lujan said. “You’re roaming aimlessly, looking for a way out, going from soup kitchen to soup kitchen, and constantly standing in lines.”
Lujan said he stayed at the winter shelter many nights, taking a 40-minute bus ride from downtown to the shelter to stay in a warm place, sleep indoors on bunks, and utilize the microwave and communal showers.
The winter shelter is run by the Albuquerque Rescue Mission and stays open from Nov. 15 to March 15, housing single adults and families. Men and women are separated for safety and families have their own space as well.
“There’s a big gap. It starts getting cool at night in March and for people who are living on the streets, the wait from March till November can be difficult,” Lujan said. “Especially at night, looking for shelter and a warm place to sleep.”
Huval said, with the holidays coming up, it is a time when people think a lot about homelessness.
“People have a lot of compassion and generosity and that’s always very appreciated,” she said. “But really people are experiencing homelessness at the same rate throughout the whole year and are facing the same challenges throughout the year.”
Huval said that from the coalition’s viewpoint, affordable and permanent housing is the answer to homelessness.
Lujan agreed, emphasizing that that finding shelter is half the battle, and that things are easier after reaching that point.
“People are homeless because they can’t find and afford a safe place to live. So if we can provide housing that’s affordable to folks, that’s good quality, and also provide supportive services that can help folks keep that housing, then we can actually end homelessness,” Huval said.
Annually, a memorial vigil is held to remember and honor people experiencing homelessness who have since passed. The vigil takes place at The Rock at NoonDay shelter on Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year.
Lujan wants people experiencing homelessness to know they can make use of the resources available at places such as Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, St. Martin’s, The Albuquerque Rescue Mission, Good Shepard and The Rock at NoonDay.
“I see things really good and well for me now but you know what, I won’t forget,” Lujan said. “I won’t forget who helped me and I won’t forget those who still need help.”
Sarah Trujillo is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @sarahtweets_abq.