A local nonprofit that helps homeless women get back on solid footing is in the middle of a big renovation that will eventually provide a shared home for families at the stressful intersection of Taos' issues around housing.
HEART of Taos launched in January 2016 as a way to help women get out of homelessness or steer clear of it altogether. The organization is converting a 3,400-square-foot home in Lower Ranchitos into what will soon be known as HEART House.
When all the renovations are complete, the house will have space for up to 15 women and children. Some rooms have three closets, enough for extended or intergenerational families. There will be a spacious kitchen, a playroom, several bathrooms and maybe a little library. A garden will eventually grow in the old raised beds in the backyard, and a new playground will eventually replace the cracked basketball hoops.
A counselor on staff will have her own space in the house and help coordinate chores, arrange errands and transportation and keep the home a supportive, empowering environment for all the women who use the transitional residence.
The Taos County planning commission voted unanimously to approve the organization's special use permit at a Nov. 14 meeting. Since then, renovations have started in earnest. A new road was cut this week and donations of mattresses and futons continue to pour in. If all goes according to plan, HEART of Taos hopes to open the shared home in March.
HEART House, while ambitious, is just one solution in an interconnected network of services the nonprofit offers to make sure Taos County women and families have one of the most basic of human needs - a safe place to live.
The organization aims to provide women with the support they need. Sometimes it's financial, like a small stipend to help with rent or car repairs. Sometimes the support is counseling or help with long-term planning to stay here and earn a living.
"Homelessness is far more than ‘losing your home.' By the time a family has lost their home, they have already traversed a daunting path of many losses and traumas," said Ama Khan, co-founder and executive director of HEART of Taos.
"Many women are close to avoiding homelessness or close to exiting homelessness and just need a ‘gap' filled," she said.
But sometimes, a woman just needs a bed and a roof over her head.
While the organization has other ways of getting women into homes - through partnerships with families, Airbnb hosts and hotels - the HEART House speaks to the reality in Taos that affordable housing seems to be getting more expensive and harder to come by.
The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies analyzed data from 2010 to 2014 and found that in Taos County, 49 percent of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Using 30 percent of one's income for housing is considered a burden by federal standards; spending 50 percent or more is considered a severe burden.
To that end, HEART of Taos sees "co-living" - more than one family with a mix of ages and backgrounds - not simply as a viable solution to the housing issue, but as an outright necessity.
"Co-living is nothing new and intergenerational homes are especially prevalent in New Mexico. ... The creation of affordable housing within a community needs to get creative and also support realistically the economics of our times," Khan said.
HEART of Taos, which Khan said is completely funded by the community and private donations, raised $100,000 to launch the project and pay for all the work needed to bring the space up to code.
The 5-acre property was donated in the early 1990s to be used as a group home for adolescent girls, called Casa de Corazón. That facility shuttered in 2007 because of changes in funding and what social service providers understood to be changes in preferred models of helping kids with issues around mental or behavioral health. Ten years later, those types of facilities are still needed and the Taos County government is undertaking a project to renovate part of the youth jail, which will be used as a treatment center for young adults.
While the house layout makes it ideal for HEART of Taos, it also means the home was used in the decade since Casa de Corazón closed, albeit unofficially. When HEART of Taos secured a no-cost lease from Valle del Sol, a social services organization, and employees started to explore the property, they found that homeless people used the abandoned property as their own. The organization has asked them to leave and installed lights and a security system, but there are still hand-written signs taped to the windows asking them to stop breaking in and slowing down the effort to help other homeless people get back on their feet.
The awkward dynamic of having to evict one population of people to help another reveals the interconnected and extremely prevalent issue of housing.
In the two years since HEART of Taos opened, the organization has helped more than 500 Taos County women and children get out of or avoid homelessness, Khan said.
But Khan sees a "scary trend" happening in Taos - "our very large ‘near homeless' population is slowly sliding into homelessness."
Medical bills from a wreck or cancer can eat away at money for rent, as well as a mortgage. A vehicle breaking down can quickly do away with a person's ability to work and thus their whole income. And landlords raising already-high rent or evicting folks can make homelessness a reality never even dreamed of.
"People are underestimating the risk of homelessness," said Khan.
"[They] are not saving, are not minding their spending and not building skills to uplift their earning potential because they literally don't see the threat of homelessness as happening to them.