People's worlds can seem so separate, even though they aren't.
The highway outside of El Pueblito United Methodist Church in El Prado was roaring Friday (Dec. 21) with people getting off work and getting ready for the last weekend before Christmas. Yet inside, in the warmth and soft light of the modest sanctuary, a couple dozen people had gathered to support one another as they remembered the homeless people in the Taos community who died or went missing in 2018.
The hodgepodge group of homeless folks, churchgoers and people in the homeless advocacy community lit candles to remember their deceased friends who, though they didn't have a house to sleep in every night, "were people with hopes and dreams," said El Pueblito Pastor Cheri Lyon.
"We celebrate, remember and recognize them," Lyon said.
Homelessness in Taos is a chronic issue. The Taos Men's Shelter, one of the sponsors of Friday's "Homeless Memorial Day Service," started in 2007. In its first year, the shelter served about 2,700 men with meals, a place to sleep and other services, according to Taos News archives. In 2018, the shelter regularly fills its 18 beds and serves up to 30 meals a night.
New Mexico is near the top of the country for chronic homelessness, and the state saw an increase over 2017 of people experiencing homelessness, according to a report related last week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A person experiencing chronic homelessness is someone with a disability who has been homeless for more than a year or been homeless on four or more occasions in the last three years, according to the HUD report.
"The increase in homelessness also comes as the nation grapples with a prolonged affordable housing crisis," said a statement from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "The lack of affordable housing has a dual effect: it pushes more people into the homelessness system, while also making it more difficult to help people exit into housing."
Yet with such a complex problem as homelessness, individual lives and stories often go unnoticed.
The Homeless Memorial Day Service was meant to remedy that oversight and honor the individuals who died.
Clint Murphy, with the Taos Coalition to End Homelessness, said that instead of spending the afternoon trying to untangle the causes or solutions of homelessness, "just remembering" these people was enough for the moment.
The service included a poetry reading, interfaith songs, stories, prayer and a eulogy delivered by the shelter's Ethan Naszady.
Lighting candles was the heart of the service. As Naszady read the names of the 12 men the shelter knows to have died in 2018, former El Pueblito pastor Steve Wiard lit a candle on the altar. Two other candles were lit for the unknown people who have died in the last year or have gone missing.
The men were Hans, Rick, Fernando, Antonio, Frank, Marcus, Reuben, Marc, Jerry, Seth, Artie and Ben. (Naszady provided only the mens' first names to protect their privacy).
For some of the people in the homeless community of Taos, Friday's service was the first time they had heard of the deaths of some of their friends.
After the candles were lit, some people spoke about the individuals they had known and remembered friends with a particular way of talking, friends who shared their street wisdom with younger homeless people and friends who went out of their way to help.
Several people also spoke about the need for more services in Taos, such as better transportation options to and from the hospital and a new detox center. Taos' former detox center closed in 2015; despite efforts by local government officials, the center has not reopened. Tri-County Community Services, the organization that previously ran the detox center, closed its doors in August.
Steve Natelson, president of the Taos Coalition to End Homelessness, said 2019 will be a year of improving the facilities at the men's shelter.
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.