Taos housing shortage a ‘circle of what-ifs’


Just as the 9-to-5 crowd was getting off work and heading home last week, a group of homeless people and social workers took to a street corner of Kit Carson Park to raise awareness about the lack of housing around Taos and the impact on its people.

In the hour of Thursday's (Nov. 16) demonstration, the bone-chilling conditions some residents would have to face that night set in as quickly as the daylight faded.

"We're tired of sitting at the table talking about the same thing," said Michelle Concha, a Taos Pueblo tribal member. Concha works with homeless people every day, she told The Taos News, as well as families in different situations that are just as precarious  - fleeing domestic violence, drug users and alcohol abusers, for example. 

And she's grown weary of the complex problem of housing being met with meetings, plans and promises but little action that gets people into warm places and on their feet.

"You can have a full-time job and still need help. We're all just one paycheck away [from the streets]," Concha said. She called the "housing issue" a "big circle of what ifs."

April Bolmes knows that cycle of a thousand questions and few easy answers.

Originally from Los Alamos, Bolmes became homeless about three years ago. An abusive relationship ended and other pieces of daily life started falling away, too. "It was all good until I was 31. I even had a Prius and the battery blew up," she said.

Three years later, the going hasn't gotten easier. Daily routines like getting a shower, something that may take other people 15 minutes, can take her three hours.

And even though Taos has some resources for homeless people and, specifically, women who are survivors of gendered violence, stable housing has proved elusive. "At one point, I was employed, had money and had been assaulted and I still couldn't find a place to stay," she said.

In the repetition of trying to take care of the basics, "It's impossible to save up," Bolmes said.

Check out the demonstration in this Taos News video produced by Rick Romancito.

Siena Sanderson, a social worker and force behind the demonstration, told The Taos News the housing problem reaches into most parts of the greater Taos community.

Housing is a big deal for all local residents - homeless and not, working and otherwise - she explained. And the issue definitely expands beyond the town limits. At one community board in Arroyo Hondo, there were as many flyers from people looking for a place to rent as there were flyers advertising a place for rent.

"These are people who are from here and they can't find housing. They're doubling up with family, trying to sleep in cars or staying in a hotel because they can't get together the rent," Sanderson said. Lawyers, teachers and other professionals are "just barely making it, or aren't," she said.

"I don't know what the solution is, but we have to engage the [town and county] governments," she said.

Whether or not the stock of housing in Taos is adequate, available and affordable for residents - never mind up to code - has been a topic of conversation for years. But like climate change - in many ways, another "housing issue" - Taos' shortage of affordable homes, duplexes, apartments and casitas is a slow moving problem, occasionally a high priority but then, predictably, receding from view.

That's how some people think Taos sees homeless people, too.

"I think there's a prejudice [around homelessness]," said Rick Wilkinson, night manager at the Taos Men's Shelter. "But people lose their livelihoods for all kinds of reasons. These are just regular people trying to survive."

And folks don't mind - even prefer - surviving in Northern New Mexico. Bolmes likes Taos over the bigger cities in New Mexico. Albuquerque "may have more jobs and cheaper rent," Bolmes said, but Taos has more friends, more respect. It's not a perfect place, but it's better for her.

During Thursday's demonstration, Bolmes sat next to Ernest Romero and Roscoe, his Jack Russell Terrier-Chihuahua mix.

Romero hasn't had a permanent home for about five years. He'll sometimes split the cost of a hotel room with other people, but admits he "feels better when I'm not indoors."

Romero is a self-styled "professional guerrilla camper" who spends a good amount of time in Taos, including plans to stay through the upcoming winter. But he also moves around communities between Denver and Santa Fe. He's proud of making life work through all the seasons and on his terms.

"Winter's nothing to me," he said. "You find your spots."

Romero is confident about his own situation, but Sanderson, the social worker who daily asks people for beds, blankets or a spare room or couch for families in need, is overwhelmed by the housing situation across Taos County.

"The thing is," she asked, "When's it going to shift? When are we going to care for our community?"