'Went through a lot'

From sleeping on couches to finding a 'Safe Place'

By Cody Hooks
Posted 5/31/17

"I was hopping from place to place. Every morning, they'd be like, 'Yo, you got to go,' so I'd go find a place to stay. I was getting hurt so many times. It was getting old," said 16-year-old Nathalie Chacon.

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'Went through a lot'

From sleeping on couches to finding a 'Safe Place'

A map of Safe Place sites around Northern New Mexico. Young people in need of immediate housing or help for dangerous situations can go to any Safe Place site to get connected with Dreamtree Project, a youth shelter in Taos.
Map created by Cody Hooks

It was 7 a.m. when the alarm started buzzing on the dresser next to Nathalie Chacon's head.

It might not seem that late in the day for a lot of people, but for the 16-year-old, it was a luxury. A comfort. A chance to finally sleep in.

That was her first morning at DreamTree Project, a youth shelter in Taos.

Chacon had been living in Albuquerque, but she said, "I went through a lot."

It's been a year since she's sat in a classroom. She survived assault. When the police found her selling drugs to help make rent for the place she and her family lived, they arrested her for it more than once. Occasionally, she'd be kicked out of the house. She'd leave on her own other times.

So she started crashing on friends' couches.

"I was hopping from place to place. Every morning, they'd be like, 'Yo, you got to go,' so I'd go find a place to stay. I was getting hurt so many times. It was getting old," said Chacon, whose name has been changed for this article.

Through a series of connections and phone calls, Chacon found out about DreamTree Project and within a few hours, she was getting shown around the shelter: the room with computers and games, a kitchen with snacks and the pots, pans and veggies to cook for herself and -- most treasured of all -- her bedroom.

Finally, she said, she found a safe place to sleep, chill and figure out a plan for getting back in school.

'A no-brainer'

Once a young person is at DreamTree, Catherine Hummel, its executive director, knows they'll get what they need at the nonprofit youth shelter in Taos that, since 2000, has provided transitional housing for older teens and young adults to learn skills -- cooking, banking, etc. -- to live on their own. In 2011, the emergency youth shelter opened.

Getting into housing tends to be the single biggest need of young people in crisis at DreamTree, Hummel recently told The Taos News.

With a place to stay secured, "we can start working from there on what sorts of support and services they need," Hummel said, like reuniting with their family, enrolling in school, dealing with bullying or working through suicidal thoughts with a therapist.Last year, DreamTree Project served more than 90 teens and young adults in Northern New Mexico.

But getting to the shelter is the first hurdle.

In the past few months, DreamTree Project has started to meticulously expand the network of libraries, fire departments, businesses and community centers that act as a stopping-over point for young people in search of help.

The network is part of the National Safe Place program, a nonprofit organization with more than 20,500 sites in communities in 37 states.

Safe Place started in 1983 as a project of the Young Men's Christian Association in Louisville, Kentucky.

"It was a way to extend the doors" of the local youth shelter into the community, said Hillary Ladig of National Safe Place.

Safe Place sites are pretty simple in concept. A young person can show up at any building with a "Safe Place" sign posted out front. The people inside, whether they're employees at a restaurant or volunteer ambulance drivers, are trained to call DreamTree and start the process of getting that young person to the shelter in Taos.

Safe Place aims to reach young people in need of immediate help and safety from family troubles, homelessness, dangerous dating situations, bullying, drug abuse and any other problem facing young people. It's no wonder that when faced with such challenges -- as Chacon did -- young people may make the decision to get out of those situations. Safe Place estimates that every year between 1.6 and 2.8 million young people run away from home.

Sheer distance in rural Northern New Mexico makes a functional Safe Place network all the more ambitious. DreamTree Project, the only New Mexico shelter enrolled in the National Safe Place program, serves Taos, Río Arriba, Mora, Colfax and Union counties -- more than 17,000 square miles.

Every bus in the North Central Regional Transit District -- the 75 "blue buses" -- is also a registered Safe Place site, meaning drivers are trained in how to help a young person asking for help.

But brick-and-mortar buildings with the distinctive black-and-white Safe Place sign out front are the foundations of Safe Place. So far, there are 11 permanent Safe Place sites spread across Northern New Mexico, including the Questa Health Center, Sugar Nymphs Bistro in Peñasco, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps office in Taos and the Española library.

The most recent organization to join the fold was the Red River Volunteer Fire Department.

Dina Burnham, ambulance and emergency medical services director for the department, told The Taos News that when DreamTree Project approached her station about becoming a Safe Place site, "it was a no-brainer."

Red River, with an official population of 477, doesn't have that many young people year-round. But as a resort town that's a favorite of traveling Texans, that changes at the height of the ski and summer seasons.

While local churches have picked up the slack when it comes to connecting people with food banks and social workers, Burnham said, "there's no reason not to" be an extra spot in the community where kids and teens - locals and visitors - know they can turn for help.

Nine volunteer firefighters and a few of their spouses turned out for a training to become drivers for the Safe Place program. The sign is posted outside. Already, one person saw the sign and walked in for help.

Safe Places in rural spaces

While Safe Place was born in a city, it's a model that has spread and worked in rural areas, too.

The main difference between an urban or suburban Safe Place program and a rural one is the the number of Safe Place sites available, said Susan Harmon, director of operations with National Safe Place.

But Harmon told The Taos News that local agencies have been successful by pulling deeply from the larger community -- like the husbands and wives of the firefighters in Red River who are themselves newly minted volunteers.

By way of example, Safe Place has been a staple of youth services in Huntington County, Indiana, since 1990.

The firehouses, schools and businesses enrolled in the program are the links to an alphabet soup of government agencies, nonprofits and medical contractors that make up the web of social services. Young people in Northern New Mexico deal with a lot of the same challenges as those in Huntington County. Family trouble -- fights with or abuse from parents and siblings -- is the leading issue. Kids and teens are also dealing with suicide, alcohol, opioids and other drugs.And they're dealing with homelessness.

"It's not concentrated," said Jan Williams, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau of Huntington County.

Young people in sparsely populated, rural communities who need a place to crash don't necessarily have underpasses or a particular street corner to call their own. Instead, they'll throw up a tent at a campground or open field, maybe sleep in their car. Or, like Chacon, track down a willing friend with a couch.

The issues that move young people to seek Safe Place sites may have largely remained the same, but the means kids use to reach out for help has certainly morphed in the 27 years since the program launched in Huntington County.

"When we opened [Safe Place], the sites were vital. Out here, there's open cornfields, then a business, then more cornfields. We really depended on those businesses to be our sites," Williams said.

Keep this in mind -- cellphones still had antennas at that point. Now, Williams said, plenty of elementary school-aged kids are walking around with smartphones.

The proliferation of technology means young people can text to get in touch with the nearest shelter or talk with a mental health professional. Some agencies, like Huntington County's youth bureau, are set up to talk with young people via Facebook.

Rural areas have figured out other ways of making the program work for their geography, like enlisting volunteer transporters to drive sometimes hundreds of miles to pick a kid up and drop them off. Rural agencies have learned that they have to do far more outreach directly to young people, families and like-minded organizations. Taking that sort of proactive approach means the networks of rural service providers are doing more talking, brainstorming and collaborating.

When Williams goes to talk with a potential new site, she tells officials there that part of the work they do -- probably the majority of it -- doesn't have immediately obvious results: "You may never have a kid come in here. But the fact that you're a [Safe Place] site and proudly put that sign up, you're saying that you care."

What makes DreamTree Project a safe place for Chacon is not the guitar lessons or trips to the movies. It isn't getting time on the computer. And truthfully, it isn't getting to sleep in, either. She feels safe, she said, because "they show they care."


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