Special report

The hard choices facing homeless families

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 12/13/18

Shannon Cisneros had a nice house in Albuquerque, a good car and worked hard as a caregiver at a senior center. She never thought about being homeless, not until she fell behind on rent.

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Special report

The hard choices facing homeless families

Posted

Shannon Cisneros had a nice house in Albuquerque, a good car and worked hard as a caregiver at a senior center. She never thought about being homeless, not until she fell behind on rent.

She came home one day to find a notice taped to the door. It said she and her two teenagers had three days to move out.

That was two years ago, the week before Christmas. Cisneros remembers packing away the lights and ornaments, taking down the tree, putting it in a storage unit. She stuffed what she could in her car. Big things, like the washer, got left behind.

It would be months before she and her family had a house to call their own again.

Cisneros’ experience of being homeless is like a lot of women who pass through Taos or were raised in the area. She never slept on the streets or had to send her kids to live with family. Yet she had to work harder than ever before and take help — from government programs, nonprofits and friendly strangers — to keep that from happening.

‘One day to the next’

Just a few years ago, everything seemed to be going well for Cisneros and her family in Albuquerque. Cisneros was living life, “not even knowing everything could be gone from one day to the next.”

She had been separated from her abusive partner but when he died, she had to make up for the money that abruptly stopped coming.

Cisneros worked at a senior facility in Rio Rancho and started to take every shift she could. But she couldn’t keep up with all her bills and debt, she said.

“The more you work, the more bills you have. The more paychecks you get, the more taxes they take. It just was never enough,” she said.

During that time, Cisneros worked so much she only slept only a few hours a night. It was “putting a lot on my body,” she said.

Her hands and bones hurt. She tried to get treatment but was put on a waiting list, she said. Like the bills, the physical burden got to be too much.

She hurt too much to go to work and lost her job, she said. She was without a paycheck and enough money to make the next month’s rent.

That’s when she got the eviction notice and started packing.

Cisneros made plans for her and her family to stay with a friend in Taos for a couple of weeks. At least they’d have a place to rest and regroup.

For everything she couldn’t immediately take with the family, a storage unit made sense. It was a safe place to keep the nonessentials that still meant a lot: the Christmas tree and decorations her kids made, plus a couple of her dad’s paintings, the only stuff of his she still had.

They made it to Taos, but the arrangement with her friend didn’t work out. They didn’t have the place or the time to plan their next move. But she still had to figure it out.

Hotel life

In the realm of government and nonprofits, homelessness is an umbrella term to describe many different situations. Some folks stay in emergency shelters or sleep on streets and park benches. Some people stay in their cars or other places not meant for human habitation. Some get out of jail with no place to go. Some are young people on their own. And some people are like Cisneros and her children: families without stable, long-term housing and significant barriers to getting it.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about 35 percent of the homeless population in the United States are adults and children in families. Across the board, women lead the vast majority of those families. 

On a one-night count in 2017, that number was estimated to be about 58,000 households, or more than 184,600 people. In New Mexico, 191 family households were experiencing homelessness the night of that count, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. But that total can change on any given night.

A lack of housing for low-income people is one of the main causes of eviction, instability and homelessness, according to the national alliance.

When Cisneros’ plan to “double up” (another type of homelessness) with her friend fell through, Cisneros used what money she had, including loans, to keep herself and her kids warm and with a roof over their heads.

She got a hotel room.

Without local friends, she didn’t have anyone to ask about where to stay. She spent a few nights at a good hotel, she said, but it was too expensive: $100 a night. She called around and found some $80 options. But one was too rundown to consider. She did finally find a clean place that would let her pay by the day, or, when she had the money, a week at a time.

At first, living in a hotel wasn’t so bad. “For the kids, to them, getting a hotel was a fun thing, something we did on vacation,” Cisneros said.

Soon enough, that was fading into the difficulties of trying to make the situation work.

“It just went on and on,” she said.

Without regular money, Cisneros lost the storage unit in Albuquerque. The Christmas decorations and her dad’s paintings were gone. All they had was what was in the car and what they could keep in the hotel room.

But even that wasn’t stable.

To save the money they would have spent on a hotel room, they would stay with a friend back in Albuquerque on the weekends. First, they had to get a new storage unit. They’d move everything from the hotel room to the unit on Friday, drive down for the weekend, and come back up Monday morning to move their stuff from the unit back to a hotel room before school.

But her car was towed at one point, so the family stayed put in Taos.

While her kids were enrolled in the Taos area schools, Cisneros went back to college at UNM-Taos to study psychology and criminal justice. “I was in it,” she said, devouring classes and churning out papers. She practically lived at the campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

The stresses started getting to her.

Her health hadn’t really improved, and her mental health was slipping her into a place she didn’t want to be.

“I had seen the worst turn in my life,” Cisneros said. “I was so depressed. I worried about everything and anything.”

Having faith that everything’s going to work out in in the end, she said, “is a hard thing to do when it’s that hit of reality, that ‘What are you going to do to get that $80 for tonight?’ “

Not alone

As Cisneros’ tells it, her situation took a turn for the better when she made a connection with two people who had kind words to say and hugs to give.

For Cisneros, that was social workers and housing advocates Candy Allen and Siena Sanderson.

Cisneros was several months into living in a hotel when they struck up a conversation in the grocery store.

“They were so loving and caring and from that (first) moment it never stopped,” Cisneros said.

“They’d say, ‘You’ve got this, you’re smart, you’re a good mom.’ What they thought were little things were really big to me,” she said.

Along with encouragement, the duo of longtime housing advocates helped Cisneros make practical connections to services to get her out of the week-to-week hotel existence, things like health insurance, food assistance and school scholarships. They helped her apply for affordable housing.

It didn’t fall into place all at once. She was still living in a hotel and on the brink of a heart-wrenching choice: would she keep doing what she was doing, or let the kids stay with their family in Taos while she went back to Albuquerque to stay in a shelter? She could try to get back on her feet from there.

But then she got a call that a spot was open in the affordable housing and that she could have a two-bedroom unit. It had a kitchen, a screen door and room for a couch. She and her kids moved in during the summer of 2017.

In that time, Cisneros has focused on getting healthy again. “My body’s doing much better and my mental state is where it should be,” she said. She has plans to work again and is applying to jobs. She has faith in the long view again. She wants to finish her degree so she can do social work, like Sanderson, and help someone else turn it around.

Life happens, she said, both the good and the bad. “I’m not exempt to everything going on out there in the world,” she said. But she also learned that “people go through things that are so hard and so bad and they can come out okay.”

This Christmas, she has a tree in her living room. It was up for a week before she realized she hadn’t decorated it. It was hard to shake the feeling that she might have to pack it up in a hurry.

It’s wrapped with white twinkle lights and ornaments and big, red bows. It’s simple, but homey.

“I know what it’s like to have nothing, so I cherish everything,” Cisneros said.

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.

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