‘What about the women?’ New group seeks to shelter homeless women in Taos

By Laurie Celine The Taos News
Posted 3/25/16

In a community where there is only a men’s homeless shelter, relief to homeless women, their children and their pets has arrived.

Hope, Empowerment, Advocacy, Respect and Transition housing (HEART) of Taos helps women stay off the streets and …

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‘What about the women?’ New group seeks to shelter homeless women in Taos

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In a community where there is only a men’s homeless shelter, relief to homeless women, their children and their pets has arrived.

Hope, Empowerment, Advocacy, Respect and Transition housing (HEART) of Taos helps women stay off the streets and out of the cold. “We encourage the healing of natural supports and helping a woman transition out of homelessness,” Ama White Owl Khan, co-founder and executive director of HEART of Taos, said.

“It is a recovery process,” Khan said.

The organization encourages women who have lost everything to begin transitioning toward long-term stability.

Before starting HEART of Taos in January, Khan worked as the finance director at the Taos Coalition to End Homelessness (TCEH), which operates Taos Men’s Shelter.

HEART of Taos is an organization that helps women find long-term stability. It begins by offering immediate shelter and food assistance. The organization was co-founded by Khan and Kathryn Herman, who is the president of the board of directors and helps with fundraising. Jeff Trammel, who is on the board of TCEH and runs Walking Rain Productions, donated office space.

“We need to end homelessness in Taos,” said Khan of HEART’s goal.

HEART of Taos is not a dormitory building, like the men’s homeless shelter. It works with Taos motels and inns to provide short-term shelter and relies on private individuals who have casitas and rentals and who are willing to offer women long-term housing once they have steady employment.

“It’s a scatter-site model,” explained Khan. “We use housing partners.”

“Instead of a mass shelter, like a dormitory, which fosters a toxic environment, where there is no privacy and no pets, we want [the women] to have privacy, to be with their partners, their pets and children,” Khan said. “There is not one women’s shelter in New Mexico that takes pets.”

“Those who have pets are psychologically stronger and healthier than those without. The relationships they have with their animals are all they have left. It’s almost criminal to separate the pets,” she said.

The only other women’s shelter in Taos is Community Against Violence, which specifically helps survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. “CAV can’t meet the needs of the nonviolence population,” Khan explained.

“There is no prototypical image of a homeless woman. It could be anybody,” Khan said.

She describes HEART as an organization that teaches women to have no shame about their situation so they can get the help they need.

“We prioritize women who have existing or prior Taos County residences or who have a job in Taos County,” Khan said.

Initially, any woman who is experiencing involuntary homelessness is given a week of emergency assistance. The women are then helped with getting food and medical assistance. Individual needs are then assessed. Once stabilized, HEART helps them find a job and transition into long-term housing. All the women involved are required to get therapy.

If a woman has drug or alcohol abuse issues, they are referred to treatment centers to get the help they need so that they can then work toward long-term stability.

The organization was partly motivated to reach out to Taos women in need when 78-year-old Marcia Carter died while living in her car last November.

Khan’s own close call with homelessness provided her personal motivation to co-create the organization. She and her husband used to own and run an animal rescue farm, Ash Haven Animal Rescue, in Orchard, Colorado, while homeschooling their six children. Khan was also a part-time organizational development consultant, “helping businesses tighten things up and increase their profit,” she explained.

When her husband, an economist, had a downturn in his own consulting business, the couple had to find homes for 65 animals and sell their house. “We ended up in Colorado Springs with our things in storage in an extended-stay apartment,” she said.

They had some family support, and they were able to rely on their adult children to help them through the tight spot. In September 2012, they moved to Taos, and Khan took a bookkeeper job for TCEH.

Once at TCEH, her previous consulting experience kicked in: “I observed gaps and immediately began grant writing, managing the volunteer program and ran all the books,” she said.

This eventually led her to ask the question that many Taoseños have about the homeless women in the area: “What about the women?”

She says that, while the TCEH board is supportive of her endeavors, it was hesitant to take on the financial responsibility of a women’s shelter.

So she started out on her own. On New Year’s Eve of 2015, HEART of Taos was formed. On Jan. 2, the formal nonprofit was registered. By Jan. 27, 10 women were in the long-term HEART of Taos program. There are also two in emergency assistance housing.

“There is no reason we can’t provide for them [the women in need],” Khan says.

She encourages donors to offer recurring monthly financial donations to help support the women.

HEART of Taos is a new nonprofit and a completely separate organization from TCEH. “We have complete freedom to do what we want to do,” she said. “We can listen to individual stories to help and respond.”

She describes boosting a woman’s self-esteem by giving a nice piece of clothing to one who has lost everything or offering enrichment, like a dance class, to a woman who otherwise has no luxury to discover her passion.

It was a large donation that enabled the organization to kick off and start helping women. An anonymous Taos resident offered a $100,000 matching donation to HEART of Taos, which Khan believes was the reason it was able to get up and running.

HEART of Taos is 100 percent privately funded and relies on media, its website (heartoftaos.org) and word of mouth to reach possible financial contributors.

HEART works to provide employment, and it “hired the first homeless woman who crossed our path as outreach liaison,” Khan said.

Loup Pons, now employed and no longer homeless, works to seek out and inform homeless women that help is available. She gives out “compassion bags” filled with basic essentials.

While the women have individual residences, they are encouraged to attend program advocate and peer activities and group events and gatherings, like a biweekly support group with an evening meal.

Khan expressed how moved she was during the last group dinner. “Compassion, empathy and love poured out of these women. They have never been given a space to tell all their stories,” she said.

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