“These kids are the most resilient kids I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Taos Municipal Schools Homeless Liaison Florence Miera.
After the bell rings for dismissal at the end of the day, some students have nowhere to go.
A growing number of students and teens across Taos are being identified as having some sort of “housing instability,” meaning that when they go to sleep at night, they don’t have the “traditional” stable homelife.
“These kids are the most resilient kids I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Taos Municipal Schools Homeless Liaison Florence Miera. Every day, Miera works with some of the nearly 70 students identified by the schools as having housing instability and said that number has increased over the past three years.
Many of her students do not have a permanent place to call their own. Often living with grandparents or even friends, these students move from couch to couch still trying to make ends meet.
“Lots of families are in transition,” said Miera. “[The students] go from family to family to friend to who knows where.”
According to Miera, the number of students identified with housing issues has risen from 28 in 2016 to 67 currently and that number could be much higher. The district has developed a form to help identify students in need. Miera said many students who are experiencing some form of homelessness are afraid to tell anyone about the issue for various fears or stigmas.
The New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey routinely tallies the responses of teens in New Mexico about the risky behaviors and other demographic information. According to the 2015 survey (the most recent year homeless data is available), 6.3 percent of New Mexico teens in grades 9 to 12 experienced some sort of housing instability by acknowledging that in the past 30 days, they regularly sleep away from their parent’s or guardian’s home.
According to the survey, youth who identify as homeless are 4.5 times more likely to skip school, 4.5 times more likely to smoke cigarettes and 30.6 times more likely to use heroin.
“They’re just more at risk for any at-risk behavior for a teenager,” said DreamTree Project Outreach Coordinator Irene Loy.
DreamTree has worked with youth in the Taos community for nearly 20 years, giving young adults the resources to live independently. Many of the young people in their programs, from ages 12-24, have experienced some sort of housing instability.
That issue can lead to many other factors in a teen’s life, Loy said.
According to officials at DreamTree, the center identified 10 youth in their programs who have experienced sex trafficking in the past year. Even in the rural reaches of New Mexico, trafficking is just one of the factors that bring community members to DreamTree for either respite or support.
DreamTree executive director Catherine Hummel said that not all youth dealing with housing instability are victims of abuse or neglect. Some youth go to DreamTree to fill gaps in housing, to take a break from family conflict or just to find respite.
Miera said she has spoken with students who have gotten into drugs, trafficking and other at-risk behaviors.
“I have had up to three students sleep in the back seat of one car,” Miera said. “I’ve had students in tents in backyards. There’s some pretty tough stuff.”
These students open up with Miera in weekly meetings where she tries to provide them with resources and services they may need to improve their situation. As the homeless liaison, Miera is tasked with ensuring the success and well-being of these students who may not consistently sleep in their own beds.
Despite the issues surrounding youth housing instability in the Taos community, plenty of people have made it their goal to help wherever possible.
Shelters available in most areas are for adults needing emergency services. Consequently, youth are often left out of that assistance. The Taos Men’s Shelter has 18 beds available, but only for men from 18 to 80 years old. Women and children must leave when dinner is over.
DreamTree’s emergency shelter is one of only nine in the state geared toward helping youth.
The light is always on for those young people ages 12 to 17 who need some time for a place to stay. DreamTree is the primary resource for emergency youth shelter in Taos and has the ability to house eight young people in their emergency shelter.
Once a youth checks into the emergency shelter, DreamTree has 72 hours to make contact with a parent or guardian to obtain permission. If no permission is given, DreamTree will offer some mediation to see what the next step for the individual may be.
DreamTree has another program for those who may be either over 18 or looking for a more permanent path to independence. It’s called the Transitional Living Program.
The program allows youth to enter a lease-type agreement with DreamTree on a “starter apartment,” located at one of DreamTree’s satellite sites. They undertake a guided, two-year journey with dedicated DreamTree staff to learn various elements of becoming an adult, such as budgeting for apartments, experience with leases and other methods of gaining more responsibility.
“We need to see that they’re motivated and have their own goals,” said Loy. “The goal, long term, is that they become the leaseholder of that apartment.”
There is a little more freedom for the youth in the transitional living program, in which they are able to set their own goals and schedules. But they still have to abide by the rules of the program, which means no alcohol on site and 10:30 p.m. curfew. Officials say that discharge from the program is an option, but there are usually disciplinary steps taken before a resident is removed.
On average, DreamTree officials estimate their emergency shelter holds an individual for three weeks to a month. All their beds are often full.
In addition to housing services, DreamTree also provides harm reduction methods to young adults to alleviate some of the risky behaviors. Loy said that while the center tries to keep their youth away from risks like smoking, if the choice is between smoking or something more dangerous, DreamTree tries to promote the less dangerous option. The project also looks at the reasons behind negative behavior in youth rather than just punishing the individual.
For the schools, Miera, the liaison, also provides services to the youth by means of counseling and providing guidance on what to do when they have nowhere to turn.
“There’s a group of kids who don’t know where they belong,” Miera said.
Often, Miera will find herself working for several days to find housing or a temporary stay for students. Some, she said, are even providing for their younger siblings when they come in to speak with her.
Hope for the future
Through the Youth Homeless Demonstration Project, Northern New Mexico communities could soon be receiving their share of $3.3 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. From this fund, 11 communities across the U.S. will be sharing $43 million for services aiding youth from ages 14 to 24.
For various agencies in Northern New Mexico, this funding is a great relief and could mean so many new provisions for the youth in the area.
While nothing is certain at the moment, DreamTree officials and others in the community have come together to form a group to determine where this money could be used best. If granted the funds, DreamTree could be looking at new beds at the emergency shelter, as well as more housing opportunities for other youth.
In the schools, Miera has plans that would make small houses available for youth in need of a home or families in transition. None of her plans are concrete at the moment, but as the money draws near, more of the entities will start to form plans as to what their share will go to.
In 2016, the program was started by HUD and 10 communities across the U.S. were selected to receive funds. Youth from selected communities are brought together with adult allies to determine where and how the funding is spent. That youth-led structure is being used in Northern New Mexico.
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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