On the evening of March 28, Sheila Louis walked into Christ Church Santa Fe with no place to stay, no money, untreated back pain from a recent car accident and overflowing anger about her situation. Louis, who asked that her real name and specific tribal affiliation be kept confidential, grew up in New Mexico's foster care system. She has two sons, aged 10 and 20; her older son has been helping her raise the younger one since Louis' husband committed suicide on the reservation. After 15 years working as a firefighter, she developed kidney cysts, and was later struck by a vehicle on Cerrillos Road. Hurt and unable to work, she lost her job, and, in February, her unemployment compensation ran out. Now Louis, her sons and their dog sleep in an unregistered, salvaged vehicle when they can't find anywhere else to crash. Louis struggles to speak without crying and says she's afraid she's "gonna go postal."
"I'm watching this homeless thing just rip us apart," she says.
Less than two hours later, Louis walked out of the church with a place to stay, gas money, an appointment to meet with a counselor the following day and a bag of groceries.
"That's what we do," Steve, a member of newly formed group Santa Fe Need and Deed (whose members asked that they be identified only by first name) says after Louis has left. "We get together as a team and we help people out."
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Need and Deed is that there's no bright line between "needers," like Louis, and "deeders," like Steve. That's because the group owes its origins to a needer turned deeder.
Martha is a 50-year-old woman who, today, exudes confidence and a sense of purpose. Wearing a backward tweed cap that complements a typical Santa Fean and 70s-inspired shirt, Martha presides over the meeting with easy humor and obvious compassion, asking a group member named Moses to hold Louis' hand when she enters the meeting in an agitated state. With her quick wit and healthy appearance, Martha doesn't come across as someone who has lived in Louis' world—but she has. And it was that experience that inspired Need and Deed.
In January, Martha wrote part of an SFR cover story under the pen name Cynthia [cover story, Jan 25: "Homeless in Santa Fe"]. She reported her own experience as a member of the "new" homeless—people whose college degrees and 401ks couldn't save them when the economy collapsed. Trying to navigate Santa Fe's web of social services for the homeless, Martha realized that there was something missing: a simple way to connect people who need help with people who can provide it—and in the process, show deeders the humanity of needers, and how much more they have in common than either group might have expected.
Take, for instance, Carol, who up until six months ago, when she qualified for Supplemental Security Income for disabled adults, was "this close" to being homeless.
"I was terrified each month that I was feeling threatened to be on the street," Carol says. "When I read Martha's article in the Santa Fe Reporter, I was like, 'Maybe I can do something to help.'"
There's also James, a disabled army vet who needs a hip replacement—and $630 to cover rent until the end of April. Or he did need that much; now, he only needs $315, after Need and Deed members Steve and Fran, who met James for the first time at the meeting, helped him out with half of his rent.
Despite working two jobs at the time, Fran was once close to homelessness herself, she says—before meeting her "guardian angel," Steve. In the five weeks since Need and Deed started, Fran and Steve have already helped needer Loretta find an apartment and made cremation arrangements for needer Max, who couldn't get closure on his wife's death because he couldn't afford the staggering $1,000-plus cost.
Approximately 900 homeless men, women and children live in Santa Fe at any given time, according to the most recent estimate from the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness
Meanwhile, deeder Carole helped needer Michael get the stone grinder he needs for his livelihood as an artist. Carole brought evidence of her good work, and Michael's gratitude, to the meeting: a meticulously carved-stone turtle.
Most deeders, like Martha, Carole and Fran, have been touched by homelessness in a way that made them want to help. New group members Colleen and her sons Tanner and Talon are part of that continuum. Colleen, a mother of five, became homeless in 2006 and found housing through the Life Link in 2010. Although her family still has needs, they also want to help: Tanner and three of Colleen's other sons are planning to heft Loretta's furniture for her when she moves into her new digs this week.
"As Buckminster Fuller said, there's enough toasters for everyone," Colleen says.
Need and Deed is just getting off the ground and figuring out how to make everything work. Members are working on getting limited liability corporation status for the group, setting up a checking account and PO box for donations (see below) and, perhaps most difficult, deciding how to screen needers. The current criteria require that needers be completely sober for 12 months and have some goals for becoming self-sufficient.
Not that turning people away is easy, as deeder Elaine laments, but the group can still refer anyone who asks for help to a group that can work with them. Need and Deed is also working on a resource guide and a one-on-one mentoring arrangement that will allow members to check in with needers they've helped, which is often difficult with people who don't have a permanent residence or phone. They're also bringing in guest speakers, including members of law enforcement, who can try to break down the layer of misunderstanding and miscommunication that often exists between police and the homeless. In the future, Martha hopes Need and Deed will be able to pay homeless people to perform some of its administrative and outreach tasks.
From the darkest "rot-gut, bottom of the barrel" time in Martha's life, she's created for others what she once struggled to find for herself: hope.
“This is the only thing in my life I feel absolutely great about,” Martha says.
How to Help:
•Join meetings every Wednesday night at Christ Church Santa Fe (Cordova at Don Gaspar) at 5 pm
•Send donations to Santa Fe Need and Deed, PO Box 23989, Santa Fe 87502
•Donate to the account under Santa Fe Need and Deed at Del Norte Credit Union
•Visit facebook.com/SantaFeNeedAndDeed for more information