This past winter, a homeless woman named Martha and her friend Mary, a caregiver at The Life Link—a nonprofit program that provides various types of assistance for homeless and low-income Santa Feans—came to SFR with a story. Martha had met Mary at The Life Link; each wanted to recount the story of Martha’s struggle to surmount homelessness.
Now, eight months later, Martha plays an instrumental role in running Santa Fe Need and Deed, a program designed to match local homeless people with Santa Feans who want to help them.
“It has been an enormous transition from self-pity and anger to discovery about my own inner workings,” Martha wrote me recently. “There is indeed a richness in poverty that most people are unaware of, and even those who are in poverty cannot embrace.”
Although Martha is still “technically homeless”—she’s currently living in a small studio without indoor plumbing—she’s dedicated to helping others like her.
“If I can’t use my time on the streets to help and to make a difference, I will not feel good about myself,” she writes. “I have learned empathy, the hard way.”
The Silent Gap
A young African-American man sits at a small, round table in the commons of Christ Church Santa Fe. He nervously taps his foot as he fills out the three-page questionnaire. He doesn’t look up until he’s finished, as though this were a test he has taken many times. The answers are easy, but complicated, too—answers about where he sleeps, whether he has any family support, whether he needs food and whether he is sober and drug-free.
He is attending a meeting of Santa Fe Need and Deed, a service group supporting homeless individuals. Also in attendance are Santa Feans who want to help the homeless. They meet face to face. The model of this odd support group has been making a difference in the lives of those who have as well as in the lives of those who don’t have—the “deeders” and the “needers.”
The members of the group recognize their differences. It isn’t about just walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It is recognizing that an enormous gap exists between those who are homeless and those who have homes. The group doesn’t explore that gap openly. They seem to address it just by showing up.
The haves, or the deeders, believe they are there to help the poor homeless people, but in the end, they learn something about themselves. They learn about their biases, their ability to give to others they don’t know, their own fears of homelessness. They learn what comfort or money can do to ruin your sense of connectedness to others and even to yourself.
The needers—those requesting help—have a straightforward role, initially. Some come seeking the basics: food, clothing, a bus pass, a safe place to stay, dignity and encouragement. Most don’t know what this group is all about. They are totally unaware that they are the teachers.
Sometimes, in this silent gap, the unspoken words are finally uttered.
One evening, a well-off man from politics confronts a homeless artist about why he hasn’t taken him up on his offer to meet with a well-connected gallery owner.
“Tell me why you didn’t show up to these meetings. This could be your ticket to some good money and to public recognition! Why haven’t you shown up?”
The artist has been urged to attend this particular group meeting just to bring this very issue to the table—to face the deeder. He slowly looks up and says, “I was never asked. You assumed that is what I wanted. You never asked me. You went ahead and set up these meetings with this gallery owner, and I didn’t want to go. When I first came to this group with my wife, I told everyone the only things I needed were new teeth and some tires. I don’t want a studio on Canyon Road. I like living in my car with my wife and dog. We are comfortable there. We are safe. You may not understand that. We are safe there. Thanks for your offer. It’s just not what I wanted.”
Everyone in the group sighs. We get it. We make this initial connection to the gap—that what a deeder has to offer may not be good and correct and perfect; he might not know best just because he has a home, a job and security. And when a needer doesn’t follow through or doesn’t accept the gift with the strings attached, he is not ignorant or wrong. Our “Aha!” moment that evening came when we recognized that anyone making decisions for another, without even asking, is wrong.
On a recent Wednesday evening, an older man came to our group for the first time. During a break, he said, “Well, I was going to give some money to your organization, but I don’t know if I want to give to them,” pointing to the group of smokers outside. “If they have money for cigarettes, they must not need help that bad.”
I replied calmly, “This is probably about you and not about them. It is about your biases and your judgments. This is a calling. If you are called to help, you will support us, and you will stay. If it is not time for you to help, you won’t stay.”
He didn’t come back. But he did leave a small donation, enough for a woman to get her driver’s license, and we thank him for that.
We talk about a paradigm shift—the type of catchphrase we sometimes use to keep people at a distance. We want them to look the damn word up in a dictionary. But what if you don’t have a dictionary, or you have to wait in line at the library to use a computer?
To me, a paradigm shift truly means recognizing where you are and where you have been and to begin seeking the highest good for yourself and others. What a concept! A paradigm shift: a changing, a recognition of the small voice inside you that says, What AM I doing? Is this my conscience? My altar?
For me, the shift meant relinquishing the stuff in my life. Sure, I feel that it was taken from me. I still feel that way sometimes. Letting go of all my stuff left me homeless.
But it was also my stuff that gave me a false sense of bravado, the feeling that I had power and knew more than others who didn’t have stuff.
There’s another type of silent gap: It is difficult to stop and ask questions of the homeless on the street. Some of the chronically homeless are severe alcoholics and seriously mentally ill. They can even be belligerent. It is difficult to think of them as neighbors, but that is what they are. They live right around the corner from you, back there in the grassy area behind the library or in a car in the corner parking lot. Others are new to homelessness and panhandling. They just need a little cash until their food stamps come in. If you speak to them, they may remind you of your sister or your dad. You might find that they are a lot like you. And they all have names.
A large percentage of the people we see at our meetings are women—homeless, single women over 45 who have had small businesses, like housecleaning or landscaping, that are now belly-up. There’s even a former architect and a writer. Some, we fear, have turned to prostitution. Many come to the meetings in tears, wanting to commit suicide because of loneliness and the fear of predators on our streets. Some desperately need counseling and psychiatric services. Most are sober and drug-free. We refer these individuals to the various agencies in Santa Fe. Sometimes we want to take them to the emergency room. Most won’t let us.
Some have found good folks in Santa Fe who allow them to stay for free in their homes until they get back on their feet. These connections are not easy. They are fraught with prayer and release forms and background checks and daughters wanting to know whether their mothers are nuts for letting a homeless person move in with them.
But we have to look at both sides of the issue. Maybe the deeder is a serial killer, rapist, abuser. Maybe the needer is. How do we protect them? How do we protect our organization? How do we help people help each other without all the red tape and nonsense?
We help them one step at a time, with lots of questions and references and ground rules and prayers—and a few pro bono lawyers.
We are now designing T-shirts to sell. They are irreverent, definitely not politically correct. They say things like, “My name is not homeless”; “ Hey Honey, wanna go home with me? I sleep with 100 people a night!”; “How about one less latte today and a shower for me instead?”; “Hey Santa Feans: love us like you love your dogs!”
We have a couple of sayings that are still up for discussion: “I just want some food; I don’t want to give you a blow job,” or the one submitted by my 18-year-old friend: “Do you want me to rob you—or ask for money?” These phrases are the reality for some in our city. And yet we know they’re offensive to many. They speak to the silent gap. It’s a different, rougher way of life for the homeless.
We advocate for the homeless and the near-homeless. We ask our folks whether they have been treated appropriately by the people they come in contact with—the police, the social service agencies, even the deeders who want to help them. We offer follow-up calls if they’re not treated well.
An executive at one of the larger and more well-known social agencies in town says bands of homeless people go from church to church asking for money. Of course, there are criminals in any group. But there are also homeless people who watch each other’s backs. They collect the names of rogue elements who want to hurt them. Isn’t this a little like how unions started? Collective bargaining, they call it: collectively helping each other to get food, resources and much-needed assistance.
Santa Fe Need and Deed is bringing the homeless out of the shadows, one person at a time. We use social media to profile a person and list his or her needs, and email and Facebook alerts to disseminate those profiles.
We also have sponsors who work with the needers to provide extra help by accompanying them to court, helping them fill out housing paperwork, taking them to the doctor or the DMV or helping them sign up for benefits. Some needers are so disoriented from living in fear and being on the streets that they no longer know how to ask for help. They can’t navigate the simplest of issues. This disorientation keeps them from moving forward and regaining their confidence. They need someone to walk alongside them.
The sponsors are volunteers. They give their time, their gas and their energy. They are your neighbors, maybe your friends; for them, this is a calling. Not everyone is ready to jump into something this grassroots or this complicated—complicated because it speaks to that silent gap that many of us have failed to broach. It speaks to that conscience inside each of us. And it speaks about humans, how terribly complex they can be and whether they are ready to hear the calling—or heed it when they do.
By Mary Strong Jackson
The first day Idolina* came to The Life Link Santa Fe Clubhouse and Wellness Center, her accent made me wrongly assume that language might be a barrier, and I didn’t expect her to return. At first, she looked apprehensive and uncomfortable, but she returned brave and determined. She sat at a computer and asked for help navigating to a news site.
I soon learned that Idolina is strong, proud and feisty—and a talented sopaipilla maker. Three times, she has made them for the Clubhouse after working her part-time job as a personal caretaker. Six years ago, homeless for the first time despite having been a homeowner for more than 20 years, she got a job after standing on the street on a cold November day with a sign that read, “In need of a job, not a hand-out.” Since then, she has held a job for the past six years, but still hasn’t earned enough to afford housing. The first job she found was at a restaurant. Her employer offered her low-rent housing as part of the deal, but paid her much less than they had agreed upon. (Idolina says employers often take advantage of people in need.)
When she came to the Clubhouse, she was sleeping in her vehicle every night. We knew she wasn’t feeling well. She is neither a young woman nor an old woman, but sleeping in the truck, especially in the winter, stiffens a body. She suffers from fibromyalgia and a neck and jaw that ache from a past injury inflicted by an abusive spouse. She works every day at her part-time job and comes to the Clubhouse in the afternoons.
After SFR’s previous articles on homelessness, I asked Idolina if she’d be willing to tell her story.
“Yes, yes!” she said, her eyes reddening with emotion. “I want to tell my story. I want to tell it.”
But how can I describe Idolina’s journey and do it justice in so few words? How does a 5-year-old girl have the courage to use the large safety pin from the diaper of a visitor’s infant to jab the leg of her molester? Did she know that, at a gathering of family and friends, he would be less likely to risk revealing what he had done to her? Her aunt knew—Idolina saw her peek around the doorframe when it was happening—but did nothing to stop her husband. Her mother knew, but only grabbed Idolina by the hair and told her not to be a liar. Her uncle was a man of God who taught catechism.
The 5-year-old became the 14-year-old who took away the switch that her grandmother had used to punish her and ran away to avoid marrying the man her family had chosen for her.
“He was old, stinky and ugly,” Idolina says. “I was not going to marry him.”
The 14-year-old never lived with her family again. She became the 19-year-old who married the man she loved, a German who called himself Jim. She met him at the University of Guanajuato in Mexico, where he was a student.
Born in tiny Cuarenta, Mexico to Jewish parents, Idolina was the middle child of six. Idolina’s mother was just 13 when she married an abusive, 36-year-old man. With six children and a village that reported her whenever she tried to flee, Idolina’s mother never succeeded in escaping. Even when the father tired of pursuing them, the family moved often for fear of his discovering them. Idolina never completed a full school year in one place.
Jim represented a more hopeful direction.
“He was kind, and I had not experienced much of that in my young life,” Idolina says. “He wanted me to learn everything because I had no family to turn to if something ever happened to him. Maybe he had a premonition of what was to come.”
For 10 years, Idolina was happy. They moved to Oregon, where Jim worked in the logging profession, and they had two children and adopted another. Then, disaster struck: “Jim was killed in a logging accident when I was 29 and our youngest just a year old,” Idolina says. “Jim’s boss assumed that my grief, inexperience and thick accent would allow him to dupe me out of Jim’s compensation. After many months and a court battle, I was awarded $30,000. I moved to Albuquerque, bought a duplex and started a cleaning business. I had three employees and was doing well.”
Idolina shakes her head in disbelief and picks up a Kleenex. Despite the hardships she’s faced—or perhaps because of them—she exudes strength as she tells her story.
“Why did I marry again? I had done fine the last seven years on my own. The man was from Mexico. He was like my father. The day after our wedding, he said, ‘We are not going to live in your house. We will live in mine.’ He took me and my children to an isolated house in a small town, where he put iron bars on the windows, locks on the doors and a high fence around it.”
In that house, Idolina suffered.
“I knew how he was going to treat me each day by the tilt of his sombrero,” she says. “I could read his meanness before he acted. He had already kneed my pregnant belly as he pushed me against the wall, bit me while his hands were tight around my neck.”
But one day, she says, her “anger had built and built.” She told her children to stay in their room no matter what happened.
“I did not have a plan, but my limit had been reached,” Idolina says. “I feared what would happen to my children if I died having my baby.”
She saw the way his sombrero settled on the back of his head, she says. When she sat down after serving him dinner, she recalls, he pushed her chair over.
“I walked to the kitchen sink and began washing a cast-iron skillet. He came behind me [and] grabbed my hair, jerking my head back. I put both hands on the skillet and swung it backwards over my shoulder…He fell to the ground. I had knocked him out. I started hitting him with the pan again and again.”
At that moment, Idolina says, her husband’s mother came through the door, saw what was happening, and called the police. Idolina was arrested, though she says her husband had “no broken bones, only bruises.” She was released on bail, then arrested again and re-released. A few years later, she bought a home in Albuquerque’s South Valley, where she raised her children for 19 years.
But once again, Idolina’s stable life took a turn. With her children grown and out of the house, Idolina took a temporary job working for a meat-packing company in Kansas.
While she was gone, she learned from a neighbor that everything inside her home had been sold. Idolina returned to New Mexico to find that even her fruit trees had been cut and her locks changed. She broke into her own home and was arrested. With no money left to fight her cause and no lawyer to take her case, Idolina became homeless. For a year, she stayed at the St. Elizabeth Shelter in Santa Fe. Then she began sleeping in her truck, even while holding down a job.
“I made it comfortable with heavy blankets and a small plastic dresser,” she says. “I paid $4 to take showers at a local pool facility.”
Idolina accepted this way of life until one night, when she stopped near a gas station to check for a flat tire. Someone hit her hard, knocked her to the ground, punched her face repeatedly and raped her.
“It was dark, and he kept hitting me,” she says. “I couldn’t see his face, but I could smell the sickening, fruity smell of his breath.”
“Did you call the police?” I ask her.
“I felt ashamed and stupid, so I didn’t,” she admits.
“After that, nothing made sense to me,” Idolina continues. “I pull myself up after each traumatic thing [that has] happened in my life, and [then] something smacks me down.”
After the rape, Idolina got in her truck and drove away.
“For months, I could only focus on food, survival. I tried not to think. I trusted no one. I was, and still am, hypervigilant. I have a third eye. I am so fearful for children. I tell women to watch their men-friends, not to let children spend the night with others. They think I overreact. I do not.”
Now, she says, “The only one who takes these panties down is me. I don’t sleep with scorpions. They kill—or worse, they paralyze and torture.”
Idolina says she saw the rapist again one day at the unemployment office. She fled to St. Elizabeth Shelter and was later referred to a crisis center. Eventually, she came to The Life Link and began seeing a therapist.
“Now, I can at least talk about what has happened,” she says. “I still do not trust, but I have a place to live, and I feel safe thanks to the help of The Life Link.”
Idolina continues to surprise, not only with her will, strength and beauty, but also with her artistic and culinary skills. Recently, she brought in handmade jewelry that showed her artistic eye and skill. In a recent art class, she painted for the first time. The Friday before Mother’s Day, she came early to the Clubhouse and prepared a brunch of zucchini pancakes and eggs with peppers and onions.
Idolina is a wonder. We at the Clubhouse are grateful to know and learn from her.
*Idolina’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. While SFR had no means of independently verifying Idolina’s story, Jackson, who works with her, can attest to its veracity.
Santa Fe Need and Deed meets every Wednesday at 4 pm at Christ Church Santa Fe (1213 Don Gaspar Ave.).
To donate, send checks to Santa Fe Need and Deed, PO Box 23252, Santa Fe, NM, 87502.
To participate, come to a meeting or call 920-2227.
SFND is currently seeking sponsors to work one-on-one with homeless Santa Feans.