Today, there were 122 beds for homeless youth at 10 shelters across the state. In Northern New Mexico, at three shelters from Farmington to Taos to Santa Fe, there were just 52.

Most were taken.

It's hard to pin down just how many young homeless people there are in any community. The people who track that sort of thing say they're harder to find and harder to engage than adults who are homeless; more reluctant to talk with anyone about what they need.

A $3.37 million federal grant to coordinate a response across 14 Northern New Mexico counties will help.

"In youth homelessness, a little bit of money goes a long way," Shelly Felt of Youth Shelters and Family Services, a local advocacy and support group, tells SFR.

As the regional head of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the grant at a Friday news conference and restated the multi million-dollar award, Felt whispered under her breath: "Oh my gosh."

The grant, part of HUD's Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, will be administered by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and will be used to develop a community response plan for cities from Gallup to Clayton, and Aztec to Tucumcari.

The Northern New Mexico grant is one of 11 around the country. HUD hopes the grant will help develop a model for rural, often low-income parts of the country.

The $3.37 million grant is a big deal for those who work on youth homelessness. | Matt Grubs
The $3.37 million grant is a big deal for those who work on youth homelessness. | Matt Grubs

"We want to find out what's effective in Northern New Mexico," says Beth Van Duyne, HUD's head administrator for the Southwest. "And [use it] to better guide our programs to end youth homelessness. Because it's actually at your level, where you're touching people directly, where you can see the need, where you can hear the stories. … We want to hear directly from your experience, what's worked, what hasn't worked and what we need to do better."

Van Duyne tells SFR the grant doesn't come with a list of must-do items.

"This is not DC coming in and telling each local community how to run their homelessness programs," she says.

While the award presents an enticing opportunity, it also starts the clock ticking on a four-month window in which Santa Fe and the 13 other counties must coordinate and come up with a plan to prevent and, at least theoretically, end youth homelessness.

The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness wants to to focus on how to locate homeless kids and connect them to services within 30 days.

"The coalition has been built on the principle of collaboration," says Michael Nitsch, a program manager for the group who thinks the funding can help build a more robust network of services in a far-flung part of the state.

At the DreamTree Project in Taos, Catherine Hummel pointed out her organization has eight beds for five counties that together are larger than the country of Denmark.

"Three years ago, a young man walked up through the canyon from Española to Taos to access our youth shelter," she says.

Through little more than training and coordinating services, Hummel and others set up a system where teens who are at risk of losing a stable housing situation can walk into the Española teen shelter or the local library, where a staff member will be able to to connect them to someone who can help.

"We need to personalize it at the level of one person at a time," Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber says, "and give them the help that they need in a rapid and caring response."

"This is a chance for us to sit around a table in Northern New Mexico and talk about how we can end youth homelessness," Felt told the crowd. For the youth homelessness community, it's a luxury in a world of meeting the next funding deadline or helping the next homeless kid.

The Youth Shelters and Family Services transitional living facility houses 14 kids. The group is sheltering or housing 50 children total.

Felt sees an end.

"It's not that far outside of our reach in Santa Fe," she says. "And now with this award, I think we can end youth homelessness in Northern New Mexico."