Anna Moss, 20, sits cross-legged in the center of a large couch, nervously twirling one of the silver rings that adorn her fingers.
"I don't know where to start," she says, but then launches into the story of her life: "I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I grew up with a mom who was bipolar and schizophrenic. I moved around a lot. I spent three years being homeless between the ages of 10 and 13. When I was 13, I was raped."
Moss speaks with dry matter-of-factness, like she's told the story so many times that it's no longer attached to her. But her personality—funny, smart, self-deprecating—comes through in little asides that punctuate the more awkward or painful moments.
I'm interviewing her at the Transitional Living Program, a residential housing program for homeless and pregnant or parenting youth ages 16-21. TLP residents pay rent on a sliding scale (50 percent of what they pay is returned to them when they leave) and can live in the program's green apartment building, located off Airport Road, for up to 18 months. The program, part of Santa Fe's Youth Shelters, also offers counseling and 24-hour supervision.
Bright afternoon sunlight streams in through one of the large windows that frame the common room. Moss is a study in contrasts: Her hot-pink hair and piercings belie an understated personality; her harrowing story seems wholly separate from the composed, intelligent young woman before me. She credits TLP with helping her put her life back together.
This summer, with Youth Shelters' help, SFR spent several weeks interviewing current and former participants in Youth Shelters' various programs, including TLP and Street Outreach. (Some interviewees' names have been changed to protect their privacy, and most requested that SFR not use their photographs.) In this, the fourth installment in SFR's series on local homelessness, they share their stories.
Moss grew up in Denver, but her struggle with homelessness began in New Mexico, where her mother was unable to hold down a job.
"We were always getting evicted and losing our home, and that's how I ended up homeless when I was 10," she says. "That time was really difficult for me because there was such a stigma about homelessness…all of the kids were really mean to me, so I didn't attend school hardly at all during those years. The education I received was of my own doing: I would find books and read them and learn things."
Despite these challenges, Moss managed to graduate from high school a year early.
"I was going to school from 6 am until sometimes midnight," she says. "I just love learning; I always have. Education has kind of been my escape, I guess. It was a system of structure in an otherwise chaotic life."
But at 16, Moss got married—and after her husband lost his job, she felt pressure to join the workforce. The couple moved from Deming, where Moss went to high school, to Santa Fe. A little over a year ago, they divorced, leaving Moss with a pile of bills and an apartment she couldn't afford.
"I wasn't able to keep up with the rent, so I got evicted," she says. She was able to move in with a friend who lived out of town, but that meant she could no longer make it to work.
"I lost my job, and when that living situation fell through, I was kind of left couch surfing," she says.
In January of this year, Moss came to TLP. The program "was really a lifesaver," she says. It helped her improve her grades in college, attend classes regularly, get a scholarship and join a work-study program.
The program, and the other youth she's met along the way, have helped her move forward.
"I don't think people in this program spend a lot of time thinking about the past," Moss says. "I think that a lot of people spend more time just trying to make it through each day and make tomorrow better. I think that's what the program is geared toward, anyway—it's just, you know, 'This is how you can move on.'"
Moss adheres to the same philosophy in her personal life. "There's not a lot I can do to change my past," she says. "The only thing I really am able to do in the present moment is make sure that my future is better."
She's also learned that no matter how isolating being homeless can feel, there are always others out there. (Youth Shelters estimates that, every day, between 60 and 100 youths are homeless in Santa Fe.)
SFR asked each interviewee to offer one piece of advice to Santa Feans who have never experienced homelessness firsthand. Here’s what they had to say.
ANNA MOSS, 20:
“Homelessness is…a state of degeneration. Like, you start off, you’ve got a nice business suit, you just happen to lose your job, and then suddenly you lose your house because you can’t pay a mortgage.
And then you spend a week sleeping under a bridge, and your nice suit doesn’t even look like the suit that you started with, and you smell like a dumpster, and you know it doesn’t matter how hard you try to look clean and smell nice when you’re living on the street and everything you own is in a backpack. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into being meticulously clean when you take a shower—the streets seep into your pores, and people can see that, so you’re not gonna get a job whenever a boss is interviewing you because you don’t look like a respectable individual.
“First impressions are so important, especially whenever you’re going in for an interview, and if you don’t look like you’re on top of your game—’cause when you’re homeless, you’re not—the next bag who walks in is gonna get the job and not you, and then the state that you’re in is just going to continue to get worse. And so, I mean, being aware that it’s not a choice and that it’s not easy being in that situation and that it’s even harder getting out of it than it is getting into it, I think, could make people a little more willing to help the person on the side of the street asking for a little bit of pocket change.”
"Almost every one of my friends is homeless—and that was before I was homeless," Moss says. "There's a lot of people [under] 30 who are homeless, and each day they're worried about, 'Is this friend going to let me sleep on their couch again?' or sleeping in the stairwell at La Fonda or finding a bridge somewhere or freezing to death. It's not like you're alone—that's what I would tell them. You're not the only one in this situation. Being homeless can make you feel really alienated from life because you don't want people to know, don't want people to be aware that you're in the situation you're in."
Moss says the division that exists between homeless and non-homeless people in Santa Fe is real, but false.
"You can't generalize about the people who are homeless: It's so many people from so many walks of life, and anyone—absolutely anyone—can be homeless in a heartbeat," she says. "Right now, the way the economy is, anything could happen—like in my case, I had it all. I got divorced, and I lost it all in a manner of weeks. You can't look at someone on the street who doesn't look particularly clean and assume that they're gonna go spend their money on booze. They're humans, and it requires humanity…because you never know where someone's been or how they got to the situation they're in or how hard it is."
Moss tells me she was once "a big pothead." She says hardship and substance abuse sometimes go hand in hand.
"I've used pot for a long time to run away," she says. "It became a shelter, in a lot of ways. And once you are homeless, even if you've never touched drugs before, sometimes depression comes with it. It's hand in hand: You're homeless, you have nothing, people look down on you, everybody shuns you, [when] you walk into a grocery story people tell you to get out because they think you're there to rob them…that creates depression. It makes you feel alienated from the entirety of society. You feel completely alone and completely helpless, and so I think, in a lot of ways, you end up turning to anything you can to make yourself feel like a normal person."
In addition to TLP, Youth Shelters runs an emergency shelter—overnight housing for homeless youth—and Street Outreach, a daytime-only location.
I meet Emily Folks at Street Outreach, a little adobe house near the corner of St. Francis Drive and Agua Fria Street. Folks, the interim program director, explains that Street Outreach is more like a first-response hub focused on providing food, water, clothing, showers, medicine and other necessities to homeless youth.
"We work from a harm-reduction standpoint, so we try and look at their situation and just find out how they can live their lives in the safest way possible," Folks explains. Sometimes, that means meeting immediate needs for food or socks; other times, it may involve a referral to The Life Link or Health Care for the Homeless.
When youths come in for the first time, "We try and just take a look at what they say, and meet the most immediate need first," Folks says. "So it's a conversation, really. And a lot of times, they're not necessarily open to that conversation right off the bat—so I guess the first thing we do is try and establish that relationship with them."
All consultations are confidential and anonymous, she adds, which helps some visitors feel more comfortable about expressing their needs. In all, Street Outreach sees between five and 30 kids a day, Folks says—not including those who don't come in, but to whom staff members and volunteers deliver bottled water, food and other necessities.
Finding Street Outreach, Paul Napholz says, was instrumental in helping him overcome homelessness.
Napholz came to Santa Fe from Chicago after his parents kicked him out for having a heroin problem. He was on the streets for about two months, he says. After he ran out of money, he couldn't buy drugs, and he experienced withdrawal while he was homeless.
"Going through that really helps you not want to do it again," Napholz, a tall, easygoing 19-year-old, says. "It's like every kind of sick you've ever had in your life just thrown all together into one."
It’s not really [a homeless person’s] fault, because you don’t know what they grew up in and why they’re that way. The best way you can look at it is just get to know them, talk to them, be nice as much as you can. Don’t put them down for something that they aren’t because, in reality, maybe they’re the greatest person ever…And you could never know or experience by not trying to talk them or being like, ‘Hey, you know what, can I help you in any way?’ Offer them something, and just don’t judge by what they look like or what they do. Try to help them as much as you can, because they all need someone to be there for them.
It wasn't long before Napholz found Street Outreach. After getting to know the Outreach staff, he too moved into TLP.
"It was a really fun place to live…It's just a really friendly community," he says. "You're with a bunch of people who are pretty much going through the same thing."
Asked if he has regrets about—or even nostalgia for—his life on the streets, Napholz shakes his head.
"I really don't want to go back to that," he says. "I mean, nobody likes having to scheme for money every day. It's not a good lifestyle."
The hardest part was "being really hungry all the time," he says. "Hunger is something you definitely don't respect until you know it."
Youth who need a place to stay overnight can use Youth Shelters' emergency shelter, located on Agua Fria Street; those who are ready to transition out of homelessness can apply for housing at TLP. In total, Youth Shelters serves approximately 1,000 young people each year, according to Joan Heider, the clinical director for Youth Shelters. She adds that the recession has exacerbated those numbers.
"Obviously, the economic situation has an impact on everybody. And certainly, when the family experiences stress from need, it's just going to flow downstream, and the kids are going to be impacted by it—so our numbers have increased, unfortunately, every year," she says. "So now, with our youth—who maybe have never had a job or maybe their work has been limited—[adults who] have been laid off or unemployed…are getting those jobs, as opposed to the kids that maybe don't have that kind of experience."
Finding work can be especially difficult for young mothers like Jitter Ressl and Justine Mendez.
Ressl, 21, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
"I had a hard growing-up—lots of abuse and neglect," she says. "I had to figure it out pretty young."
Like Moss' story, Ressl's starts slow, then tumbles out like a flash flood. She left South Dakota with her sister, who took care of Ressl and her siblings in Oregon. But "we weren't doing good in school," Ressl says, and her sister threatened to send them back to South Dakota.
"I freaked out and ended up running away with this older man who was a drug dealer," she recalls. "I went through a lot of trauma with him, and I can't remember half of the experience because I was on so many drugs and stuff." Ressl was young—she estimates that she was homeless for seven years, on and off, starting when she was 12—and says she "mostly…relied on strangers to feed me." She ended up moving back to South Dakota and became pregnant with her first child at 16.
Eighteen months later, Ressl left.
"I was homeless and didn't know where I was going," she says—she just knew she had to make a change.
"I had been beat up by my brother and my boyfriend that night," she remembers. "I quit my job, and I was like, 'I'm outta here. I don't have any money, and I don't know where I'm going, but I'm so sick of being the scapegoat for my family'—you know, I'm just like, 'I'm done. I can't do it.'"
Ressl and her daughter made their way to Santa Fe. She had a relative here, but living with her didn't work out, and Ressl ended up living in her car. In order to qualify for food stamps, she says, she spent her days volunteering for Earth Care to meet federal community service requirements—"crazy, with a child, 'cause then you can't get a job," she says. At night, she and her daughter slept in the car—"in parking lots like Walmart or behind motels," she says.
When she first arrived at Outreach, Ressl recalls being "really timid and really scared—easily walked on." In addition to the trauma she'd gone through, homelessness had taken a toll.
Everybody sees America as the land of the free, where you can build yourself up from anywhere. And you can, but it does take a lot of work to do that, and not everyone has the same opportunities. Be grateful for the opportunities you’ve had. I like the experience I’ve had ’cause I feel like it’s given me insight for the future, and what to avoid and what not to avoid. Don’t look down on people for being homeless, because you don’t know what brought them to that situation. It’s a challenge to bring yourself all the way up from the bottom.
"I got accused of stealing and all sorts of stuff, just because I was homeless and grungy," Ressl recalls.
But with Youth Shelters’ help, she started to get her life back together. Eventually, she landed a job with the now-defunct nonprofit Earthworks. These days, she stays home to raise her daughter and a one-year-old son.
"Sometimes, I focus on, 'Oh my god, am I a good mom? Am I doing this right? I have no idea what I'm doing'—and I have to reassure myself that [my children] have a totally different life," she says. "They're not neglected, they're fed, they're loved, they're not abused, there's not unsafe people in the house—like, it is different."
Mendez, a thin, birdlike young woman with large brown eyes, can attest to those challenges. Now 20, Mendez grew up in Santa Fe. A family friend did most of the work in raising her, Mendez says, since her mother wasn't around much.
Sometimes, though, her mother was around—and Mendez learned some unhealthy habits. When she was around 11 years old, "My mom would smoke pot, so I did it, too," she says. "I thought it was OK."
In middle school and high school, she hung out with kids who smoked and did Ecstasy.
"They showed me that drug, and my daughter's dad did the same thing, so we would always do it together," Mendez says. "It just got really out of hand."
JITTER RESSL, 21:
I think when you finally make the decision, ‘I want something different,’ is when it happens. So I try not to give a lot of lectures or advice, just to be supportive and helpful. That’s what really helps me. If somebody is like, ‘Get a grip on your kid!’ in the grocery store—or, if I’m disciplining my daughter and saying, ‘You can’t behave like this,’ and somebody’s like, ‘She’s just a child’—that’s not helpful. If you want to help me, carry my groceries out to my car and put them in the car for me, or walk with me through the store and entertain my daughter. That would be awesome. That’s so helpful!
She spent some time on the streets, and when she was 18, Mendez got pregnant with her daughter, Aubrey.
"It was a big wake-up call," she says.
At first, she considered giving the child up for adoption.
"I wanted her to have a better life than I ever had, and I didn't want her growing up in things like I was doing, because I thought I would still keep doing them," Mendez says. "And then I found my [current] boyfriend. He helped me through it, and he said, 'Don't give her up; I will help you as much as I can'—and so I kept her. I don't regret making the decision of keeping her, but it is very difficult, being that I'm alone and I don't have anyone to help me financially or physically."
But Mendez is making it work. The knowledge that she had a child on the way helped motivate her to stop doing drugs. Aubrey is a year old now, and since the two moved into TLP housing last December, Mendez has been able to go back to school, where she's studying to be a paralegal.
"It is very hard trying to manage homework and the time and to manage [Aubrey] and try to be there as much as I can—time management, it's hard," Mendez says. But, she adds, the birth of her daughter "is the best thing that's ever happened."
Moss, too, is building a different future for herself. She's working on her associate's degree in general education and hopes to transfer to Reed College, in Oregon, when she's finished.
"I'm going to major in English and be an English teacher, because high school teachers were some of the most influential people in my life," Moss explains. "If it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't have thought I could tackle my junior and senior year at the same time…I wouldn't have believed in my ability to write."
She's currently working on an autobiography and a novel "in my spare time, even though I don't have spare time," she laughs.
She says she's never been to Oregon, and I ask if she's ready for the near-constant rain.
"Yeah, I've heard that, and I love the rain," Moss says. "My autobiography's actually called Chasing the Rain."
For more information about Youth Shelters and to see a wish list of donation needs, visit youthshelters.org.