HEART OF HOMELESSNESS

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It was deep within the untamed foliage near the murky banks of the Rio Grande just within city limits where a few tattered shirts, a coffee mug and some empty cans laid abandoned in a small dirt clearing.

Photos by Eric Heinz — El Defensor Chieftain: Duane Baker, left, executive director of the nonprofit Puerto Seguro, Inc. that helps homeless and poverty-stricken people in Socorro, picks up excess food Monday for the center with John Brooks Supermart employee Michael Chavez.

Overgrowth has all but banished sunlight, and the mosquito and insect populations are plentiful. The nearby natural source of water is muddy and drinking it is ill-advised.

Surveying the meager scraps of human presence, Duane Baker ran his thumb and index fingers pensively over his chin.

Photos by Eric Heinz — El Defensor Chieftain: A mattress located under a cement structure is one of the many crevices used by homeless people in the area for shelter.

“They had their tents right in here, and they did their best to survive the whole winter here,” Baker said. “I don’t know whose mess this is, but it’s somebody’s.”

Eric Heinz — El Defensor Chieftain: Random debris and clothing is strewn over an open patch where a group of homeless people spent a winter in tents near the Rio Grande on the outskirts of Socorro city limits.

In the great watershed that can flood with heavy rain and become frigid in winter months, individuals and families sometimes try to sustain their lives. Proof that the people living without shelter on the outskirts of town were trying to shield themselves is abundant with makeshift walls comprised of branches and twigs walled around the small clearing.

Baker is the executive director of Puerto Seguro, Inc. (PSI), a nonprofit organization in Socorro that provides donated items, meals and assistance to homeless and impoverished people. On Monday, El Defensor Chieftain followed Baker on his morning routine and spoke with people who have benefited from the center.

Poverty’s biggest challenge comes in many different shapes, colors and sounds. Some people are rapt with drug abuse, some are socially inept, and some have serious mental deficiencies.

In his blue pickup truck with more than 220,000 miles of experience, Baker canvasses the community in search of homeless people who may be in situations that are desperate at best and a matter of life or death at worst.

“I try to hit these places, especially if we have snow or cold weather, I’ll be out here every day looking for homeless that are stranded and make sure they’re OK – make sure no one is freezing to death,” Baker said. “We had a guy out here who froze to death, and that broke my heart because there was no sense in it. I vowed never to let that happen again.”

Baker said he can empathize with the homeless and is motivated to help them because he has been in similar situations.

“But for the grace of God, it could be you or I who is homeless tomorrow, and I would hope there would be someone out there that would give me a hand up,” he said.

The literal translation of Puerto Seguro is “safe harbor.” The center has been open for 14 years, and Baker has been involved with it for nine.

When people come into the center, they are assessed for what their needs are for the day by filling out a sheet.

“Clients can come in, and I’ll visit with them and develop a rapport with them and let them know I’m there to help them,” Baker said. “All of our clients know that I will back them 150 percent, if they’re doing what they know they need to do.”

They also are assessed for intoxication for which PSI has a no-tolerance policy. If someone has taken drugs or alcohol, they can still get fed, but they have to eat their meal outside.

After seeing the common locations of homeless, Baker goes to John Brooks Supermart to get food that is almost expired or some kind of excess that is still salvageable for the daily meal.

Kitchen manager Jane Sposito has worked at the center for years and is a constant volunteer. She said she’s served between 35 and 75 people, so far, this summer.

Helping people regain confidence is one of the keys to bringing them back into society’s good grace, Baker said.

“The problem is … the homeless are the undesired, and being undesired means not being wanted at all,” he said. “I’ve met some of the most wonderful people, absolutely beautiful and brilliant. For some reason or another, they ended up homeless. Maybe they had a mental breakdown or a financial collapse or family issues. Something in their life happened that just caused them to lose it.”

Some of the homeless volunteer at the shelter, but most are those who “just have a heart for the homeless,” Baker said.

“Whatever we can to give to people, we do,” PSI board member Frank Fernandez said. “We don’t turn anyone away. If we can help them, we do what we can.”

Inside the shelter is a list of items people who are in need or homeless can get. The items are basic necessities, but for those who are on the streets they can get tents and hand-warmers and other items that keep them alive.

“I have never been in a community where people support each other like this one,” Baker said. “Every time we really get down and out, the citizens of Socorro seem to step up (to donate clothes and essential items), and I would like to see them continue that support. I would like to express my sincere thank you to the people of Socorro, and a promise that we will continue to do for the community what we’ve been doing.”

For Baker, helping the homeless and destitute is not about sympathy; it’s about empathy. He, too, was once in a homeless situation.

“I had to change my lifestyle many years ago,” Baker said. “Those memories and thoughts are still there. I know what these guys are going through. I know how they’ve been treated as a homeless person. And I still feel the empathy to the individuals who come through these doors.”

In order to maintain his understanding on the plight of these people, Baker said he continues to maintain the relationships and converse with those who are suffering.

“If I quit being empathetic, then I’m out of there; they need someone who does understand, someone who can sit here and maybe just hold their hand, or they just need a hug or a cry with them,” Baker said. “Sometimes they just need that. There’s probably a lot more of that than people are probably aware of.”

Baker said he’s even met people such as information technology specialists from IBM who ended up homeless.

“Sometimes it’s just the way the people think, even a choice in some circumstances,” he said. “That’s just the way they click.”

El Defensor Chieftain was provided a letter from Baker that was written by one of the clients who has recently ascended from an arduous lifestyle mired in drugs and alcohol, but the letter stated he’s “never looking back.”

In his letter, Danny Hill, who now works at the Socorro County Senior Center, stated he was heavily addicted to crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

“After going through the same cycle of drinking and smoking crack all night, I found myself in the hospital being care-flighted to Albuquerque for major cuts on my arm,” Hill wrote, adding he did not know how he received his injuries. After his incident, he came to the center to work and get support for two years.

“In that time, I have grown in many areas of my life,” Hill wrote. “I’ve met some of the best people there. They help the down-trodden hold their head high.”

Bill Haefs is a quiet and composed man by way of Merced, California. He said he has been coming to the center since November and was homeless when he arrived. He said a friend of his had grown up in Socorro, so he followed him out here.

“I was out there in the country from November until March,” Haefs said. “The people (at the center) are good; they’re helpful. It’s a nice community. You can get a shower, laundry and good food.”

Eventually he was able to move into a small trailer with his friend.

“They make you feel like a human being and not like a piece of garbage like some other states,” Haefs said. “I don’t really like going to places, but this place is cool, makes you feel not so small.”

A single father of three children, Derek Monacelli has had his ups and downs. A transplant in 2011 from northeast U.S., he said he was a hard-drug addict who had sobered up after for about eight years. Then, when he suffered major back surgery and had to recover, Monacelli was struggling to make medical bill payments.

“After I moved here, I had a condition and was basically paralyzed,” he said, adding he had contracted a major infection that could have left him permanently paralyzed. “In Rhode Island, I was going in and out of the hospital, and they thought because I was a recovering drug addict that I had an addiction to the pain pills, so they wouldn’t do a CAT scan on my back or anything like that.”

This went on for about three months, and when Monacelli moved out here he said he fell out of bed and was airlifted to UNM Hospital and taken to surgery.

For some time in 2012, Monacelli was working full-time at the center and doing well.

Then all hell broke loose.

“When me and my wife separated, I just fell off the wagon,” Monacelli said. “I started using again. I lost my kids, I lost my house, I ended up in jail, and now I’m starting fresh, just got out of jail a few weeks ago and Duane has never given up on me. I let him down in a big, big way.”

Despite the relapse, Derek said he’s getting a new lease on life after what he said was “a long, dark road.”

“I’m indebted for life with Duane, with the things he’s done for me and everybody here,” Monacelli said.

For those who have also fallen off the wagon and didn’t feel like they could be part of a place that prides itself on regrouping, Derek has some advice: “Come.”

“After I fell off the wagon, I was embarrassed to come back here,” he said. “For a while I wouldn’t come here because I felt ashamed of myself, but (Duane) found me on the streets and said ‘Don’t ever feel like that.’ I say don’t give up because I did and that got me nowhere. I’m glad I’m coming back. I was living like a lowlife.”

According to Baker’s figures, Socorro has about 10 to 20 people who are perpetually homeless, but that doesn’t account for those who stay hidden and don’t seek the center for help. Being next to an interstate highway also provides a lot of transient population.

It’s also difficult to define absolute homelessness because people can lose their home at any time.

The National Health Center for the Homeless provides a compilation of definitions on its website.

Homelessness is not always rampant in small and rural communities – compared to The Coalition for the Homeless in New York City’s report of a record-setting 50,000 homeless population per night in 2013 – but it does exist.

Even more disheartening is the staggering one percent success rate Baker said comes with getting people off the street and into employment.

“Right off the top of my head, I’m going to say one out of 100; it’s pretty tough … pretty tough,” he said.

PSI numbers show that they have 41.5 people on average come to the center each day. In May 2014 alone, volunteers served almost 600 meals. Daily food bags topped 1,100. Clothing items that were donated surpassed 200 items – this is in late spring, keep in mind.

When looking at broad statistics, Socorro’s poverty and unemployment rates have not fluctuated much in the last eight years through the recession and beyond, but they are beyond the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, whether they be transplants or locals who fell on hard times, the Department of Workforce Solutions reports weekly average wages in Socorro have risen $67 in the last eight years.

The PSI attendance numbers also have not been dropping like they do in seasonal periods.

Baker said the costs of homelessness outweigh the efforts volunteers put together because that way they’re not being housed in a motel to the tune of $30 a night.

“It’s almost cheaper to pay their (bills) than to have them go homeless,” he said. “If their costs go way up, then our costs go way up. I’d rather keep them in their home than on the streets for obvious reasons.”

It isn’t until the holiday season that donations start to pour in, Baker said. Around Christmas and Thanksgiving is the budget-building time of the year.

Grants and anonymous donations also are significant in the center’s financial stability.

Baker said finances are the biggest challenge when trying to help someone rebuild their life, and with the center’s numbers not dropping as they usually do, stretching the $20,000 operating budget becomes imperative.

The center is held accountable through going before the county and the city to report their annual functions. This is so they can receive a main part of the budget, which is $9,000-$12,000 with receipts to back the expenditures.

There is a part-time bookkeeper at the center, but Baker is the only full-time employee. The rest are all volunteers.

At this time, since the Boy Scouts of America in Socorro and other organizations did a recent food drive, the pantries and refrigerators are stacked; however, Fernandez said rations go out as fast as they come in.

Fernandez said it’s not just getting homeless people off the streets but keeping them off the streets and as healthy as possible.

“It’s not just feeding them, which we do, but there’s a lot of people who need help with their utility bills and stuff like that,” Fernandez said. “We need financing to help take them to the doctors in Albuquerque sometimes.”

In order to cut costs, Fernandez said he tries to scavenge materials and supplies from wherever he can. He was instrumental in obtaining a grant from The Frost Foundation, which helped pay for new refrigerators, freezers and food.

The city does have some laws in regards to homelessness under the loitering section of the code, but Socorro Police Chief Mike Winders said officers try not to enforce them unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“We try to make it not any harder on them than we have to,” Winders said. “If we have to, we can enforce laws, but there’s only so much you can do. A lot of them have mental issues, and there are no easy answers.”

Churches sometimes take in the homeless, Winders said, but for the most part Baker is their go-to contact when someone is in need.

“Now in the summer, they’re not going to freeze, but at the same time we can’t just give them money,” he added.

With drugs and alcohol, the abuse deteriorates the homeless population in health and in violence.

“Unfortunately I think the drug problems have contributed to a lot of (homelessness),” Baker said. “Heroin has made a big showing, and it’s pretty sad. We’ve had guys beat to death because they fight. It’s almost always drug- and alcohol-related.”

With the services the center can provide, it keeps homeless people from winding up in jail or in a hospital, which can add to the existing hardships.

“On average in (emergency medical services) alone, we save the county and the city $22,000 a year by doing what we do,” Baker said. “The police department can call me and we can put them in a hotel if it’s freezing and someone is in danger. What’s the next option? They have to send the ambulance out. On a minimum of 10 calls a year, that’s $22,000.”

This does not include costs of jail, burglaries and other expenses that could be associated with homelessness.

“The more finances and resources we have to help these people, the more the community would see this drop, and that’s not just Socorro; that’s the whole nation,” Baker said.

On the banks of the Rio Grande, Baker said there was a family with two children, a couple and another individual that made the small clearing their winter home.

“I had two families out here, and they (were here in the winter),” Baker said. “I made sure they had clothing and food. We had one family with three children and we had a husband and wife, and then we had two people that had grouped up together.”

This is far from any camping trip.

“A lot of the homeless don’t like to come down here because people like to come down here and shoot rifles off, which is totally illegal as we’re still within city limits,” he said. “Nobody wants to get shot at.”

Baker provided evidence that homeless people will use anything in order to keep themselves sheltered. The tour continued to an old, metallic caboose that had become a canvass of graffiti, which has since been welded shut for safety purposes.

Another homeless location were culverts under I-25 used for drainage, which is not safe, Baker said.

“This is dangerous, because when they’re trying to get out of the rain and the flooding happens, they can get caught down there,” he said.

There are no overnight shelters in Socorro, so volunteers at PSI try to gather as much supplies as they can to equip homeless people with whatever they can or try to find some kind of alternative solution.

One stop on the tour of homeless frequents was a mattress under a concrete anomaly, located at the corner of Fifth Street and Otero Avenue. This nest was littered with hard alcohol bottles, random articles of clothing and a litany of broken glass.

Other locations include open fields and abandoned homes, which are not the best solution to the problem. One such abandoned structure in the same area had a dead homeless man found inside before it was torn down in, but the man’s death was due to alcoholism, Baker said.

“I have an idea to challenge the people in Socorro – a fundraiser – call it a night for the homeless and get an officer to watch the area and just spend all night out, no cell phones, no nothing,” he said. “This will give people an idea of what our homeless have to go through.”

Baker has a small creed that keeps him in touch with helping people.

“One soul is all the riches in the world, and who am I to degrade that?” he said.

There are some housing options available to homeless people within the area.

For those who qualify, the Camino Real Housing Authority has a program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development called Shelter Plus Care. Between Socorro and Valencia Counties, the housing authority’s Executive Director Mary Anne Chavez-Lopez said they currently assist 54 families that were homeless at one time. In Socorro there are about 34 units.

“The Socorro Presbyterian Medical Services (PMS) and HUD provide help with getting housing and services for homeless people in Socorro,” Chavez-Lopez said. “You have to make sure that the people who apply are homeless, and the people are verified through PMS or Valle del Sol mental health service run out of Valencia County.”

The program is based on “scatter housing,” which means the people who enter the program do not have to meet certain criteria in order to be eligible.

“The entities involved try to get them employed and they have to do a service plan to find if they have disabilities or are unemployed, which they follow up each year,” Chavez-Lopez said. “They can stay on the program until they get on their feet. It’s endless as long as you need the services and the housing.”

Since the program was introduced to the area in 2010, Chavez-Lopez said they have served between 200 and 250 homeless families.

“We keep an ongoing waiting list and our applications go through Valle del Sol, and they refer them to us and then we issue the voucher,” she said.

More information on eligibility requirements for the program can be found at www.onecpd.info/spc/spc-eligibility-requirements.