Homeless on Paseo: issue or norm?

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While many focus on the beauty and elegance of the downtown and scenery in Taos, another aspect of the town has come into focus recently with some homeowners and business owners along Paseo del Pueblo.

Businesses and community members along the 900 block of Paseo del Pueblo Sur have been noticing make-shift shelters and camps popping up under trees and shrubs and along the back sides of fences for over a year. These shelters are made by those who have no other place to sleep but behind someone's property or in a seemingly abandoned field. The situation has become common along Taos' main road and some say the numbers of homeless in the area have been increasing in the past few years.

"All the time there's people coming and going there next door," said Jeweler Larry Martinez."Nobody can do anything about it. Its been a problem."

Martinez owns a jewelry store next to the former Applebee's building on Paseo del Pueblo Sur and has been at the location for over 45 years. While he says the homeless population in the area has not really had a negative effect on his business or customers, Martinez indicates that there has been an increase of activity in the neighborhood since the closing of Applebee's in 2013. Behind Martinez' property, people have built a small shed attached to his fence, in which Martinez said two people are currently living and he constantly sees trash and graffiti on the property next door.

Camps like the one Martinez found behind his property are common in the area of Paseo del Pueblo and several businesses and residents have had similar experiences with the make-shift tents, structures and other evidence of transient habitation.

Camps can be found in treed areas along the roads and in the rear portions of properties. Some landlords and owners have gone as far as clearing trees or shrubbery around their properties to eliminate the possibility of people hiding and camping on their properties.

Yet despite the movement and camps in the bushes, some residents like Gale and Cathie Hughes say the people moving through or camping usually keep to themselves.

"I think its kind of a seasonal thing," said Cathie, who sees more activity in the summer. "I've never had a problem with them, they're never rude to me. They're mainly respectable and I think they're in a situation where they're just homeless."

The Hughes live near the 900 block of the Paseo and say they frequently are able to view the homeless or transient population in the area camping on mattresses and traveling through the open fields in the area. The couple said they really don't have a problem with the homeless in the area and realize that many may be in need of some sort of assistance that they may or may not be receiving. Aside from the stray empty alcohol bottles that sometimes end up on their property, the couple feels that the homeless population in the area is no real threat to those living near the main drag.

The empty lots, abandoned buildings and parking lots along Paseo del Pueblo Sur often provide a home for the homeless in the area, however there are services in Taos which exist to assist people in transitional times and those who run them are encouraging people to seek the help. Entities like the Taos Mens Shelter and the HEART of Taos organization provide a place for people to go and offer a place to sleep as well as various forms of assistance for those they serve.

"With the growing trend of homelessness due to economic factors -- loss of income due to loss of job, health, grief/loss and loss of an income producing partner, the typical homeless woman could be any one of us," said Ama Khan, co-founder and executive director of HEART of Taos. "They look no different than you and me but have suffered a trigger event that causes a downward spiral of loss and trauma leading eventually to couch surfing or living in her car, often without letting family or friends even know, or doubling up with family or friends or tragically making unsafe choices in exchange for shelter or living somewhere that is uninhabitable."

HEART of Taos works in assisting homeless women, children and their pets in Taos and has been community run and operated for nearly two years. The organization helps, on average, nearly 20 women per month and has assisted over 300 women since opening in January 2016. While helping so many in the community, Khan estimates the population of homeless individuals in Taos County to be over 100 and assumes that number to be potentially higher at times. The visible homeless population is just a small percentage of the actual number, as many may be living with friends, relatives or away from areas where they may be seen by others.

Currently, there are several cities and towns in New Mexico working to combat homelessness by means of shelter, food and health assistance but Khan feels that there is always a need for more assistance. Men in Taos have the Taos Men's Shelter which opens at 6 p.m. in the summer for a bed to sleep in at night. On average in the summer, the Men's Shelter assists around 12 people per day and is also open for dinners which are open to men and women in the community. Guests are allowed to stay up to five days at the Men's Shelter with no questions asked.

There is no one factor that accounts for all homelessness and everyone's situation for not having a roof over their heads is different. Andy Chiaraluce, case manager at the Taos Men's Shelter said there is also no one demographic that makes up the homeless and transient population. Economic factors, substance dependencies and health issues are just some of the reasons people fall destitute in society, and organizations like HEART of Taos and the Men's Shelter are ensuring that while a person may fall, they will not be forgotten.

"Economically precipitated homelessness could literally happen to any of us and it is on the increase," Khan said.

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