Reina couldn’t finish high school because she didn’t have access to child care. She went on to enroll in college and did well, but she was forced to drop out once again. Over the next eight years, Reina and her partner struggled. Distance grew between them, and her partner turned to alcohol. “I became homeless due to domestic violence,” she says.
At this point in Reina’s story, a little girl in a bright pink dress toddles towards her. “Mom!” she squeals. Reina leans over to scoop up the 2-year-old, resuming her story with her youngest daughter, Sammie, in her arms. Sammie settles down and, with the exception of one adorable sneeze, remains quiet until her mom is done speaking.
After leaving her partner, Reina and her daughters traveled from town to town. When her ex tracked her down, they sought refuge at an Albuquerque women’s shelter. “It was the best decision I ever made,” she says. The folks at the shelter referred her to Cuidando los Niños, an Albuquerque nonprofit providing early childhood development services for homeless children from 6 weeks to 5 years of age. Cuidando also helps families become rehoused and stabilized through its Family Support Program and numerous community partnerships.
Dr. Jaime Tamez, executive director of Cuidando los Niños, points out that policies addressing homelessness have traditionally focused on individual adults like the sunburned person holding up a sign by the freeway. Tamez notes that children and families are less visible because they are living out of cars, or crashing on couches, or hiding out in shelters. Tamez says policy-makers must shift their focus to address these invisible victims of homelessness as well.
Here in the Duke City, Cuidando los Niños has led the fight against child and family homelessness for 23 years. “We’ve learned a lot over the years,” says Tamez. For instance, Cuidando learned that simply putting a roof over a family doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness.
Homeless families “are not homeless because they don’t have a house,” says Tamez. “That’s a symptom. They’re homeless because they don’t have a support system.” With this in mind, Cuidando starts building a support system around the whole family from the first day of enrollment. It includes the Early Childhood Development Program, which provides daily, year-round, high-quality childcare for homeless kids.
Cuidando offers a multitude of other services as well, ranging from parenting classes (offered in both English and Spanish) to monthly home visits. Cuidando collaborates with participants on a one-year Family Action Plan to establish goals and benchmarks for self-sufficiency. Like many nonprofits, Cuidando operates on a modest budget.
“We do so much with so little,” says Cuidando board of directors member Michelle Racicot.
The result? Eighty-two percent of Cuidando families are able to achieve sustainable housing and stability within the community by the time they transition out of the program.
“Instead of saying, Here’s your handout, we say, You can join this program if you’re motivated to make your own plan, and we will help you,” says Racicot, a registered nurse who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “Cuidando has a process that works and empowers people to change their own lives,” she adds.
A sturdy little bus has just returned from its three-hour morning trek. The volunteer bus driver, Richard, leaves at the crack of dawn to pick up Cuidando children from all nooks and crannies of the city. Because transportation can be an insurmountable obstacle for homeless families, this little bus is indispensable to Cuidando’s work.
It’s obvious that the place is bright and friendly. But to truly appreciate this facility, you have to try to see things through the eyes of a homeless child. According to the National Center, 97 percent of homeless children have moved within the past year, 22 percent have been separated from their family and one in four have witnessed violence. Two-thirds of homeless kids worry that they won’t have enough to eat.
At Cuidando, the kids never have to go without nutritious food, warm clothing or clean diapers. Unlike the crowded shelters or fleabag motels some are used to, the rooms here are neat and pretty. Adults shower you with warmth and treat your family with respect. Multilingual teachers introduce new concepts in English, Spanish and Navajo.
Mealtime is family-style, with everyone sitting together around a big table. This ushers in lessons about manners and sharing. The kids begin to learn the value of personal space by decorating their very own little cubbies. They stretch their legs in the sunny play areas around the outdoor garden.
Even in this safe new place, the hostile world of homelessness lurks in memories. Some worry so much they cry or fight or even remain silent for days. Over time, they learn to voice their traumatic experiences through artwork, language and play.
“My son came [to Cuidando] in just a T-shirt,” says Cuidando mom Pam of her 2-year-old son, Michael. “Now he’s talking more. He has learned so much. He’s learned sign language. That’s where he learned how to walk,” she says.
Before coming to Cuidando, Pam and her son were sleeping on the floor at an emergency shelter with 100 other people. Babies living in these circumstances can develop physical delays, since a crowded shelter floor is not a safe space for small children to practice skills like rolling over, crawling and walking. But Michael is now on track with his health and development, which shows in his quick smile and strong legs.
Pam herself is back on track as well. She has an apartment and is studying liberal arts at CNM. “I haven’t been in school in over 25 years, and I’m loving it,” she says with a laugh. “Without Cuidando I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.”
Like Pam, single mom Christine has also found success through Cuidando. She and her 7-year-old son Lucas have been out of the program for five years now. Christine, who is earning a degree in business administration at CNM, says her family has been stable since leaving the program. Lucas, a soon-to-be second-grader, is doing well in school and loves family games.
Though Christine and Lucas have not re-experienced homelessness since leaving Cuidando, the memories of her former life are never far from her thoughts. “There’s always an underlying fear,” she says. “Do I have enough money? Can I pay the rent? You feel so violated and humiliated that you don’t know how to speak up.”
Cuidando’s program is built around a deep understanding of the sense of violation and voicelessness that Christine talks about. Dr. Tamez calls this “trauma-informed care,” and Cuidando’s leadership has won the program a three-year grant to develop training modules that will help other organizations meet the special needs of homeless families. The U.S. State Department even asked Dr. Tamez to travel to Paraguay last year to share Cuidando’s model with officials seeking to address child homelessness in their country.
Families cannot pull themselves out of homelessness if they’re isolated and lacking basic resources. Likewise, Cuidando itself cannot provide the numerous services it offers to families without its network of partner organizations, donors and volunteers. One such partner organization, Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, runs Cuidando’s weekly onsite health clinic. Others, such as Saranam and CNM, provide access to essentials such as housing and education. The lengthy list of partnerships represents a statewide alliance working to end child homelessness in New Mexico.
Despite these efforts and Cuidando’s success, New Mexico has a long way to go. The National Center on Family Homelessness has ranked our state a dismal 47t] in the country for child homelessness. New Mexico scores poorly when it comes to the number of homeless children, a child’s risk of becoming homeless and overall child well-being.
That means fewer than 25 percent of homeless kids graduate from high school. It means homeless kids are four times more likely to have health problems than their non-homeless counterparts, and they have a 50 percent chance of developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression. It means that Cuidando, which serves about 120 children between infancy and 5 years of age and about 90 parents per year, cannot keep pace with the needs of the estimated 10,000 homeless children in Albuquerque alone.
Cuidando and its partner organizations have launched the New Mexico Campaign to End Child Homelessness, which authored a report at the request of the state Legislature. Of the report’s many policy recommendations, Tamez says that ensuring access to quality, affordable housing is the most important. He argues that there’s a major misconception about what affordable means. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a single New Mexican parent earning minimum wage must work 73 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
“In the long run, what we need is a permanent place where a family can become established,” Tamez says. Although efforts to provide shelters or transitional housing are important short-term solutions, these environments don’t allow for the security and stability that families with children need.
The report also calls for increased access to early childhood development and care. “Early childhood is the most powerful investment a country can make,” a World Health Organization Report says, “with returns over the lifecourse many times the amount of the original investment.” This is especially true when programs reach disadvantaged kids. But since Cuidando is one of only seven programs offering early childhood development services to homeless kids in the entire nation, there’s work to be done.
With strong policies and partnerships, the New Mexico report to the legislature says that ending child homelessness in our state is possible.
“We are doing it,” says Tamez. “We just need to do it on a larger scale.”
Ask Reina, who’s now finishing a degree in business management. Still clutching Sammie in her arms, she holds back tears as she speaks. “I believe I became homeless for a reason,” she says. “To make my voice heard. To advocate for others. We must be willing to invest in our future, our greatest asset, our children.”