The population of homeless women and children across the country is growing, says Lisa LaBrecque, director of policy for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. Albuquerque's no exception. Families with children make up an estimated 40 percent of the city's homeless population, according to LaBrecque. The housing market booms. Rents jump. Affordable housing dwindles.
Barrett House Development Director Jill Criswell says, oftentimes, the women who come to the shelter are working, they just don't make enough to cover the cost of a stable roof over their heads. "Some of them even have two part-time jobs—that's all their education and job skills allow for—but it's not enough to pay for an apartment. It's very common."
Criswell says there are between 150 and 300 homeless families on any given night in Albuquerque. Many of them are single-parent families with mothers being the primary caregiver. There are 43 beds for women and children at the Barrett House, the only emergency shelter of its kind in the city. Aside from Joy Junction, the Safe House for victims of domestic violence and a few more beds offered at the emergency shelter the city opens for the winter, few are willing to take on the complications of a co-ed shelter.
The experience of the female homeless population carries an additional set of burdens. Jennifer Metzler, co-executive director of Albuquerque's Health Care for the Homeless, cites some scary stats from Dr. Ellen Bassuk and the organization's national council: 92 percent of all homeless women have experienced some form of severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives; 60 percent were abused by age 12; 63 percent experienced intimate partner violence as adults.
Numbers like that informed the creation of Health Care for the Homeless' Tierra Del Sol program, a gender-specific, trauma-informed treatment. "We could have six programs like Tierra Del Sol in this community, and it would still not meet the need," says Metzler. "If you're a single homeless woman—many are mothers but don't have their children with them—there are huge gaps in this system for housing and support. Single women aren't valued in the same way. Services for them are among the scarcest."
Maria is somewhat of an expert on Albuquerque's services. She's used as many of them as she was eligible for during her 14-year trek through intense drug abuse. When she's active in her addiction, she stays away from her family, walking the streets, crashing in motel rooms when she can scrape together the fee. At 41, she's fighting for sobriety again, for her voice, for a place in society.
Dependable. Trustworthy. Qualities Maria has never seen in herself.
A friend called her trustworthy last month. Her coworkers at the food bank mentioned she's been very dependable in her volunteer position.
"I laugh later on in my car,” she says, unsuccessfully concealing a note of pride. Then the joke's over. "I don't see it. But they see it. So that must be a good thing."
She wants to help people, to follow in her father's footsteps of aiding those with substance abuse troubles. First, though, she has to fend off an addiction to crack and heroin and the homelessness that accompanies her binges. "I want to go back to school. I want to work a part-time job when I can at least stay clean a year. Right now, that's not an option. After a year, you can set some boundaries and go forward."
Her last relapse was in September, a two-week indulgence that spit her out in front of a judge on paraphernalia charges she'd racked up some time before. Because of her more than decade-long, on-again off-again addiction, her record isn’t short. No inpatient sentencing that time. Maria is on house arrest until November.
Sobriety stayed within Maria's reach for almost a year, the better part of 2006, when she attended outpatient women-only therapeutic community Almas de Amistad at 609 Gold SW. Almas shut its doors in March due to funding issues [See "Lost Sanctuary," February 15-21, 2007], but with the award of a pending federal grant, could reopen in October. Almas was her home away from home, with group therapy sessions three times a day or as needed for women on the verge of relapse. Though she's held on since March without Almas, attending co-ed AA meetings and counseling sessions at New Awakenings, she's without the web of constant female support provided by Almas. These days, once the hour is up, once her sessions are over, it's out the door.
"Basically, other women can relate to what you're going through—abuse, domestic violence, addiction." It's harder, she says, to talk in front of men, when you've been abused by a man.
Maria didn't use drugs until she was 27, the mother of three small children, trapped in an abusive marriage. She stayed out of the way of the booze and pot traps many young adults fall into, because her dad was an alcoholic until he cleaned up when she was 17.
Her ex-husband beat her, she says, badly. He was controlling. She couldn't leave the house. He did the shopping and paid the bills. He even tied her up. Being with him was the most incarcerated she’s ever been. Suicide attempts landed her in inpatient treatment at Anna Kaseman Hospital. Escape seemed futile. Friends of his started coming over with drugs. She would slip away with them for a night. Two days. A week. A month. Finally, she didn't come home. She hit the streets. He raised the kids.
"With my ex, I didn't have a voice," she says.
Most of the women therapist Pam Allen speaks with come from domestic violence situations. "Most of them have been beaten down," she says. Tierra del Sol, the pilot residential program for women where Allen works, added four steps to the traditional 12. Those four steps have to do with empowerment. "They're a way to help women through shame and guilt, to help them realize they're powerless over their addiction, but not powerless over their lives," says Allen. Additionally, women are "relational," and it's necessary to build a treatment model based on that paradigm. "Relationships are very important," she says. "Women often start using because of [abusive] men or end up relapsing because of men."
"Me and my dad are close," Maria says. No matter where she was in Albuquerque, if she were dope sick, if she needed money, he would come. "Where are you?" he would ask. "I'll be right there." Her father's on hospice now, nearing the end of his life. "We know he doesn't have a lot of time," she says. That's what she thinks about when she feels herself nearing relapse—not being there for her dad, though he's stuck by her all this time. "If he could do that for me in my illness ..."
Maria still struggles with the temptation to run away, to "go back out there," as she puts it. Arguments are a trigger. Seeing other addicts at the Storehouse, the food-box distribution center she volunteers for, can cause an almost jealous craving. Quitting, she says, is hard because "all the feelings come back. Reality. You're not high anymore. You have to deal with shit."
Jail poses no real concern. "I can do jail time. That's not a problem." Rather, it's what she would miss out on should she violate her house arrest. "To be in jail and not able to do the things I'm doing now would not be OK for me. I'd so be kicking myself in the butt."
"I know I've created a lot of bad," Maria says. Her family would come looking for Maria when she was "out there," and when they found her, she would tell them to keep on going. "I would be mean." Regardless, her mom has always taken her back in when Maria decided she wanted to get clean again. Maria's used her sister's name and Social Security Number when picked up for numerous charges over the years. "Sometimes I don't want to be around her because of that. I feel so guilty."
Working at the Storehouse, Maria was surprised to discover the odor of homelessness. "I probably had that odor, too, but I didn't realize it," she says. "I don't want to go back." She notices the way some people pull away when homeless clients try to shake their hand, afraid of diseases and filth. "I don't want people to see me as that anymore."
There's a stigma, says therapist Pam Allen, against people who have addictions. "Women especially aren't supposed to be addicts," she says. All people battling addiction face being written off as drunks and junkies, "and they're real people with real-life problems, and they deserve to be treated as real people."
Saturday is Maria’s shopping day. Sunday she goes to church. Monday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to noon, she does her volunteer work. Then she goes to her father's house to take care of him. AA meetings eat up Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Sunday evenings. She calls it a full itinerary, her days are stocked with as much activity as her house arrest will allow. The structure, the regimen, helps her stay focused on sobriety.
The amount of activity seemed daunting at first. "When you're bipolar and an addict, it's different," she says Early this year, Maria only wanted to be in two places: Almas de Amistad and home. "I'm not good in society sometimes," she says. "I want to be, don't get me wrong. I just don't know how."
A few months ago, she spoke barely audibly, sitting on one of the couches at Almas, buried in dark-colored sweats and a large, formless jacket. On this day in mid-May, she's in jean shorts and a colorful T-shirt, laughing frequently, almost in disbelief, as she recalls the harsher passages of her story.
"I'm trying to use my voice," she says. One day not that long ago, things were bad. Maria didn't want to be home. She didn't want to be at the Storehouse. She was craving. "I told my boss," she laughs, incredulous. "’You don't know me that well, because I've only been here a couple weeks. But this is what's going on.’ My poor boss." Instead of recoiling or bestowing shame, Maria's supervisor made sure to pile on the work, keeping her occupied all day long until she could get a grip, checking on her every few minutes. "You don't expect that. You don't expect that from people. It was ... nice."