Opinion: The Women Of Tent City

Amelia Olson
11 min read
The Women of Tent City
Kim and her Twiggy (Amelia Olson)
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As the sun beats down on the corner of First Street and Iron Avenue, I walk toward a makeshift housing community on a sidewalk that has become known as “Tent City.” It’s hard not to notice the gawking media, shooting photos and writing notes while keeping an obvious distance from the folks cleaning out their tents and organizing their belongings.

City property is literally someone’s home at Tent City, whether the city of Albuquerque approves or not. Tents are lined up next to one another. Brooms rest against recycling bins and cases of bottled water donated by locals separate the news reporters from the residents. Approaching the folks living at Tent City makes me nervous, not because
they make me nervous but because I don’t want them to think I’m some asshole simply trying to fill airtime or produce a demoralizing story about their lives. I want these people to know, somehow, that I am their ally. I decide to approach the women I want to talk to in the same way I would approach anyone I trust and know. The women are rightfully skeptical of me at first, but after a few minutes of talking, they become more welcoming. I quickly realize that the women I meet that day are a lot like me: hot, annoyed with the people around us and in need of a tampon.

They are women like Kim. “I taught preschool at Tomasita Elementary. I loved my kids there,” she tells me as she pulls loose strands of hair from her face. After losing her street mom (a woman she thought of as a mother, but was not biologically related to) and several family members to suicide and addiction, she knows life is delicate … even if she’s gambled with her own before. She wraps her hair in a bun, wears skinny jeans and tank tops and jokingly tells me, “The worst part of being homeless is I have no place to put clothes. I love fashion, always have! But out here, where am I supposed to put clothes?”

When Kim smiles it feels like some sort of miracle, a gap-toothed,vibrant smile that provides a stark contrast to the noise and tension surrounding us. She’s admittedly bossy, and we joke about the pros and cons of being bossy, if not occasionally bitchy. “I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, so I’m trying to get help with that right now,” she says. I have PTSD myself, and I know how difficult it is to find mental health resources to get better, even for someone who isn’t homeless. She and I smoke cigarettes and talk about poetry, clothes and her most prized possession, a London-made purse called a Twiggy. Before I can even ask her what a Twiggy is, Kim grabs my hand and leads me to her tent. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she asks as she models it. I tell her it is, and I marvel at the special connection two women have when they both really love fashion. Kim also cares about literacy, and she asks me to make sure that I write about her involvement with the homeless memorial service organized after two Navajo men were murdered by three teenagers; the men were sleeping in an empty lot when they were attacked and brutally beaten to death. “I worked with AmeriCorps on a literacy campaign too. I just love poetry, reading and writing,” she says. “That’s another thing out here: I don’t have paper to write on, so I can’t work on my poetry.”

And there are women like Angel, a 23-year-old who helped open two restaurants in Albuquerque, who loves makeup and her boyfriend. “See how nice I look right now? It’s because I was staying at a hotel for a few days, so I could wear makeup and look like myself. If you saw me out here without a place to get ready, I would look dirty,” she tells me, as we sit and talk in my car. Born deaf, she speaks with power and authority, and somehow has a gentleness to her that reveals not only her intelligence but also a compassionate heart. “I was one of the top chefs in Albuquerque. I was on the news, had interviews. People knew me and knew I was really good.” But after a brief battle with heroin addiction, her reputation and employment dried up. “I tried going back, once I got clean, to get my job back but there was a new manager. He didn’t know who I was, and [he] wouldn’t hire me.”

Realizing she wouldn’t get her previous job back, she accepted a position that she knew she was overqualified for. “I should make more with my experience and everything. But I needed the money so I could save to get into an apartment,” she says. Eight months sober, employed and now able to put a deposit down on an apartment, she worries that a background check may disqualify her from permanent housing, leaving her stuck in Tent City.

Many of these women tell me they would rather sleep in places like Tent City than stay at a shelter, where they say they’ve been mistreated, denied a bed or forced to live in “disgusting” conditions.

Whitney Conyers, the lead therapist at Barrett House Foundation, a homeless shelter housing women and children exclusively, acknowledges that the homeless community is skeptical of help offered to them. “We, as shelters, obviously somehow burned that bridge, and for some reason women have the opinion or belief that they won’t be welcomed.” The otherness we have created has set up a distinguishable barrier between women who are homeless and the rest of the community. They are skeptical of the people around them, and with good reason. There is a certain “otherness” that our society has placed on these women, an otherness that disempowers and silences them and ironically keeps them stuck in their circumstances.

Walking the streets throughout the day and searching for someplace to stay at night is inherently dangerous, and many women adopt street “sons,” “brothers” and boyfriends for protection. And while women like Kim may seem intimidating, they still face violence and danger. Many women told me stories of being beaten by men who wanted their belongings. Beyond robbery, the women also face the most sickening and sadly most commonly experienced crime, sexual assault. It makes sense that they would want the added security of a male partner when they sleep or travel through town. And with the recent closing of both Tent City locations, we as a community have put these women in imminent danger. Living in Tent City at least offered them a designated space to watch over one another; that’s something they aren’t able to do when sleeping on corners, isolated and vulnerable to predators.

Some women eventually find housing but are far from stabilized. Women like Ivey, an East LA-born woman in her fifties. She loves soda and Twitter and has a hefty following on the website. She grew up listening to Black Flag and other punk bands and eventually taught herself how to play trombone; now she regularly plays covers of songs in downtown Albuquerque to make extra money. She’s sharp and funny, the kind of funny that comes from an understanding of truths, no matter how devastatingly sad. We meet at a Starbucks, and while she lives in a motel right now, the slightest bump in the road could put her back on the streets. “I get a better rate for living there somewhat permanently, but I cut close to having nothing. That’s when I try to make extra money playing trombone,” she says. Having semi-permanent housing at a motel has its downside, as she is not protected legally in the same ways a person with a lease or rental agreement might be. It’s yet another example of how people can still be victimized after they get “off the streets.” When Ivey was first hired at the Uptown Target, her training required her to be at the Paseo del Norte location at 4am, a difficult task without transportation. Determined to make it work, she tells me she left her motel at midnight and walked the entire way to get to her training on time. She did this for several days before a coworker asked if she wanted to carpool.

Even when they are able to secure a safe place to stay for a while, many women are also forced to submit to background checks that don’t come back clean, disqualifying them from jobs, apartments and opportunities. Eventually, the process of getting back on their feet is so disheartening that staying with what you know becomes easier and less crushing. “I think if we looked at the movie of these women’s lives, we would understand so much more about where they’re coming from,” Conyers tells me. “Homelessness is all of our responsibility. Landlords are responsible. Employers are responsible. All of us.”

After an unusually hot February day at Tent City, I find myself talking with my neighbor about the homeless. “But they’re addicts,” he argues as we drink beer in my backyard. This is the attitude that shocks me the most: the voice in our cozy minds that tells us the alcohol we drink every night is somehow different from the alcohol residents at Tent City drink every night, assuming they drink at all. Why do we assign value to lives based on whether a person is using drugs or not? Why don’t we simply acknowledge that we all have different needs and that ignoring addiction is an ineffective way of treating it? If I had been raped, beaten and ignored by my community in the past few months, I might want to be high too.

I try to imagine what I would do if I were in a position similar to these women. Would I walk 30 miles to get to a new job? How would I take basic care of my hygiene if I didn’t have privacy or a toilet? Where would I get tampons? Where would I go to put one in? What would I do if, as one woman anonymously revealed to me, I paid someone for a hotel room and was then beaten, sexually assaulted and thrown out? Would I pull myself up by my bootstraps, battered, humiliated and judged, to go look for a great new place to live and work?

We can displace as many people as we want. We can continue to shut down Tent Cities forever. But eviction notices only serve to make the homeless invisible, shoved out of public sight and easier to ignore. The women of Tent City will be no less homeless and in need of resources because we “evict” them. And while the Bernalillo County Commission recently passed
a tax increase to fund mental health and addiction treatment services, it only scratches the surface of a complicated, enormous conflict within our community. Until the Albuquerque community as a whole is willing to actively stand in solidarity with the homeless, we continue to isolate and push aside those people who make some of us feel uncomfortable.

What shocked me the most about the women I’ve gotten to know over the past month wasn’t their unbelievable optimism, surprisingly hilarious conversation or their determination to keep going. What shocked, saddened and disgusted me was that when I asked each one of them what the city of Albuquerque could do to help them, they each, separately from one another, answered quickly and without reservation, “Just please don’t judge us.”

This is on all of us, Albuquerque. We should be ashamed of our response to the needs of homeless women. And we must be more determined to treat these women with the dignity and care they deserve.

The Women of Tent City

Amelia Olson

The Women of Tent City

The second Tent City location in Barelas.

Ty Bannerman

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