Drive along Zuni SE – or Third NW or the interstates or Downtown or any other pocket of poverty in Albuquerque – and you can’t avoid seeing the tents and cardboard boxes and the tarps slung over shopping carts, home for those without homes.
It’s like the Third World in the First World.
What you might not see are the unhoused families with children, many who seek refuge in the less visible recesses of those pockets, in vehicles, shelters, rundown motels or by couch surfing among friends and relatives.
We adults have been debating what to do about the unhoused population for as long as I can remember. We toss a buck or two to those sunburned souls on street corners, donate time and money to shelters and soup kitchens during the holidays, rail at our local politicians to fix things, wring our hands and shake our heads.
Or we do nothing at all.
Maybe we choose other streets to drive down so we don’t see it. Maybe we blame the homeless for their plight, yell at them to get jobs, so we don’t feel it.
Or maybe we could be a little more like Russell Felsch.
He’s 11 and a fifth grader a few days away from graduating from Inez Elementary School in the Northeast Heights. He’s also an ambassador for Amparo, a small nonprofit doing big things to keep families with school-age children from joining or remaining in the ranks of those without housing.
Albuquerque Public Schools estimates more than 3,300 students are homeless in the district. Russell says he became “woke,” as he puts it, to this earlier this spring when he learned that a classmate is among those thousands of homeless students. It was a shocking revelation to a kid who lives comfortably in a home with his school teacher mother, musician father and two brothers.
“I didn’t know kids at my school could be homeless,” Russell explains. “I’ve never experienced homelessness, but I can make an assumption that it is very hard.”
Russell says that he decided to find out ways to help her and others like her. He began spending lunch periods in the office of Rachelle Ford, Community School coordinator at Inez, where he learned more about the homeless community and helped with the school’s Rocketfuel Weekend Backpack Program, which provides food and supplies for struggling families during weekends and school breaks.
Ford also introduced Russell to the folks at Amparo, a small nonprofit that works to prevent eviction and homelessness among families with school-age children in Bernalillo County.
Last March, Russell was invited as guest speaker during its board meeting. Recently, he followed up with a letter to the board that included his research into homelessness.
“Being unhoused costs more than being housed,” he wrote, something he said he learned during an interview with the Renters Coalition of Albuquerque. “Also, being unhoused causes stress and mental anguish that makes people feel terrible. This sometimes can lead to unhealthy behaviors or addictions. This type of care for people is very expensive. Unhoused people also can get very sick because they can’t go to the doctors and don’t have a place where they can rest and recover.”
Russell also explained how he helps his homeless classmate.
“I look for ways to keep encouraging my friend,” he wrote. “I tell her I like her for who she is, not for what she has or doesn’t have. If kids are being nosey or talking about her, I try to tell them that’s not OK. There are days when I can tell that she feels a little ‘off,’ so I tell her there are friends like me that she can talk to and there are teachers at school she can talk to. I just try to be there for her, and I make sure her brother is OK, too.”
The board members were impressed.
“It was unprecedented to have a person so young come talk to us,” says Serge Martinez, Amparo president and a University of New Mexico School of Law associate dean. “We were so captivated by Russell. Not a lot of people his age, or any age, have such an awareness that when a classmate struggles with homelessness it’s not just their problem but his problem, too. I was 30 when I became aware of the world. Russell has about 20 years on me.”
That’s no surprise to Russell’s parents, who say he has always been passionate and thoughtful and blessed with the ability to talk to just about anybody.
“He’s a leader without knowing it,” mom Stephanie Felsch says. “He’s one of those kids who walks in the room and you know it, his personality is so strong.”
Strong, yes. He’s had to be. He was 5 when he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
“It was the longest summer of our lives,” his mom says. “He was so sick. But he’s coming up on six years surviving cancer. He’s a strong guy.”
Russell so impressed the Amparo board that it agreed recently to set up a special fundraiser on its website for emergency housing assistance for Inez families. Because Amparo staff are all volunteers, 100% of all donations go directly to support the families.
“I always think now any time I see or know about homeless people I wonder, maybe the money we are raising will help them,” Russell says. “I’m always thinking how can I help.”
Russell concludes his Amparo letter like this:
“I may be just a kid, but I have big dreams. I want to change the world by helping people in need and finding exactly where my skills and talents can be used. I encourage you to help how and where you can, spreading positivity in this world and leave things better than you found them.”
Maybe we could be a lot more like Russell Felsch.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
Learn more about Amparo and donate at amparonm.org.
For Russell Felsch’s fundraiser and to read his letter, click on the site’s Inez Elementary link.
“Housing is a Human Right” T-shirts and tank tops sizes XS-2X are also available at the site.