Exiting homelessness - Albuquerque Journal

Exiting homelessness

Marcelino Berry-Providenti, left, and his brother, Marcus Berry-Providenti, along with their uncle, not pictured, experienced homelessness during the pandemic — at one point spending more than 8 months in a city-funded hotel room — but are now residing in a Northeast Albuquerque apartment complex. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Homelessness is routinely cited as one of Albuquerque residents’ top concerns.

As one city councilor noted earlier this year, everyone seems to want a fix, even if they have entirely different motivations or perspectives.

“They’re constantly saying we need to do something about homelessness; whether it’s because they have empathy or sympathy for the homeless or the unhoused, or whether it’s (that) they’re frustrated and fed up with homelessness and the unhoused population trespassing or loitering or camping overnight,” Councilor Brook Bassan said at a public meeting in May.

That quest for solutions begets seemingly endless discussion and debate over policy and budget.

Indeed, the city of Albuquerque is spending about $34.1 million this year alone on homeless “services,” according to the Department of Family and Community Services. That includes shelter operations, meals, transportation, workforce development and even dental care. That doesn’t include the roughly $23 million in state and local funding the city has for rental assistance vouchers.

But sometimes lost in those public discussions and debates are the people most affected by them. The Journal recently interviewed a few people who have used city-funded services as they try to exit homelessness.

The journey to stability

Every once in a while, Stephen Providenti dives into the news website comment pool, compelled by what other readers have written about homelessness.

Those who have never experienced it tend to assume it only affects individuals grappling with substance abuse, mental illness, dangerous relationships or who are somehow bad people.

“When I explained what happened to me, I actually would get some decent, ‘Oh, you’re the example of what can happen, but you’re not the norm,'” said Providenti, who became homeless during the pandemic. “But I don’t like that judgment because, though there are some bad apples, I happen to see a lot of (homeless) people that just got hit by circumstances.”

Stephen Providenti, center, said he feels hopeful about the future now that he and the nephews he is raising — Marcus, left, and Marcelino, right — are living in an apartment. The trio had been homeless during part of the pandemic, but now have a rental assistance voucher. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Providenti, 52, and his two young nephews, Marcus and Marcelino, now have fairly typical accommodations, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the Northeast Heights. There are bicycles by the front door, a guinea pig named “Buddy” in the boys’ bedroom, Uno cards on the coffee table and a crockpot – perfect for Providenti’s beef stroganoff – in the kitchen.

Marcus, 11, said his favorite part is living next to so many other kids, while 8-year-old Marcelino – who literally climbs the apartment walls – particularly enjoys the nearby park and is keeping close tabs on the repair status of the complex’s nonworking swimming pool.

But it was a long, hard journey to such stability.

The trouble started in late 2020.

The three were sharing a rented house with Providenti’s sister and her family when the landlord said he planned to sell the property. Providenti suddenly found himself searching for a new place in the middle of a pandemic.

Unable to find a better alternative, Providenti – legally blind and raising the boys on a disability income because their parents are unable to care for them – moved the trio to an extended stay hotel in February 2021. He paid over $500 a week for the room, and was also spending down his food stamps at rapid speed. With only a microwave and small refrigerator, he could not prepare substantial meals that would last for days, relying instead on higher-cost, packaged alternatives.

“You’re buying Hot Pockets and burritos and Lunchables; that stuff adds up, and when it started coming to the end of the month, I was using cash to supplement our food,” he said.

A few months like that consumed nearly all of Providenti’s savings, and he still had not found a new rental. The three moved in temporarily with a friend in Rio Rancho, where the two boys had spots inside but where Providenti slept in a backyard tent.

After about two months, a Title I coordinator from the boys’ school alerted Providenti to a spot in a hotel that the city of Albuquerque began renting early in the pandemic to give homeless families an alternative to the city-owned congregate shelter on the far West Side. They headed that way, living in the hotel for about eight months.

Despite the close quarters, the boys handled the situation “like champs,” Providenti said.

“They were frustrated, of course; they bickered and fought at times, but we did a lot of walking around in the mesa and around the neighborhood (to get out),” he said.

The family ultimately qualified for a rental assistance voucher but had difficulty putting it to use. The voucher – funded by the state but administered by Bernalillo County – had to be extended so they had more time to find a spot and ensure Providenti completed the legal process of becoming the boys’ guardian. They finally secured their current unit in a large Northeast Heights apartment complex in April.

The voucher is good until next spring, at which point Providenti said he hopes he no longer needs it. A former hotel maintenance engineer driven out of the workforce because of an eye condition that damaged his vision, Providenti is trying to generate some new income via blogging.

He said he is hoping to get his nephews into counseling, but that they have weathered the hardships surprisingly well.

“They’re my heroes, for sure,” he said.

But he knows what he and the boys experienced is not unique, having seen many other families over the past year and a half enduring similar challenges. Homelessness, he said, carries an unfortunate and unfair stigma.

“It hurts me to think that my boys would ever be embarrassed by it,” he said.

Accepting help

Patricia always told people she was going to beat the streets, beat her cancer and get home to Texas.

For the first time in years, it all actually feels possible.

Patricia recently accepted help to move out of Coronado Park and into a hotel room. She is on track for permanent housing and ready to resume needed treatment for cancer. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

The 50-year-old worked with a city-contracted homeless services provider to move into a hotel and is now on track to resume needed medical treatment that she previously struggled to obtain because she lived on the streets. She has a rental assistance voucher available if she wants permanent housing in Albuquerque, though ABQ StreetConnect says it could also aid her in returning to her home state of Texas.

Homeless for the last four years, Patricia said she decided she was finally ready to accept help when it was offered.

“Whether it be mental health or physical health, a lot of us just don’t know how to talk to people about what we need. I’m so used to taking care of myself that pride itself kept me down from being able to talk to get help,” the petite and soft-spoken Patricia said in a recent interview. “I always want to take care of myself, and you can’t always take care of yourself.”

Just a few months ago, Patricia was among dozens of people sleeping in tents at Coronado Park north of Downtown. She repeatedly eschewed outside help to remain in the encampment, because she could not fathom leaving her then-boyfriend. She said he was violent, but he also provided some sense of protection and had been her partner for years.

“I came here with him, and he has taken care of me in ways,” Patricia said.

The pair met in East Texas, having linked up after Patricia lost her husband to cancer. Even there, life was somewhat tumultuous; Patricia had difficulty coping with her husband’s death, ultimately quitting her job at Popeye’s because she was struggling to make it to work on time or missing shifts altogether.

She said she did have housing – she rented space from a friend – but had been mistaken for homeless on the streets of Longview. She said someone ultimately gave her and her partner tickets from Longview, Texas, to Albuquerque.

“Rather than have you homeless in the city, they will give you a bus ticket out of town,” she said.

The duo arrived in New Mexico in 2018, fearful and unsure what to do next.

Patricia said she’s been homeless ever since, staying a few times at Joy Junction, briefly at the city’s West Side shelter and – while recovering from some breast cancer treatment – sleeping temporarily in a hotel.

Mostly, though, she has lived in Coronado Park, where she believed the sense of community ultimately outweighed the horrors. She said she wasn’t built for the sometimes savage environment, but learned to adapt for survival.

“I wasn’t used to it. I’m a nice person so people will come up and take advantage of that … but I was safe in danger, if that makes sense at all. It’s how you feel out here. You know danger could be lurking around the corner, but you’re safe,” she said.

But that was not always the case; she said a stranger once forced her into the shadows of a Downtown-area street and raped her.

When the city shut down Coronado Park in August, Patricia finally decided to accept help. She is trying to sever ties with her boyfriend, willing herself to steer clear. She said she even called police on him for the first time after he forced his way into her hotel room.

She is scared, she said, but wanted to tell her story because she said it is many others’ story, too.

“I’m not the only one out here going through what I’m going through. I’m sure there’s other women trapped in what they feel is all they have,” she said.

Though relieved to now have a sink, a shower and microwave, Patricia said returning to what she calls a “normal” living has been jarring. Upon moving into the hotel, she used blankets to create a makeshift bed on the floor. That’s where she felt most comfortable sleeping for the first few nights.

“It is hard to get used to a (regular) bed after being outside that long,” she said.

Ideally, she will return to Texas, where she still has family.

She said she thinks the general public often misunderstands homelessness.

“A lot of us are just lost,” she said. “… A lot of people think that we’re just trashy people. A lot of us have families that care that we get lost from. The way our lives went, yes, it feels like a dead end. But not only that, we’re lost.”

Contemplating a new future

Sean Eskeli can in conversation effortlessly recite 1970s folk song lyrics and describe in vivid detail where he was 28 years ago when marital conflict sidelined him during the birth of his daughter.

What Eskeli cannot remember is the last time he had a stable living situation.

Now 60, he said he has been homeless since age 19, even if it did not always feel that way.

Sean Eskeli used to live in Coronado Park, but outreach workers recently convinced him to move into a hotel and say he should soon have his own apartment. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

He spent much of his life moving around the country, stitching together nights on friends’ couches and working to keep money in his pocket. For a while, that meant building custom furniture in central Nebraska.

“It never occurred to me that I didn’t have an address or a home. I was just bumbling around the country, building (stuff), and running restaurants, fixing restaurants and doing whatever the hell I wanted to do,” Eskeli said while speaking to a Journal reporter inside a local homeless services provider’s office.

Sipping coffee with his cane propped up on a nearby bookshelf and his hat and glasses on a table in front of him, Eskeli recalls how his situation grew considerably more precarious around 2009 when he said the Great Recession caused furniture orders to dry up. It was not until then – when he sold off his tools, ran out of money, and realized his belongings amounted to a backpack and change of clothes – that reality set in.

Eskeli has come to and left Albuquerque multiple times and, court records show, had multiple run-ins with the law. In this, his fourth stint in Albuquerque, he had been sleeping in a tent in the middle of the large, unsanctioned encampment at Coronado Park. He considered it preferable to shelters, where he felt stifled and judged.

Though he acknowledges a history of alcoholism and drug issues, he resents when people assume that is the sole cause of homelessness.

“Get inside the individual. They’re not just down and out because of drugs and alcohol. … (Stuff) happened. Mom got killed, dad beat the crap out of mom. Right? The factory shut down. My business went sour on me,” Eskeli said. “Each individual has a reason.”

After years of instability and living on high-alert, Eskeli caught what seemed like a break nearly two months ago. As Albuquerque city officials prepared to shutter Coronado Park, outreach workers crisscrossed the park. An ABQ StreetConnect navigator approached Eskeli in his tent.

“He knew me by name, knew me by reputation, picked me up and said, ‘Dude, you’re about dead,’ and he was correct,” Eskeli recalls. “And he said, ‘It’s your turn. Let’s take care of you.'”

ABQ StreetConnect, one of the city’s contractors, has rented Eskeli a hotel room and is helping him apply for Social Security benefits. The organization says he is on track for a housing voucher, meaning he could soon move into an apartment.

But it all has felt like a mixed blessing. Eskeli said he feels a sense of responsibility to the rest of the Coronado Park residents, having served as what he called the site’s “godfather” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi” – describing himself as a community leader who acted as a middleman between park residents and the outreach workers, police and other first responders who often visited the site.

He struggled settling into the hotel room at first. He wakes up anxious every morning, running through a checklist of worries, including how long the room is paid for and whether he can afford food. He gets food stamps and, he said, a small pension from a past job.

Asked to contemplate his life once he gets an apartment, Eskeli said he would either be watching TV – tuning into “something brilliant” not “stupid” – or listening to music. He wants to write a book and get back into cooking.

“I think if you came by, you’d find me cooking. … Because even when I was (working construction), when I went home, I cooked and it took me away from the whole world,” he said. “And it’s a passion, a glory and a wonder.”

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