Editor’s note: Today, the Journal begins its annual Help for the Holiday series, which spotlights areas in which community members can reach out to neighbors in need. The series continues the next three Sundays in the Living section.
Stories shared by people who received a free meal of soup, salad, a sandwich and a doughnut at Noon Day Ministries in Downtown recently were filled with challenges, aspirations and regrets – the same drumbeats of life faced by those who can afford food and a home.
But the challenges faced by those eating at Noon Day – such as addiction, difficult family or health circumstances, and bad luck – are sometimes debilitating, so, for them, Noon Day provides not only food, but safety, social interaction and assistance with food, toiletries and other necessities.
Nineteen-year old Michayla Vann, who has braces and sometimes sleeps at the train station or outside, likes to wear green eye shadow, so she stops at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center to shower and put it on before meeting two friends at the day shelter, New Mexico’s largest.
“I don’t have no money to get food,” said Vann, who hasn’t had anywhere to stay since August. Her history includes an unstable foster care situation that came after enduring a turbulent childhood.
“A lot of people know me here; most of the people I hang out with I call them my family. They accept me … that’s what I come here for: to eat, have fun and be safe.”
Many New Mexicans need to acquire food at no cost. The nonprofit group Feeding America has ranked New Mexico second-to-worst in the nation for both child hunger and general food insecurity. That group is the umbrella organization that oversees New Mexico’s Roadrunner Food Bank, which in 2012 distributed more than 23 million pounds of food to New Mexicans who needed it.
Cordell Lasiloo, 48, is one. Sitting alone at Noon Day recently, eating potato soup and a cold cut sandwich, he described himself as an alcoholic who started drinking when he was 8. He said he lost his job as a security guard due to his drinking, but continues consuming a fifth of vodka every few days so he can be around his pals who also drink.
He said it helps him to quell the loneliness he feels after splitting from his wife, three daughters and one son, with whom he had lived on the Zuni Pueblo in a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
Sometimes, he finds work as a day laborer; he recently spent a few weeks working at a pumpkin patch; and he has been to rehab seven times, he said.
Jennifer Pacheco, 20, was dropping pieces of bread into a styrofoam cup of potato soup while mentioning shyly to a young man with a beard ponytail who had also shown up for lunch: “I still have a crush on you.”
The petite blue-eyed woman whose hands were blackened with grime has been on the streets for six years, she said, and she is the mother of two girls she no longer has custody of.
Eddie Garcia, 42, said he receives Social Security benefits after being diagnosed with a mental disorder that affects his memory. He has been living at Joy Junction for several weeks with his 3-year-old daughter, who cannot hear. Caring for her, which means bringing her with him to Noon Day, is just one of the issues he faces as a single parent.
He’s been enjoying Noon Day’s meals, even though he thinks the volunteers mixed up his and his daughter’s beverages. “They gave her coffee, and they gave me Kool Aid,” he said jokingly.
‘Especially when it’s crazy’
Noon Day Ministries offers free breakfast and midday meals to people Tuesdays through Saturdays at no cost. Located on the west side of Broadway between Central and Martin Luther King, it has a staff of five, and a dozen regular volunteers. The team usually feeds lunch every day to between 350 and 400 people, and gives breakfast to about 100, according to Delores Herrera, who has worked there for three years as the volunteer coordinator and kitchen supervisor. “I love it, especially when it’s crazy,” she said in the kitchen overseeing lunch preparations recently.
“I was born and raised in Albuquerque, and I’ve always felt drawn to help the homeless in my home town,” she elaborated in an email. “Since I also love to cook, I can accomplish both here at Noon Day. I believe that there is so much more to life than just taking care of my immediate family. We have a responsibility to make a difference during our short lifetime, and Noon Day Ministries has given me that opportunity.”
She comes up with menus – homemade stew and meatloaf are recent offerings – based on food that is either donated or sold at low cost from Roadrunner Food Bank. She also gives different tasks – the handing out of bread, the distribution of beverages and napkins – to volunteers.
Robert Chavez is one such volunteer. He said he has been homeless for 30 years and takes advantage of Noon Day meals. From Ohio, he said he and his family have been living on the streets of Albuquerque for the past year.
Waiting for doors to open
Before lunch started one recent afternoon, dozens of people sat or stood outside, waiting for the doors to open. Many had backpacks with them. Some were smoking cigarettes. Most were very slender. Many of the men, who made up the majority of the guests, were unshaven.
A police officer stood near a door, because, according to volunteers, guests with a history of abusing drugs and alcohol or who were in varying degrees of detoxification sometimes got out of hand.
Once everyone was let in – people with disabilities and those with children first, everyone else after that – director of Noon Day Ministries Danny Whatley got everyone’s attention with a brief prayer. “We pray that those in this room realize they need to turn to you …” he said from the front of the large room, which had folding tables set up in about a dozen rows. “We ask that you watch over and keep each one.”
Then, occupants of each table fell in line and were served by the volunteers who had set up salt and pepper packets, juice boxes and utensils to give them on plastic trays. Back in their seats, as a few diners rested their heads on the table, some talked with people they knew; others chatted with the people they came with or had become familiar with there, and still others sat alone.
For Michayla Vann, showing up at the facility is usually after spending most of her day trying to survive. “I ask people if they can give me 35 cents. Out of the blue, I’ll get $20 from someone walking down the street,” she said while sitting at a table eating her salad.
Nighttime isn’t so easy for her. When she tries to sleep at the train station, “the girls there are mostly after me,” she said, so she has to look for other places to spend the night, such as an alley in the North Valley. “When I have a hard day and feel someone’s gonna hurt me, I still try to have a good day,” she said.
Noon Day is often a part of that. She’s been unofficially adopted by a father-daughter duo who also eat there for lunch, and she says she likes what is served. “It’s good, it’s healthy, it helps me to eat vegetables.”
Several other guests also said nighttime was hard. Pacheco said she sometimes sleeps beside a church, since, as she put it, a member of her immediate family with whom she has lived in the past “kinda doesn’t really want anything to do with me anymore.”
But she’s sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by police officers telling her to find someplace else to camp, she said. Besides her pocketbook and the clothes she had on, she does not have any belongings anymore. She gets between $10 and $20 a day panhandling, and recently her father paid for her to spend a month in a hotel.
At night, Lasiloo, a slight and serious man with glasses, sometimes shows up at a detox center. “I guess it’s OK when you’re drunk, because you have a place to sleep,” he said, adding that when he’s not sufficiently intoxicated, he is not admitted and goes instead to a shelter.
“It’s best when I’m drunk, because I don’t feel anything. When I’m not drunk, I don’t like myself, because of my drinking.” He said that he has stayed sober for two weeks at a time.
Another guest, Ruth Muller fought back tears when describing Noon Day: “This is my stepping stone, and they’ve never ever turned me (away).”
Besides providing lunch for her, Noon Day has also given her shampoo and conditioner, and a lot of encouragement through prayer, she said. A donor has been letting her live in an apartment near the zoo at no cost, and she’s been getting out looking for work in either retail or telemarketing every day.
Felony convictions for trafficking cocaine are an obstacle for Muller, a former heroin addict who said this is the first time she has been both sober and semi-homeless at the same time.
At Noon Day, she said, “I have people reaching out to me. They give me clothes to look for work. If you had seen me eight months ago, dirty clothes, no teeth in my mouth, hair all streaky … This is the first place I came,” she said, adding: “I’ve been craving fruits and vegetables.”