My journey to learn public history began with the March, 2014 Albuquerque Police Department shooting and killing of James Boyd, a “Homeless camper” who had been identified by nearby housed individuals as transient, potentially dangerous, and in need of assistance. The community memory of Mr. Boyd’s death persists in controversy alongside local social justice efforts for police reform. The murder sparked open protest, increased attention to the treatment of those suffering mental health episodes, and intensified the call for alternative police responses for Albuquerque’s homeless and near-homeless neighbors.
In May of 2020, I delivered the Consolidated Services Corridor article, graduated from the New Mexico State University public history program, and then, at home with my wife, hunkered down with pandemic society. The word “Home” echoed in my mind as I processed the Hope Stories project, contemplated Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, and reflected on the perspectives of public history from the archives. Too often the clichéd trope of “Home” only scratches the surface for those working to end homelessness. My contribution was limited to short visits to the Hope Campus to attend The Great Conversation, 5 hour volunteer shifts at El Caldito soup kitchen during summer of 2018, and picking up groceries from Casa de Peregrinos food pantry with the onset of the pandemic.
Read the Article:
Some view homeless people through the social lens of statistics, populations, or economics; others by human rights, affordable housing, or the history of charity organizations. Returned to Albuquerque in 2021, my wife and I noted how empty the streets appeared, the way automobile and city bus traffic had somehow slowed down and changed for pedestrians, and a new pandemic “Quiet noise” throughout the city we love. Certainly due to lockdown of the housed — Albuquerque’s homeless have their own stories to tell about surviving Covid-19. Our homecoming was short lived because each day our perspectives changed with more information, additional insight, and work to reengage with the community.
Albuquerque continues to grapple with wide-spread homelessness regardless years of heightened media awareness. For some, an increase of “Not-In-My-Backyard” posturing continues about where the unhoused are permitted to exist. I have yet to drive along Gibson Boulevard to view the newly adopted consolidated homeless services area located at the former Lovelace Hospital. I remember a long ago visit as a teenager, a memory from a time my mother had scheduled a doctor’s appointment for me there due to her familiarity with working at the hospital as medical transcriptionist.
That transcription became a part of my adult life, and that Lovelace Hospital has been named Albuquerque’s newest homeless services corridor, does not escape my sense of professional identity. Although I am somewhat relieved to be moving on from my chosen graduate study topic, I cannot abandon New Mexico’s struggle with poverty and homelessness without first finding my place to help the people of Albuquerque. That said, I acknowledge my limitations about the best way to help. Conducting the Hope Stories project, I have learned to be realistic, to communicate each intention without expectation, and, most of all, to persist, to persist, and to persist — no matter what symptoms and causes appear to be.
I first thought to study American poverty and homelessness after mom Cheryl’s return trip from Dallas to Albuquerque, the summer following the murder of James Boyd. Mom became fed up with being a florist, and decided to return to the resources where, she believed, people understood her struggle to pay monthly rent, utilities, and food costs. This included, of course, all the rest that goes along with having a “Home” when you’re “Poor.” In the late 1980s, my mother had divorced my father shortly after our family moved to Albuquerque from Sacramento, California. Papa Carl was a Staff Sergeant relocated to Kirkland Air Force Base, and mom Cheryl had never taken kindly to being a military wife.
It is here that I check-in with my white privilege, a topic my father and I could never agree on. From my perspective, economic privilege in America happens in excess for the entirety of white people, even for those who acknowledge the history of violent and systemic racism, patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and the white supremacy responsible for inequitable housing across the country. My father’s view had been that everyone, no matter color of skin or origin of birth, had the chance to “Prove” themselves worthy to American capitalism and its vast systems of state government. In looking backwards, it was difficult to teeter-totter between the culture of the military base and the poverty of southeast Albuquerque as a latchkey kid.
On the other side of the family, the 1990s were a difficult time for my mom. Her access to white privilege became a paradox of social service offices, hospital visits, and a continuous effort to maintain friendships with neighbors that lived in apartment buildings she barely could afford. Mom Cheryl worked dead-end jobs to pay the rent for too many apartments to count; struggled with mental health episodes brought on by debilitating back pain, a result of the food service industry; and, by the time she’d ended up near-homeless after that return trip to Albuquerque, mom Cheryl had only narrowly scraped by to reach the age of 65 and access the social security income attached to my father’s military benefits.
What realistic and realtime options are there to create an end to homelessness? What are the access points available in Albuquerque for those desperately hungry, living on the streets, or threatened with eviction from their homes? How can we collectively help the hungry, the homeless, and the people of our community? What options help to prevent eviction for our neighbors? How does the American society of the future address the roots causes of poverty in light of past and present day symptomatic treatment of hunger, healthcare, and homelessness?
Instead of pointing fingers, perhaps it’s a sustainable community resource that Albuquerque, alongside other cities of the United States, must address for the long term benefit of the people.
“The purpose of life is a life with purpose.”Hope Stories narrator Kit Elliot
What future can we create, together, from the collective purpose of housing and caring for everyone? Hope Stories narrators listed perspectives about the reality of being capable of helping homeless services’ providers through the portal of Consolidated Services Models; however, most of all, narrators called attention to the economic culture of our society — the need for direct action to increase affordable housing units, heightened access to healthcare for the uninsured, the unemployed, and the unhoused, and, a greater movement to solve the problem of food insecurity for children and their families.
Unlike this blog post, the Hope Stories project does not consider my personal history nor did I ask narrators to create narrative tapestries from their own experience with homelessness. For further insight, read the list of interview questions, consider the historical questions that I had in mind from the context of your own city, or connect with bibliography materials to request a few of the books and articles that I studied. Few narrators knew about mom Cheryl’s story, or my father’s illness and death near the close of the project. The distances that take place to create ethical relationships with narrators cannot always make claims of professional reciprocality when public historians collect, process, and preserve stories that include trauma. The community experience of public history becomes combined with best practice, personal relationships that develop, and professional care to keep an ethical momentum toward the original goals of the project.
The point I’m trying to make clear: the lives of the people carry on, in good health or with continued suffering and struggle, and regardless the perceptions of the out-of-town researcher, the temporary interviewer, or the professor working to manage research proposals. A community history should not be made into a cathartic balancing beam between the city and its people, and, like public health and city government, a community’s history cannot serve one group of people without also seeking to connect them together with their neighbors.
It is redundant to identify human beings as “Homeless people,” or “Transient,” or any number of classifications that obscure the needs of the individual. Likewise, it is important to remember that the volunteer community itself risks suffering from a kind of helper’s anxiety, unwarranted threats with disingenuous terms like “Virtue signaling,” and issues of inaccessibility about the best way to contribute.
Do we stand in the way of the help we offer, or can we collaborate in such a way that symptomatic problems become addressed while root causes are treated by honest care for the next generation?
At Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, an ongoing community narrative serves to help volunteers and benefactors understand that, while monetary donations are welcome, it’s active engagement that brings people together to prevent hunger and homelessness. There are a variety of approaches to help those in need when their need becomes present within the community. Yes, money pays the bills, and keeps the lights on. Yes, cash money helps feed the hungry, and to upkeep vital resources. Money is an excellent way to reach out to the people who need temporary housing, medical care, and a nutritious hot meal — and, rather than a “Handout,” a “Hand up” from the hardships of the street.
To do absolutely nothing, and to be vocal and opinionated about what should be — “Must be” — done, is the worst treatment for the problem.
I rarely give handouts, and seldom connect with panhandlers. Instead, I seek solutions regardless the difficult answers that may put me to work. I seek volunteerism, and communication, and connection to viable resources. I behave this way because I believe that the best way to help originates from places like Mesilla Valley Community of Hope in Las Cruces, Hope Works and Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, and the future Gateway Center at Lovelace Hospital on Gibson Avenue. A crucial part of Consolidated Services’ Models today being developed across the country: these resources for the hungry, the sick, and the homeless are temporary keys to the much bigger problem of historical American negligence, a shared refusal to address the root causes of poverty.
We need innovation, compassion, and tenacity through the generations to prevent homelessness far into the future.
At home in Albuquerque, my wife and I have thankfully returned to work for “Housekeeping” after the pandemic. We do our best to increase the savings account, to discover realistic avenues of employment, to afford housing and food costs, and to keep physical and mental health in mind… into the future.
Last week, driving by myself on Zuni Road at Louisiana Boulevard, a woman held up a sign written with magic marker telling the story of her daughter’s struggle to overcome an illness. At the stoplight, traffic cluttered to a standstill as the woman carried a gray plastic jug to panhandle spare change. I noticed that quite a few paper bills had already been donated that morning.
I have learned from Hope Stories narrators that it is very important not to be too emotional, overly sympathetic, or fleeting with intention. The phrase “We are all human, we are all being,” echoes from the voice of a narrator who emphasized the practice of case-by-case attention to available resources, actions, and realistic outcomes. In terms of the real-world: perspective and opinion does little to nothing to be of service.
With the sign carried underarm, the woman walked along the median and shook the jug. The coins thumped and rattled like a hallowing street drum. In reasoning about whether the story of her daughter’s condition were true, down to my bones I felt how little my unvoiced opinion, or any so-called “Truth,” helped this woman’s persistence to survive.
It occurred to me that what was once called the “War zone” — now rebranded “International District” — had somehow grown worse while the community worked to better itself. Arbitrary feelings from a former resident; an outside observer’s paradox, and completely inaccurate to the reality of the neighborhood. An irrational fear of poverty and homelessness — each time I’d lost a job, or “Moved on,” or drank too much; the threat of being robbed, or beaten, or raped — for me, this perspective does not exist. Such images risk becoming unhealthy and obscured social constructions rooted to the fear of poverty.
On another side of the city, James Boyd had been killed in a well-off area of the Albuquerque foothills, not too far away from what city officials sometimes call a “Pocket of poverty.” Personal experiences make little difference to the livelihood of this woman’s child, or the memory of James Boyd, should we choose to do nothing, to give nothing, to be a silent nothing; largely safe and unexposed by those that threaten to evict, to bankrupt, and to send one another to the American “Poorhouse.”
The street light blurred from red to green. The woman climbed up to the curb and onto the sidewalk of Zuni Road. She took a deep breath in, then exhaled into the heat of the morning, peering down the road to navigate the next sequence of cars that would soon arrive on the boulevard. From the safety of the vehicle, I drove through southeast Albuquerque’s state streets — Louisiana, Kentucky, and Georgia streets; Florida, Dakota, and California, &tc. — questioning my purpose, questioning my actions, questioning my next steps.