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Monday, March 20, 2006

On being "homeless" in Taos

Recently, my family and I experienced a small crisis. We had a small fire in the wall of our house. Besides the hole large enough to throw a cat through, our electricity and heat were turned off because fire had burned through the insulation on the electrical wire.

We counted ourselves extremely lucky, knowing it could have been much more serious if I had been away from the house or at work. We also know it was a problem that was just waiting to happen (the fireplace in the house had not been built to code, with wooden 2x4s butting right up against the firebrick of the kiva-style fireplace). We also rejoiced when the insurance company cut us a check for repairs the very next day.

Even still, we ended up having to stay in a motel for about a week until the electricity and heat were back on. It was an odd feeling, hanging out in my car, driving around, looking for ways to occupy myself without sitting in the motel room.

What I didn't count on was the odd reaction people have to you if they think you are homeless. I would love to talk with an actual homeless person about this because I can bet there is a moment in time they will remember when they actually because homeless. I bet the homeless can chart their descent from the moment people around them decided there was no more that could be done.

I got one of two reactions from people -- either they backed away from me, hoping they could get away before I asked them for something -- or they offered me the clothes off their back. Some people were so generous while others surprised me with their distancing.

I used to think that if things got really bad, I'd never starve because people would help me -- take me in. Now, I have no illusions of rescue. It must because things are so very tight here. I hope that's what it is.

The photographer at The Taos News, Megan Bowers, says she's been trying to do a feature on the true homeless of Taos, but has not found the right family or individual to photograph. She says that most of the anglo homeless are a bit crazy, and most of them are loners. She also is not interested in doing a feature on the many homeless Mexican Nationals that live here. She told me horror stories of new mothers being turned out on the streets with their infants two days after giving birth. I suppose the hospital has no choice. These women show up and disappear -- like the flow of a river.

What she is looking for is, ideally, a local family who have found themselves -- through a run of bad luck and circumstance -- homeless. Then after the spiral begins to twist itself from furtive rooms at the Commanche Inn to huddled shelter at a friend's house -- to campgrounds -- to nada.


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