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Garrett Wolff became homeless the good old-fashioned way. There was no alcoholism or drug abuse involved, no mental or emotional health issues, no gambling or relationship problems. He simply didn’t have a place to live.
“I had been living with my dad. He didn’t own a home, but he had a business, so we were living in his office,” he said.
When his father died, the business and office closed and Wolff, 30, stayed for a while at the Westside Emergency Housing Center and then tried living out on the streets.
As the COVID pandemic was winding down, Wolff found his way to the Tiny Home Village, where he has lived for more than a year.
“This place has helped me get back on my feet. I’ve got a lot established now and I’m looking for a job,” he said. “I’m attending group sessions, just to manage my life a little bit better, and I’m on a waiting list for longer-term housing. ”
Wolff said he is really enjoying having his own tiny home space, “but I also like having a community and the community setting, especially after being homeless. I’d never been homeless before and it was kind of a rude awakening.”
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The Tiny Home Village, with 30 120-square-foot homes and a communal building with a kitchen, toilets, showers and laundry accommodations, was never intended to be an overnight emergency shelter. Rather, it was envisioned as transitional housing where residents could stay for up to two years, or longer in some cases, while they get case management, access various social services and eventually get more permanent housing.
Supporters of the pilot project said it could be a blueprint for similar villages established around the metro area, ultimately offering homeless individuals an alternative to the streets and a way to end the cycle that led to their homelessness.
Opponents of the project point to the nearly $5 million price tag and ask if there wasn’t a more cost-effective way to provide housing and wraparound services for a mere 30 individuals at a time, considering that the 2022 Point-in-Time count found no fewer than 1,300 homeless people in the city.
A lot of rules
Henry Esquivel sat on a lounge chair outside his residence at the Tiny Home Village. “I haven’t had a drink in over 20 years,” he said proudly. Drugs, on the other hand, were more problematic. “I wound up homeless for about three years because of drugs,” Esquivel said.
“I was bored and hanging out with the wrong guys and doing cocaine.”
Esquivel, 70, said he worked for years as a plumber but because of injuries related to a car accident he only does the occasional side job now.
“I mostly lived in my car. I didn’t stay in shelters and wasn’t even aware of the stuff that was offered to the homeless, like all these places around here that feed you. I never got one free meal from any of these places,” he said. “I used my food stamps wisely. I’d just go and buy me a sub sandwich in the morning, eat half of it and save the other half for dinner. Lunch was kind of forgotten.”
His life has been less austere since taking up residence at the Tiny Home Village about 18 months ago. “It’s nice to have a roof over my head,” he said. “It’s very comfortable here, but there are a lot of rules and you have to deal with different personalities. The other villagers for the most part are pretty cool, but some of them think that they still live at home and expect their mothers to come in behind them and clean up after them.”
A former U.S. Army soldier and member of the military police, Esquivel said he’s been talking lately with the Veterans Administration and is hopeful that they will be able to help him find more permanent housing.
In the meantime, living at the Tiny Home Village “is not like unicorns farting out rainbows,” Esquivel said. “It takes work and you have to be willing to put in the work and do your chores.”
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Born and raised in Albuquerque, Cecilia Castillo had been homeless for six years when she came to the Tiny Home Village in July.
Her last job was as a housekeeper for a woman who owned an apartment building in Belen, and who allowed Castillo and her adult son to live in one of the units.
After one of the tenants caused a fire in the building, “everybody there became homeless,” said Castillo, 59. She and her son stayed on and off at the Westside Emergency Housing Center, and when necessary slept in Castillo’s van. Food stamps and meals at HopeWorks sustained them.
Castillo’s 40-year-old son, whose health was compromised because of kidney disease, became ill with COVID and died. Castillo subsequently gave up staying at the West Side shelter after “all my belongings were stolen,” she said. Instead she opted to sleep in her van, but never felt safe being alone.
“I tried and tried to get (temporary housing) vouchers but there were never enough,” she said. It was during a visit to Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless that Castillo learned about and got a referral to the county-funded Wellness Emergency Shelter, also referred to as the Wellness Motel, which provides temporary shelter to chronically homeless individuals.
“They gave me a room and it was supposed to be for 88 days, but then I ended up staying eight months,” she said.
Because she was complying with the rules of the program and looking for a job, administrators at the Wellness Motel gave her extensions and helped her apply for temporary housing at the Tiny Home Village, as well as more permanent housing at Hope Village, operated by HopeWorks.
Castillo was recently interviewed for an opening at Hope Village. Until a decision is made on that placement, Castillo said she’s happy with her living accommodations at the Tiny Home Village.
“This place is good. It’s really helped me a lot because it was scary being homeless and living in my van and being on my own. And then you got a community here, too. We have everything we need – caseworkers, good staff, and everybody seems to care.”
She no longer has a vehicle that works, but the Tiny Home Village has a shuttle service to help residents get to appointments or to go grocery shopping, she said.
That lack of personal transportation “doesn’t even matter as long as I have someplace to stay and somewhere safe to be.”