Lack of affordable housing is key obstacle to assisting vulnerable women and families
- By Tamra Testerman, The Taos News
COVID-19 has changed the way many community support services in Taos operate, including those for women who face homelessness.
Kimberly Park, the executive director of the women’s shelter HEART (stands for hope, empowerment, advocacy, respect, trust) of Taos, worked in Los Angeles, California, in affordable housing and community development for many years before moving to New Mexico. Park joined HEART in 2017 to strengthen the services the nonprofit provides the Taos community. HEART House provides shelter in a shared residence setting for women and women with children facing homelessness. HEART closed its resource center in town to reduce expenses and to refocus all efforts through HEART House.
Taos News caught up with Park and asked her a few questions about her work at HEART, how the shelter is faring in COVID-19 times and what the future looks like for the organization.
What are the day in and day out challenges and rewards?
The daily challenges include running a shelter primarily reliant on donations from the community and private foundations. Since Taos is a location of many second homes and tourism, the rising housing costs impact everyone including the residents we serve.
HEART House works with many women and families with acute needs, and having more resources in town to support these would benefit Taos and this community. The lack of affordable housing and supportive housing makes it hard for HEART’s staff to find safe and affordable housing for these women and families.
However, HEART is happy to report that since opening, we have helped nine households access affordable housing, including three families and six women. Providing women and families with a safe place to stay through HEART House is rewarding, so we know that women don’t have to sacrifice their bodies and safety for a place to stay. Our goal is to help the long-term stability of the women and families in Taos.
Do you feel supported by the Taos government in terms of financial and resource support?
Describe a success story.
Every woman or family that we’ve provided immediate shelter for is a success to help them avoid staying in unsafe conditions. The day HEART House opened, we helped a woman and her infant son avoid homelessness that day. They stayed with us for almost four months and during that time she worked with our program manager to find affordable housing and connect to support services. She and her son moved into their own apartment through the Taos Rehousing Program and HEART continues to provide case management support to them.
What are the current needs of the organization?
HEART House needs donations and financial support to continue its operations. Because of COVID-19, we had to stop public tours of the HEART House and many foundations are redirecting their funds to COVID-19 specific needs – not funding operations. However, HEART’s biggest need is to pay for staffing and operations of the House. HEART House is open during the coronavirus pandemic, complying with Centers for Disease Control safety protocols and guidelines.
What is the percentage of female homelessness in the area? What are some of the challenges of those who become homeless?
According to the 2017 American Community Survey, 27 percent of Taos County’s population is headed up by a single female head of household living below the poverty line, with over 34 percent of those households having children under the age of 18 years old.
The Out of Reach 2018 report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition stated that fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment in New Mexico is $827 per month and for a household to afford that rent without paying over 30 percent of their income, they must make $2,755 a month or $33,062 per year. That breaks down to the household having to earn at least $15.89 per hour and be a full-time employee at 40 hours a week.
However, the reality of the rental market in Taos shows this challenge is even greater. Taos one-bedrooms can range from $800-$1,200 or more. Additionally, some landlords are reluctant to accept Section 8 or other housing subsidies or rent to the population we serve – another barrier we have experienced.
The income and job opportunities in Taos make it difficult for an individual to receive a wage higher than the state’s minimum hourly wage of $9, and full-time employment opportunities are rare, as most positions in Taos are part-time.
HEART has been critical in helping navigate these challenges and connecting women to the resources in and around Taos to increase their self-sufficiency and long-term stabilization.
Talk about how the pandemic has shaped the protocol and routine.
We had to get a separate portable toilet to accommodate separate facilities. We have incorporated the health and safety protocols recommended by the CDC, including wearing masks, staying distanced and disinfecting continually. Maintaining the safety of the guests and staff at HEART House is important because these are people interacting with the public and we want to keep the entire community safe.
Where do you see HEART in five years?
Keeping HEART House open for the next 5 years to continue being a resource to the community is ideal. Being involved in adding more safe, managed and affordable housing to the community should be a goal not only for HEART but for the Taos community to support its community members.
Anything else you would like to add?
HEART House is having an online fundraising campaign, so please check us out on our website, Facebook and Instagram pages. We will have an eBay online store up with items available for purchase and all proceeds going to HEART House.
HEART is a nonprofit 501(c) 3. For more information about HEART, visit its website at taosheart.org.