This article first appeared in the Hobbs News-Sun.
Elena is an 18-year-old senior in high school. In many ways, Elena is a normal teenager. She enjoys spending time with friends, worries about boys, and struggles with algebra. Not everything about Elena is average, however. When Elena turned 18 earlier this year, her grandparents kicked her out of the house. They said it was time to figure life out on her own.
For a while, Elena found couches to sleep on and friends to stay with. She did not want people to know she was homeless, so she would only stay for a day or two at a time. She was afraid and not sure what to do next. Then she a counselor referred her to United Way’s 2-1-1.
There are resources for 18-year-old dropouts, but not for those who are still in school. There are some resources for homeless teenagers going to school, but they are depleted, have a long waitlist, and fall short of meeting actual needs. All Elena wants is to finish high school, get a good job, and take care of herself.
I wish her story was unique, but Elena is one of about 200 students in Hobbs Municipal Schools who qualify as “homeless”. Lea County, like other parts of the country, has a growing housing insecurity problem. It is not just students. In 2020, Lea County-based agencies served over 750 individuals who were housing insecure.
“Housing Insecure” is a broad term that includes unsafe housing, overcrowded housing, couch surfing, or abusive situations in addition to living on the streets. It is a tricky problem to track. It is even trickier to address. The JF Maddox Foundation, together with a group of 19 social services, municipal, and legal organizations has formed a workgroup to address some of the needs. This group conducted a study of clients and found that in a 12-month period we served a total of 773 individuals seeking assistance for housing insecurity in Lea County. About one in three cases were families, including over 200 children.
Why are they homeless? It can be expensive to live in Lea County. Many households live paycheck to paycheck and barely make ends meet. These are honest people trying their best when the unexpected happens: a loved one dies, the family car breaks down, or an unexpected medical bill comes calling. They are faced with hard choices. Do you eat, pay rent, pay utilities, or put gas in the car so you can get to work? Before you know it, you are several months behind, and things are only getting worse.
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to housing problems. The JF Maddox Foundation has provided grants for local nonprofits to provide overnight hotel stays, transitional housing costs, identification obtainment, food, clothing, and utility assistance. However, our funds are nothing compared to the most valuable resource of all, our local agencies.
Elena felt defeated, but United Way 2-1-1 did not give up. They called a local landlord and worked out an arrangement. Elena found a part-time job that allowed her to continue to go to school. She meets with a local program to help develop financial literacy skills, and she receives free meals from Hobbs Municipal Schools and WHI Hobbs. She works hard and does not miss a day of school or work. With graduation a few months away, Elena is considering New Mexico Junior College as a next step. Although the work is not done, none of this would be possible without an entire community of people and organizations coming together to develop meaningful solutions. We are grateful for their work.
David Reed is a Senior Program Officer for the JF Maddox Foundation, a private family foundation focused on cultivating big-picture possibilities in Lea County, New Mexico. Through its investments, scholarship program, and leadership institute, the JF Maddox Foundation has transformed the Lea County community bringing about the changes that citizens thrive on for generations.