When Andrea Quintana arrived in Santa Fe, she was battered, bruised and scared for her life.
She had just escaped a domestic violence situation in Albuquerque, in which she was held against her will for two years, and was hopeful for a new life.
Instead, she said, she got involved in drugs and alcohol and found herself without a home.
“In my head, I never would’ve thought I’d be homeless, ever,” she said.
After staying at Esperanza Shelter for a short time, Quintana went in and out of housing after being charged with drug trafficking. She arrived at the Interfaith Community Shelter in February 2018.
She began helping out in the shelter’s kitchen. Her main task was washing dishes, a job she said “was serenity.” Having a purpose helped her escape her own trauma, even if only temporarily, she said.
Six months after arriving at the shelter, Quintana was offered a job.
At the time, “I didn’t have my ID. I didn’t have my Social Security. So yeah, it meant a lot,” she said of the staff’s decision to “take a chance” on her and later allow her nearly three months off to attend a recovery program to address past alcohol and meth abuse. The shelter’s administration advised her to stay in the program 89 days, one day short of the full 90 days, so she would not lose her housing voucher.
Though Quintana said she sometimes lacks the patience to handle her job, she feels she’s doing what she was meant to do.
“It seems that everyone has a purpose in life,” she said. “It seems like this is my purpose, to help people.”
Richard Sisneros remembers standing in line at the Interfaith Community Shelter for the first time, waiting to receive a much-needed meal. At the time, he said, “I didn’t know how much work went into getting just one lunch together.”
Now, as kitchen manager, “I see it from the other side,” said Sisneros, 63. “You have to order the food. You have to manage the amount of food you make. It’s a lot.”
The shelter serves an estimated 325 meals a day, administrators said.
Sisneros, a former city employee for 15 years, said he became homeless after his wife died in the early 2010s. From there, his life spiraled: He lost his job and was no longer able to afford his house. It wasn’t long before he found himself sleeping in dugouts in the park by the state library, he said.
When Sisneros arrived at the shelter in October 2014, he helped with custodial work at the facility.
Two years later, he was offered a minimum-wage job as a janitor. Since then, he has transitioned into a higher-paying role as kitchen manager, although he still does about three hours of custodial work each day.
“They took a chance on me,” he said.
In his role, Sisneros said, he enjoys delegating tasks to other staff and volunteers. He said some of the biggest challenges include disinfecting the kitchen with bleach and dealing with angry guests. What gets him through each shift is reminding himself that he’s serving a group who is largely stereotyped and overlooked.
“The way [the public] sees homeless people out there, they think they’re all thieves, liars, alcoholics, drug addicts. But not all of them are like that,” Sisneros said. “I know what they’re going through.”
For that reason, his goal every day is to make sure he’s giving them the highest quality meals possible.
“I’d recommend it to anyone to eat here,” he said.
Joseph ‘Jojo’ Gutierrez
When Jojo Gutierrez, 36, arrived in Santa Fe from the Four Corners area, he hoped to get his life together.
Following a difficult breakup, Gutierrez was on the hunt for a job, housing and a plan to reunite with his son and daughter, who were staying with a friend. But he began abusing alcohol and struggled to maintain employment.
He was homeless for about 2½ years. During that time, he volunteered at the Interfaith Community Shelter, picking up trash in the parking lot and helping with maintenance tasks around the property. He was offered a job at the shelter in August and obtained housing.
For the last six months, he has worked a split shift. At night, he helps sort luggage as guests arrive for dinner or an overnight stay. During the day, he attends to miscellaneous tasks, such as taking out the trash, unloading food deliveries, prepping showers and sorting donations. “It’s given me the opportunity to provide for my kids,” Gutierrez said.
Two weeks after starting his role, he gained guardianship of his 12-year-old son. The two live in an apartment together, and the boy regularly accompanies his dad to the night shift.
Gutierrez is also trying to get custody of his 15-year-old daughter. “It’s been a long process,” he said. “I’m a lot happier. Everything I’ve worked for, everything I went through, it was worth it,” he said.
Gutierrez said his goal is to bring guests at the shelter hope, just as staff gave him hope when he was homeless.
“Do I make them smile and laugh? If I make their day, then my day was not wasted,” he said. “A simple ‘hi’ or ‘good morning’ can go a long way.”
Around 1990, Ben Medina left Los Angeles to come to New Mexico and “see where my roots are from.”
For more than 23 years, the Marine veteran said, he lived in his truck, going in and out of homeless shelters and temporary employment. In 2014, he came to the Interfaith Community Shelter.
Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to find Medina passed out on the shelter’s concrete floor, administrators said.
Despite his struggles with alcohol, Medina quickly became known as a guy willing to help out with yardwork and other maintenance needs around the property. After getting sober and obtaining housing through the Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program in 2015, he was offered a job as kitchen manager.
Though Medina, 65, suffered a stroke in June that prohibits him from handling the same workload as before, he still drives to The Food Depot at least once a week to pick up deliveries for the shelter and helps volunteers with washing dishes, meal prep and serving guests food.
“I’ll help with anything that needs to be done. I love working here,” Medina said. Even when he was in the hospital, he said, “My mindset the whole time was ‘I just want to get back to work.’ ”
The reason is the people — he said he can relate to them more than anyone else, he said.
“A lot of the guests here are my friends. I know them from the streets,” he said, pointing to a group gathered outside of the shelter. “I lived the same life they lived. I was in the same boat they’re in.”
Valerie ‘Val’ Ortiz
Val Ortiz, born in Las Cruces and raised in Arizona, was driving an alcoholic friend to New Mexico when she passed through Santa Fe. She immediately fell in love with the city and decided to stay.
After having abused drugs, mainly meth, for 20 years on and off, Ortiz was ready for a fresh start. Although she was sober at the time, other issues came up that put her on the streets — from a bad job experience, in which a manager treated her and other women poorly, pushing her to quit — to a difficult time finding affordable housing.
Upon arriving at the Interfaith Community Shelter in October 2014, Ortiz picked up trash around the building and in the parking lot to keep busy. Little did she know that would lead to a job opportunity.
Now, Ortiz, 50, has housing — she’s lived in the same place for six years — and works as a night shift supervisor at the shelter, from 2:30 a.m. to at least 8 a.m. four days a week. During her shift, she prepares breakfast, checks on guests and makes “sure everybody is where they’re supposed to be.”
“It’s hard to explain, being where I am now to what I was then. It was a roller-coaster ride,” she said. “Now, I’m in a straightaway incline. I’m not going down. I’m only going up. I’m going forward. It’s amazing how far I’ve come.”
Having been a guest at the shelter, Ortiz said she is able to impart some of the wisdom she gained to other guests. Her mission, she said, is to encourage others to get sober and believe that a better life is possible.
Alcoholics Anonymous “says take it one day at a time,” she said. “But you take it one second at a time because without that one second, there won’t be that one day.”
His wife’s death was just the beginning.
Things spiraled from there, and John Stotler soon became a guest at the Interfaith Community Shelter.
“I ran out of money. My wife had passed away. It was a series of misadventures and miscalculations on my part. One thing leads to another; it’s a cascade effect,” he said.
Stotler, who has lived in Santa Fe for about 30 years, said when he arrived at the shelter in January 2018, he helped volunteers wash dishes in the kitchen. Having worked at restaurants across town, he said it just felt right to be part of the shelter’s food service.
Within eight months, administrators took notice and offered him a job. This ultimately helped him obtain housing with a couple of roommates, whom he still lives with today.
Today, Stotler is a kitchen supervisor at Pete’s Place. He manages between five and eight volunteers at a time, helping with meal prep, cleaning the kitchen and serving guests. “My job is to make sure if [the volunteers and staff] come in with 10 fingers, they leave with 10 fingers,” he said with a laugh.
Stotler’s favorite part of the job is the people — “the most jovial band of misfits I’ve ever worked with.”
Even when he suffered a stroke in June and spent three weeks in rehab at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, the thing he missed the most was the kitchen and the guests he calls friends.
Stotler, who never imagined he’d experience homelessness, said it taught him to empathize and better understand each person he serves. In many ways, his role is the most rewarding chapter of his life.
“Fulfilling, my God, you can’t believe it. Nine times out of 10, when you finish a shift, you think, ‘God, I’m tired, but what a nice day I’ve had,’ ” he said. “It’s making a difference.”
Of the seven staff members at the Interfaith Community Shelter who were former guests, Roque Lucero has served in his role the longest.
Maintaining employment for seven years in itself is a shocker because “I never last somewhere more than four years,” he said with a laugh, noting he had worked at Walmart and in construction in the past but either quit or was fired.
At the shelter, however, things are different. Here, he said, “it feels good helping out and sharing my experience.”
Lucero had a tough upbringing in Santo Domingo Pueblo. His dad died when he was just 5 or 6 years old, and his mom was fairly absent. By sixth grade, he said, he was drinking heavily.
In the early 2000s, his life took a downward spiral. His grandparents, who had been his primary caregivers in the years since his father’s death, also died — his grandmother of breast cancer and his grandfather of heart complications. This caused Lucero to feel lost, he said: “It didn’t feel like home, because they weren’t there.”
Lucero left the pueblo in the 2010s for Santa Fe, where he spent most nights at the Interfaith Community Shelter.
From the first day he was a guest, he volunteered to keep himself busy. “I asked if they needed help with anything. I just wanted to” help, he said.
By then, he had gotten sober and was trying to get his life in order. Staff took notice of his work ethic, and within a year, he was offered a job.
Lucero, 51, said he couldn’t be happier or more fulfilled. He said his mission is to encourage guests struggling with drug or alcohol abuse to get sober: “I tell them they can do it. I did it!”
Over the years, Lucero has seen many reminders of his past battles — people coming in drunk, screaming at him and guests, and people shooting up heroin and overdosing on other drugs. He said his own experience with alcoholism has given him more empathy.
“I know how it is being out there without food, wearing the same clothes, the same socks,” he said. “The way you treat them, that’s how they react.”