It’s just a one-room apartment on Cerrillos Road with a cramped kitchen and shaggy carpet. But to Randy Trujillo and Rosa Valencia, it’s home — something they haven’t had in years.
After experiencing homelessness — six years for Trujillo, a year and a half for Valencia — there’s nothing like having a place to call their own.
“It feels great. We love it,” Valencia said on the couple’s first full day in their apartment.
With more than 330 people living on Santa Fe’s streets, according to the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, Trujillo and Valencia are among hundreds of people hoping to gain stability — and a roof over their heads — and turn their lives around.
While there are many efforts citywide to aid the homeless community, Trujillo, 55, and Valencia, 42, said making real change has to start with breaking a stigma and raising awareness about the diverse population of those on the streets. Some, like Valencia and Trujillo, have disabilities that first lead to joblessness, then homelessness. Others struggle with mental illness, addiction or have experienced domestic violence.
“People downgrade the homeless,” Valencia said one morning at the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place, about a week before moving into her apartment.
“They have a house. They have things we don’t. So they treat us like scum,” added Trujillo, his arm around Valencia’s shoulder. “They think they’re better than us.”
One of the most common assumptions is that people experiencing homelessness beg for money and then use it to buy alcohol or drugs. That might be true for some, Trujillo said, “but our daily money goes toward meals.”
He’s been sober for six months; Valencia has been clean for eight months.
Before life on the streets, Trujillo said, he earned a nursing degree and worked two years as a nurse’s aide at the Santa Fe Care Center, a local nursing home. He had to quit when pain caused by sciatica in his lower back became too severe, he said. With costly rent and medical bills, he ended up losing his apartment.
For several years, Trujillo bounced in and out of housing and spent many nights sleeping at the St. Elizabeth Shelter, before landing at Pete’s Place, where he met Valencia.
Valencia, legally blind since age 10, had been living in a home in Santa Fe and was surviving on disability income. But because of high rent and a series of hardships, mainly stemming from her eyesight, she could no longer afford to pay for housing.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said. “You lose your job, you get into a fight [with your partner] — anything can happen.”
Once she was out on the streets, life was far harder than she imagined, she said.
Each morning, the couple would wake up in the dark to avoid police. The daily routine that followed: Go to Pete’s Place to stow their shopping carts full of belongings; buy some cereal and milk from Allsup’s; smoke a cigarette and panhandle until 3 p.m. — their go-to spots were a corner of Cerrillos Road and St. Francis Drive and at Richards Avenue and Cerrillos.
By 4 p.m., they’d return to the shelter to claim their carts and begin searching for a place to camp for the night. Using money collected throughout the day, the couple would buy dinner, usually a sandwich from Walmart or a meal from Taco Bell. After sunset, they’d try to get some sleep.
That wasn’t easy.
“The cops are always chasing us. If they see us, we have to move — sometimes two or three times a night,” Valencia said. “There’s nowhere to go.”
Knowing this lifestyle was not sustainable, and clinging to hope that better days would come, Trujillo and Valencia reached out for help. That came last month with a call from The LifeLink, a local nonprofit, saying they’d been approved for housing and a unit was available.
Before moving in and signing a one-year lease, the couple said, they had to obtain identification cards, Social Security cards, birth certificates and proof of federal food assistance.
Without a car, these errands were “real hard,” Valencia said. “Finding resources and getting eligible was a chore in its own. … We busted our asses to get what we call a home.”
“It was a lot of walking, a lot of buses, a lot of paperwork and meetings,” Trujillo added.
The couple’s case manager said the pair is expected to contribute one-third of their monthly income to The LifeLink — they earn about $720 a month from Valencia’s disability income — to help cover rent.
While the couple said their housing wouldn’t be possible without help from organizations like The LifeLink, they mostly credit each other for securing a home.
“With each other’s emotional support, we’re making it,” Valencia said, noting her only real dream for the future is “to stay housed and stay together. … We were meant for each other.”
“If we can stay in rocks and arroyos, we can make it in a house,” Trujillo said. “We’ve been through so much together, it could rain lightning bolts and we’d be OK.”
Speaking in their new apartment recently, the couple unpacked groceries from Smith’s and sorted through a handful of DVDs from Walmart, like Creed and Wonder Woman. Nowadays, some of their favorite activities are snuggling up to watch a movie and cooking a homemade meal.
“We’re sick of street food,” Valencia said, noting the first day in the apartment she made banana cream pie and red chile stew.
They’ve also made carne adovada, spaghetti and meatballs, and tacos — “normal people food, I guess,” Trujillo said.
While parts of their daily routine are the same — trips to Pete’s Place in the morning to visit friends and look for clothes or other donated items, and panhandling in the afternoon — time to relax in a space of their own, without fear of police chasing them off or the possibility of foul weather conditions, is “very different,” they both said.
“We’ve been getting some good sleep,” Trujillo said, standing beside a mattress on the floor of their home. The new lifestyle, he said “is just starting to feel real. … It’s warm, secure, safe.”
Although the couple said they’d eventually like to save up for a bigger home — likely in Las Vegas, N.M., where Trujillo grew up — “This is perfect for us, for now,” Trujillo said.
Valencia and Trujillo said their new home is a sign of hope for everyone in the homeless community.
“Eventually, we’ll all be off the streets,” Valencia said.
But until that day comes, she encouraged Santa Feans to look beyond stigmas.
“God made us all the same, money or no money,” she said. “If they see homeless people out there, have a heart. Just show us we exist because we exist, just like they do.”