Home(less) SANTA FEANS WHO SUFFER FROM MENTAL ILLNESS ALSO OFTEN LIVE ON THE BRINK OF HOMELESSNESS
Santa Fe Reporter - 6/21/2019
Jodi Drinkwater and her husband Darrin Graham do not live a lavish life. Their humble one-bedroom apartment in the Village Sage development off Jaguar Road, across the street from Capital High School on Santa Fe's Southside, is at first glance nondescript.
Or at least it would be if it were empty. It would likely be cramped if, to put it as gently as possible, a normal couple lived there. Its current occupants are-by their own admission-not normal. With Drinkwater and Graham in residence, the apartment is labyrinthian. Piles of books reach toward the ceiling, plants grasp at shoulders as visitors enter, and elements of the couple's various art projects are scattered across pieces of mismatched furniture.
Self-described scavengers who never miss an opportunity to make use of something tossed aside, their apartment is an allegory for their lives. Mentally ill, historically homeless and familiar with the interior of a jail cell, both are even more at odds with the world than their living quarters suggest.
"Almost everything you see was for free from, like, the library or the side of the road or whatever, or from trash places around town," Drinkwater tells SFR.
But for them, and many others with similar vulnerabilities, housing is tenuous.
Forpeople on disability, people without the capability of consistent employment or anyone else with a chronic inability to meet the expectations of the society they inhabit, there are two options: Play along enough to vie for and access social services, or live on the streets.
The latter is a nightmare few can imagine, and the former is a limited commodity that can be yanked away for the slightest misstep. Drinkwater and Graham have managed to grab hold of one of those helping hands, and are struggling against their landlords and themselves not to let go.
Now, they're in a perpetual state of eviction limbo.
Their plight illustrates a broader problem in Santa Fe, where finding a place to live is tough even for the most stable: Those with an inability to color between society's lines struggle even more to keep a roof over their heads, when those roofs are in high demand and short supply.
Housing service providers, part of whose mission is to serve people like Drinkwater and Graham, say violence and other serious crimes are deal-breakers for people who want continued housing. SFR has found that late payments and other smaller violations are at least as likely to land people back on the streets.
The eccentric pair, he with long hair and a face that looks a bit like Iggy Pop, she with eyes that betray each and every one of her myriad troubles, often speak in tandem. One will start a sentence and the other will finish it. Graham will begin to discuss a thought that hasn't quite solidified, and Drinkwater will clarify it. She will go into great depth about a topic, and he will distill it into a single declarative statement. They think and act as a team.
Drinkwater was born in Witchita, Kansas, and moved to Santa Fe to become an artist. Here, she met her husband, who is originally from Albuquerque. Drinkwater found some success as a creative, working sporadically for some of the City Different's galleries and winning first place in SFR's 2008 and 2010 writing contests in the fiction category, for short stories titled "Jesus Sleeping" and "No Angel," respectively.
The couple still uses their creative muscles painting, creating DIY art installations, and conducting impromptu skits for their YouTube channel, A Land of Tranquil Light. But the pressure of their situation has taken its toll.
"To come here with my dreams as an artist, and end up homeless and crazy," Drinkwater laments. "Thank you, Santa Fe."
She readily discusses her condition and what caused it. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, sometimes known as multiple personality disorder, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, she was a victim of human trafficking at a young age. One thing she does not suffer from: any illusions that she's got it together.
"I'm very antiauthoritartian. My mental illness is such that if someone in authority says something to me, I will automatically take it in a bad way," Drink-water says. "Really [their intention was] not a bad way; this is something I have to work out in my brain, that authority could be saying something that's not evil."
Without prompting, she'll also admit she and her husband are not easy to be around. They often have meltdowns or other episodes, sometimes fight loudly, and harangue those who they feel are treating them unfairly. She has been "banished" from the Santa Fe Community College for climbing onto a table, disrupting students, and exhorting them to stand up for their rights. Graham was similarly banned from a grocery store for blaring notes through his trumpet in the parking lot, and Drinkwater joined him in retail purgatory shortly after by telling the employee who asked him to leave: "Fuck you!"
But, in no great surprise, having a home has been a positive effect for them. On my first visit to the apartment they share with their two Chihuahuas, Dobby and Luna, the couple gave me a necklace they had made from a spark plug, which Drinkwater says would help in moments where my fuse might be getting short. On my next visit, they served jalapefio poppers and Andes mints. We talked about nothing in particular while M*A*S*H played quietly on a reclaimed tube TV in the corner. Incense is always burning, and Drinkwater, a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, often utters a chant, nam-myoho-renge-kyo-a Japanese phrase referring to the Lotus Sutra-at herself, her guests, nosy reporters, or simply the universe. It's peaceful.
It hasn't always been this way.
Shelter in (Pete's) Place
Drinkwater and Graham have been on and off the streets since they met, and Graham much longer. Drinkwater was never homeless in Kansas, but after moving to Santa Fe and experiencing worsening symptoms of mental illness, she grapples to keep a job or a home. Graham, who has struggled with mental health issues including substance abuse for years, was in and out of shelters before meeting his "sweetheart," as he exclusively refers to Drinkwater. Since their tribulations began, they spent a lot of nights in their car, "Apocalypso," a vehicle that was repossessed last year. They've also stayed in places like the city-owned In-terfaith Community Shelter on Cerril-los Road, more commonly called Pete's Place.
"Call it Pete's Pets," Graham says. "That's actually a more endearing name."
"The homeless call it Pete's Pets," Drinkwater clarifies. The former pet shop was donated for use as a shelter until the city purchased it in 2010.
Northern New Mexico's only "minimum barrier shelter," Pete's accepts anyone, including substance users, during the winter months. In the summer, it limits its overnight stays to women and children, but still offers meals, showers, clothes and other services to the city's homeless population.
"Most of the people we serve have mental health issues," says Joe Jordan-Berenis, executive director at Pete's. "Usually-I'm not a clinician-but they've experienced some form of trauma, beyond just being homeless. That sometimes complicates things. Some do self-medicate, no two ways about it."
The Life Link, a nonprofit that helps "hungry, homeless and displaced individuals and families achieve self-sufficiency" through emergency assistance, housing, and employment and addiction services, has two case workers and a counselor stationed at Pete's Monday through Friday. Life Link often finds people who are in need of permanent housing and directs them to institutions in town that provide it.
The organization uses a "vulnerability index" to help decide who gets an apartment. The assesment tool "helps us prioritize how we're filling those permanent supportive housing vacancies," says Anna Cale of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. "We have a very limited number of those vacancies in our community and unfortunately we have more people than we have placements."
The criteria for the index includes mental health and overall health, substance use, social status and other characteristics to determine who is most in need of being put into a permanent home.
In fact, that's how Drinkwater and Graham managed to get housed. After they were connected to the Life Link while staying in a shelter, they received a voucher for housing at the Village Sage development.
It Takes a Village Sage
The Village Sage apartment complex was built in 2011 with help from a federal subsidy called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. It's owned by the Santa Fe Housing Trust, another nonprofit, and contains 60 apartments intended for low-income residents. Fifteen of those are set aside as "special needs units," apartments for those transitioning out of homelessness or suffering from mental illness.
Life Link continues to provide services and case workers to the residents it places in these apartments, while the day-to-day management is handled by the Housing Trust's hired property manager, Monarch Properties, an Albuquerque firm that operates in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
But whether those services work, or whether they work fast enough to stave off eviction from an often litigious management company, is an open question.
Housing Trust Executive Director Justin Robison says there are plenty of reasons for bringing evictions against tenants.
"Once Life Link makes the referral, that person, their ongoing existence at that property, is entirely based on their behavior and their ability to follow the rules," Robison tells SFR. "That's enforced by our property manager at Monarch. If there is an issue, our long-term role has been to mitigate it or intervene if possible. We have evicted people who have not behaved well, have been really destructive to the community, engaged in criminal acts, vandalized the property, those kinds of things."
Violence, Robison says, will result in immediate eviction. But, he says, they try to be flexible.
"In other cases we try to intervene and mitigate and talk to the person and get their social worker involved, and get them that second or third chance," Robison says. "Unfortunately that doesn't always work out. Ultimately, the enforcer, the bad guy, is really the Housing Trust. But it's our property manager that's really doing the eviction. We've hired them, they're our employee."
Robison adds that any time Monarch tries to evict someone, it happens with the Housing Trust's knowledge and approval.
This includes Drinkwater and Graham's recent encounters with Monarch, Robison says. The couple has appeared in Santa Fe Magistrate Court three times since they moved in two years ago, pitted against Monarch representatives each time.
The management company first brought them before a judge in November; the couple appealed and won, only to be summoned again three months later. They won that case as well. Monarch Properties did not respond to numerous requests for comment from SFR over several weeks about the cases against Drinkwater and Graham and others.
What Can Be Done?
The couple's story reinforces the idea that housing placements are by no means permanent.
Many of the people who find housing end up coming back through the homeless shelter within a couple of years, Ed Archuleta, executive director of St. Elizabeth's Shelter, tells SFR.
"Oh yes, we see that a lot, unfortunately," Archuleta says. About 28% of male clients come back within a two-year period, and 75% of those come back within the first year, according to Archuleta. "There's some folks that we get housed three, four times, and they keep coming back," he says.
Legal action against tenants on the part of the development managers is common due both to management companies seeking profit and the tenants' own dubious grasp of the behavior expected of them.
Hundreds of cases are on file at the court between Monarch's various properties and their tenants, more than Santa Fe's more comfortable housing offerings, like the Dakota Canyon (39 cases since 2012) or Talavera apartment complexes (no court records over the same time period were found on the court's website).
Non-payment of rent cases comprise 34 of the 74 cases filed by Village Sage since 2012. Oftentimes, according to Magistrate Court Judge David Segura, taking tenants to court is a tactic used by management companies to force them to pay up, and not just with formerly homeless or mentally ill people.
"What'll happen is a landlord will file a petition for restitution because somebody didn't pay the rent," Segura says. "And between the time the petition is filed and the court date, the tenant ends up paying the rent, and the landlord just says, 'We're happy'"
A disability check in New Mexico pays, on average, $749 a month, according to Jordan-Berelis. Even with affordable housing vouchers that cover the majority of rent costs, Santa Fe's high cost of living means making even modest rent payments a challenge if one is incapable of wage labor. Nonprofit agencies cover 75% of rent payments, but the remaining quarter is up to the tenants. In Drinkwater and Graham's case, their monthly rent share is $165.
"Non-payment of rent is a huge one, a lot of times even when people do get a subsidy, they don't pay their portion," Life Link Housing Coordinator Lara Yoder tells SFR.
But managers are not popular among either tenants or the housing advocates who spend their days housing them.
"Affordable housing property management is a challenging job that involves working with client populations that often have additional needs beyond a traditional renter," says Daniel Werwath, chief operating officer of New Mexico Interfaith Housing. "That said, many management agencies are under-equipped for that task."
"I wish the property managers were trained a little more in being able to handle folks with disabilities," he tells SFR. "I do think that is a problem, and that's fairly common with property managers in town. They're real quick to evict people."
Constant threat of eviction can also have serious negative effects on people who, even in stable situations, are often on the brink of a meltdown.
Drinkwater says the eviction proceedings hit her hard, and after a few weeks living under the threat of homelessness once again, she ended up back at Solace Crisis Treatment Center, a place she has spent a lot of time during her years in Santa Fe.
"It's working and it's healing me," Drinkwater says of continued outpatient therapy. "But it's bringing up all this mental illness and overwhelming me with it to the point where I'm in crisis more days than not."
Repeated court summons take "a horrible toll on people, the stress during that time, and how you respond and react to things," says Yoder.
But she still expects a level of responsibility from the tenants.
"Sometimes, you know, we did everything we could, and it's not onus. It's really up to the people who are living there," Yoder says.
Yoder says a common saying at the Life Link is "mental illness is not an excuse for bad behavior." What constitutes "bad," though, is up for debate. Violence is obvious. But being behind on rent, having other homeless people over to stay in a newly acquired apartment, or being too loud are more questionable activities. Court records show that most of the eviction hearings brought against tenants by Monarch were for more minor kinds of behaviors.
Robison says that, given Santa Fe's homeless population, there is always someone waiting in the queue for an apartment. The Housing Trust owns two affordable rental developments in Santa Fe (Village Sage and the Stage Coach Apartments), with another looking to be filled in September, and 25% of the apartments in each complex are set aside for people with disabilities or those transitioning out of homelessness. That's only 30 units across all its holdings.
"From the ethical standpoint, or the greater good standpoint, we want people to be in there that can be in there for a long time and have a happy life and have safety and security that they've never had," Robison says. "But that doesn't always work. And it's an ongoing part of our daily, weekly, monthly struggles that the people who get these units aren't always ready for them."
The city helps how it can, according to Alexandra Ladd, special projects manager for Santa Fe'sAffordable Housing Department.
"The issue is, we have hardly any money," Ladd says. "So I'm throwing $100,000, maybe $200,000 towards a construction project, which is nothing. Sometimes it's great because it will close a last-minute gap in funding, or the rental assistance money can be a little more impactful on an individual level."
What's more valuable in some cases is the credibility the city provides. Other interested parties might be more likely to provide funds for a project if the city is behind it, Ladd says. But she emphasized the importance of getting people into housing, especially if they're living with mental illness.
"Mental illness and homelessness are like the chicken and the egg," Ladd says. "Mental illness doesn't necessarily cause homelessness and homelessness doesn't necessarily cause mental illness, but they feed off each other pretty vigorously."
Jordan-Berenis says that by no means is his shelter a solution to the problem; it's only a stopgap along the way. "We're really pushing a housing-first model," he says. "A low-barrier approach to housing. You house the person first, you provide the person with intensive case management, and take care of the problems once they're housed. We think housing is really the key to helping people get stable. Without housing, how can you move forward?"
Drinkwater and Graham, despite the troubles that have accompanied their new home, have stabilized greatly since getting off the streets and gaining access to services, treatment and the peace that comes from a safe place to lay their heads. The couple puts it more succinctly. "This is our home," Drinkwater says.