By: Elise Kaplan/ Searchlight New Mexico
On a recent morning, a busy thoroughfare near the Albuquerque International Sunport was a classic neighborhood picture of young mothers pushing strollers, exuberant elementary-age kids, and sleepy teenagers, all emerging from an airport hotel-turned-homeless shelter on their way to school.
Andrea Delgado stood on the sidewalk, watching from afar to avoid a preteen eye roll, as her 12-year-old daughter crossed the street to wait for the school bus. The mother and daughter were among 47 families living in the Family Housing Navigation Center — the one-time hotel that the city of Albuquerque now leases as a homeless shelter for parents and children.
For Delgado, 38, the center was a godsend. She and Eugenia (her daughter’s middle name) had bounced around ever since losing their apartment a couple of years ago, even spending three weeks living out of a truck this past summer during the hottest days of the year.
Last year was especially difficult. Eugenia slept on a couch at a relative’s house and often refused to go to school or even answer the door when her mother arrived to take her. On the days that she actually went, she frequently called her mother soon after the first bell rang, pleading to be picked up and taken out. Delgado figures she probably missed up to five months of school altogether.
After spending almost a year with the relative, Eugenia returned to her mother, who was living in a Chevy pickup truck next to a park in a fringy Northeast Albuquerque neighborhood. Delgado slept in the front, with Eugenia in the back seat on a pile of blankets and bags. The two frequently heard gunshots; they assumed that any possession left in the truck bed would be stolen. For a while, their Chihuahua, Frijole, kept them company, but even that became too much and a cousin soon took him in.
The Albuquerque Public Schools district has identified about 5.2 percent of its 70,447 students as homeless, according to Cristal Wilson, director of the McKinney-Vento program for APS. But she suspects many more students haven’t yet been identified.
The McKinney-Vento program serves kids who couch surf and “double up” — multiple families living under one roof — as well as students living in shelters, motels, vehicles and substandard housing.
Eugenia has experienced nearly every one of these scenarios.
The seventh grader, who’s skinny with long dark hair, is reluctant to talk much about her last year, except to say it was “boring,” with a shy smile. When asked what her favorite subject is, she mumbles, “Nothing.”
A mother’s struggle
Her mother has also been through a lot. When Delgado was in fourth grade, her younger siblings were taken into state custody, a fate she only avoided because she was already living with her grandmother. At age 13, she moved in with a boyfriend; by 15, she was pregnant. She’s since earned a GED and found work as a certified nursing assistant. But when her husband, Eugenia’s father, died in 2021, it sent her into a tailspin that she is only beginning to pull out of. She has also been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, is often in pain and is awaiting surgery.
Advocates for the homeless say education is one of the most powerful tools in breaking a cycle that otherwise can last for generations. Parents who lack education are more likely to be impoverished. And the impacts of homelessness affect children almost at birth: Early childhood educators cite developmental delays in young children who struggle to learn to walk or crawl in a car or shelter, where there isn’t space to toddle around. Older children typically perform poorly on tests, are less likely to graduate and log the highest rates of chronic absenteeism among their peers.
The New Mexico Public Education Department found that 61 percent of students who experienced housing insecurity last year were chronically absent, far outstripping any other demographic. That finding is consistent with a large body of national research.
For instance, a nine-year study of homeless students in Los Angeles found that they missed more days of school than their peers. The 2020 study, published by researchers at the University of Southern California, concluded that the negative impacts of instability and trauma could recede once a family regained stable housing.
Delgado hopes this will be true for Eugenia. When they moved from their truck into the family homeless shelter this past summer, caseworkers helped Delgado enroll Eugenia in a new school, Wilson Middle School, where at one point last year almost 8 percent of the students were identified as homeless.
Now, Delgado said, her daughter “won’t miss one day. I told her that in order for us to stay here and have a place to live…she has to go to school every day.”
Eugenia, for her part, allows that she enjoys playing basketball at Wilson and has made some friends.
Still, things are not perfect. Eugenia’s grades are low and Delgado said she is often late for class and has a hard time following rules. She has been sent to detention and occasionally misses her bus.
“Now that she’s back with me, we bump heads,” Delgado said. “Because that time away from your kids, you don’t really know what their favorite color is or what they like to eat anymore. They outgrow stuff.”
Hunger, stress and homelessness
On a recent day, there were 75 children — 15 of them under the age of 2 — staying at the Family Housing Navigation Center with one or both parents. Among them was a rambunctious toddler and her 20-year-old mother; a newborn named Scout (named after the main character in “To Kill a Mockingbird”) and her 39-year-old mother; and Nicole Anaya, 31, and her three children, who’d spent the previous month sleeping on the floor of a South Valley homeless shelter.
Anaya’s path to homelessness began soon after the pandemic, when her mother, a political organizer, died of a heart attack. Her father died soon after from Covid-19. She and her kids spent months with her brother in Las Vegas, Nevada, before returning to New Mexico. They stayed with her ex and his family in Edgewood for a bit before winding up in various shelters across Albuquerque.
In September, Anaya was able to secure a single room at the Navigation Center, with two double beds, a mini fridge and a microwave. After her 10-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes, Anaya decided to enroll him and his 12-year-old sister in an online school. Most days, the siblings sit on the beds, using computers and a shared hotspot to do their online work. They can also use a conference room off the hotel lobby.
“I just think it’s too hard for them to go back (to in-person schooling) after missing so much, and then to keep up,” Anaya said. “It was just too hard being homeless, taking them to school.”
Solid ground harder to reach
A federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act mandates that all students have access to an education, even if they lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” The goal of the 1987 law is to provide rights and services to children — including transportation to and from school — so that they have a “full and equal opportunity” to succeed in the classroom.
But as the pandemic has waned, the cost of housing and food has increased. Wilson, with APS, said she’s seeing families needing more and more time to get back on solid ground. She said her team roams the streets looking for families who are experiencing homelessness — offering to enroll their children in school and providing food, clothing and anything else they might need to remove barriers to attending school.
“I will tell you that the majority of the team that I work with, and myself as well, we have lived experiences with that extreme side of things, whether we’ve experienced homelessness, extreme poverty, displacement or barriers,” said Wilson, who works down the street from the Navigation Center. “We’ve all seen that systems and services make a huge difference in the lives of our students.”
While Wilson said her team has gotten better at identifying children who are living in unstable housing — quickly making contact and providing resources — other districts lag behind, a problem that plagues many areas nationwide.
Currently, 32 of the more than 180 school districts and charter schools in New Mexico have failed to identify a single homeless student — a fact that should be a “red flag,” according to Dana Malone, the state’s Public Education Department (PED) coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth.
Many schools in the state are rural, she notes. “They might not think that they have ‘those kinds of students,’ but we know from our own youth risk and resiliency survey that rural communities are more likely to have homelessness than urban communities,” she said.
The number of students who have been identified as homeless across the state has hovered between about 10,000 and 12,000 over the past dozen years — except for a decrease at the start of the pandemic, according to PED. Administrators suspect that the decline was due to the fact that fewer homeless children attended school at all.
“A lot of our students didn’t have adults with them to help make good decisions, and maybe they didn’t even have the connection to the school, or internet service,” said Malone. “Those were the kids that were easy to fall through the cracks.”
Out of the shelter, into a home
In mid-November, after almost four months of living in the Family Housing Navigation Center, Andrea Delgado and her daughter moved into their own apartment, with a carpeted spiral staircase leading up to a loft that Eugenia claimed as her own. The space was empty, but within a couple of days a cousin dropped off a Keurig coffee maker as a housewarming gift. Best of all, their Chihuahua, Frijole, was back in the fold.
The city says their rent will be paid for up to eight years, thanks to a permanent supportive housing voucher arranged by caseworkers at the Navigation Center. The apartment is close enough to school for Eugenia to walk there.
After a chaotic couple of years, Delgado has noticed changes in her daughter that trouble her. Before, if you were to buy her a bag of chips, she would eat the whole bag within 20 minutes of leaving the store, she said. “Now she conserves her food.”
It’s the kind of thing that most people don’t understand.
“You find out who you truly are as a human being and you see who actually does care and support you throughout something like this,” Delgado said. “Everybody turns the page on you because they all assume the worst. It’s like no one has time to actually listen.”
Are you experiencing homelessness?
To reach a helpline run by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, call or text these numbers for assistance:
In Albuquerque: 505-768-HELP (4357)
In the rest of the state: 505-772-0547
Or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Those wishing to live at the Family Housing Navigation Center must be referred by an agency or program that serves the unhoused, such as the APS McKinney-Vento Program. APS McKinney-Vento can be reached at 505-256-8239.
Elise Kaplan moved to New Mexico in 2010 and was instantly enamored with the landscape, the people and the stories the state holds. She graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in journalism in 2012. Before joining Searchlight as the education reporter, she spent almost nine years focusing on accountability while covering crime, the criminal justice system and more for the Albuquerque Journal. She has won multiple regional awards for her reporting on subjects, including the ongoing crisis at the state’s largest jail and the pandemic on Native lands.
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.