Photos and captions by Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico
On the hot sidewalk in front of the Motel 6 by Carlisle Boulevard in Albuquerque, people milled about on a recent afternoon. A few guests walked the corridors; others sat outside on lawn chairs to get a respite from their rooms. Nearby, a man sold American-flag face masks and handmade bracelets.
The motel is part of the largest chain in North America, characterized by its red-white-and-blue logo. While in many cities the motels serve as a low-cost option for travelers, this one has become a landing spot for people with nowhere else to go.
They come from all over the city to this roadside way station that offers hassle-free shelter, available at a moment’s notice. Some have fallen on hard times, having lost lives of comfort and security. “Tenía una casa, tenía un hogar, pero me enfermé y, bueno, se acabó toda esa vida,” said Mauricio Acuña, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “I had a house, I had a home, but I got sick and, well, all that life ended.”
Others have never known anything other than a life on the street. “I don’t stay in one place very long. I’m a very nomadic person for my age,” said James Wheat, 29. “I haven’t stayed in one place for long for years.”
Many lodgers would not be able to satisfy the requirements of apartment rental applications or qualify for other housing options.
Their reliance on the motel is a sign of Albuquerque’s housing crisis. Prices are on the rise, and the need for affordable housing far outstrips what’s available.
To satisfy housing needs, the city would have to provide 15,500 affordable rental units and 800 units of short-term housing for people experiencing homelessness, according to research by the Urban Institute.
The crisis has become even more dire during the pandemic, advocates said. The number of people experiencing homelessness has increased by almost 20 percent in the past four years, according to a Searchlight New Mexico analysis of “point-in-time” counts, which assess the number of people in shelters, on the street and without a home on a given night.
In order to keep people off the streets, the city of Albuquerque helps cover the cost for stays in some motels. But Motel 6 does not accept the city vouchers or referrals from nearby churches, said Sunny Patel, the motel’s manager. People with these subsidies “cause a lot of issues,” he said.
Patel said roughly two dozen people live on the streets near the motel. “There is an issue in this town and I don’t know how [the city is] going to fix it,” he said. “We’re not prepared to be a solution to the housing crisis.”
Rachel Biggs, chief strategy officer at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said the city has a patchy system for responding to housing insecurity and faces political hurdles to making profound changes.
“This kind of big, sustainable investment takes years, and it takes years to see the really important, big impact of that. And political cycles are quick,” said Biggs. “Our system is kind of designed in that way to not prioritize some of these harder things to do.”
In the absence of a solution, the residents of the Motel 6 at Carlisle keep trying to get by. Renay Torres, who is blind, said people don’t realize how easy it is to end up where she is. Just a few months ago, she had a stable situation. Then she lost her son, who succumbed to a sudden illness, she said, too upset to provide details. In the aftermath she moved in with her ex-husband at the motel to provide support.
“You will be here,” said Torres, raising her hand high, “and a month will go by, a day will go by, and then you’re at the bottom.”
She spends much of her day avoiding the stifling feel of her room, perched in a lawn chair out front to talk with other guests. The people who stay at the motel are a mixed bag, she said. “You find good and bad.” In her time of need, she’s found a community.