Motel of last resort

“I don’t have a reservation for this room. These rooms go fast, fast, fast, if you don’t have a reservation. I think it’s because they don’t require a deposit here, like some of these motels do. The rooms are clean. The stay is like, peaceful and quiet. I stay in a lot of these places because I’ve been homeless for more than 10 years, 14 years. I came here to Albuquerque in 2007 because of a relationship that ended up being violent. And I’ve got the scars to show it.” — Nina Sandoval

By Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi  / Searchlight New Mexico

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. 

“I stayed in these motels when I was a kid whenever my mom was homeless. Then she lost me because she was on heroin. So, I went into foster care when I was nine years old. But I ended up running away five and a half years later because of the abuse that went on in the foster homes. And after I ran away, I kind of stayed gone. And when CYFD ended up finding me again, at the age of 17, I already had a full-blown heroin habit.” — Dreamy (only name given)

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.”

“I had a house, a home, but then I got sick, and well, that life ended. I’ve only been here three days, since I was released from rehab. I was there for three and a half months. But once you can walk, it’s goodbye. And my insurance ran out. So, I’m here until Monday, at eleven in the morning, I have no idea where I’ll go then. And I don’t even own a pair of shoes.” — Mauricio Acuña

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.” 

“I’m taking care of Mauricio because he was my friend’s husband. She went off with another dude. She did some s**t that I don’t agree with at all, cheating on her husband. So I’m taking care of him.” — Esther “Trigger” Miers
“We’re the homeless of the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My wife and I retired about six months ago, we had it all set up, we would stay at an assisted living. She had an insurance to pay for it, but unfortunately, they had a change of management and things didn’t work out. Right after that my mother passed away, and everyone wanted to get their get their finger in the inheritance, and—fooled them all—there ain’t no inheritance. Anyway, we’re basically living hand to mouth.” — Tim Salers

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. 

“I don’t stay in one place very long. I’m a very nomadic person for my age. I haven’t stayed in one place for long for years. I’m 29 and this is all the stuff I got, just this and my dog. And if I ever catch anyone hurting my dog, I’ll kill them.” — James “Wheatie” Wheat
“My mom has been clean for about almost six, seven years now, and I mostly stay at her house. I stay at this motel now because my boyfriend’s here. That’s his living situation. He’s basically homeless. And drug dealing is what goes on here—and in Albuquerque, period. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. It could be an abandoned apartment complex. It’s full of drug addicts.” — Dreamy (only name given)

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. 

“You’re sick, then they throw you out of the hospital and then you end up walking down Albuquerque streets. That’s the worst thing that could happen to you. For someone to be sick and homeless, it’s a humiliating thing.” — Isela Ivonne Camarena

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.”

“We are homeless, but we aren’t heartless. We used to live in the War Zone. We were evicted because the landlord didn’t want to do his f**** job, so I didn’t pay the rent. And we ended up out of the room, out on the street, or even inside a jail cell.” — Elisabeth Camarena

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.

“We had to block up a hole in the fence where people were coming into the property to sell drugs. And we’ve had to ban all visitors except for the guests at the hotel. But they yell at me and threaten me when I keep them out. One even threw a rock at me the other day. But now we’re starting to charge a deposit of $50 for rooms. That weeds out some of the troublemakers.” — Sonny Patel, hotel manager

“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.”

“I grew up in Albuquerque, and I’ve bounced between motels, including this Motel 6, The Ambassador, and other Motel 6s. You don’t want to go near some of those places. You got lucky with me, but you try to talk to people hanging around there and they’ll go after you. And these places take advantage of homeless people. The managers are crooked. There’s lots of drugs in there. They’re easy to get—the blue pills [fentanyl] are so flooded in this city.” — Daniel Garcia

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. 

“Three nights ago, we’re in the psych ward, in Santa Fe, and we slept in a tunnel. I said, ‘I just can’t take it anymore. I can’t handle this anymore.’ And they asked me, ‘Are you just coming here for a place to stay?’ And I told them that my wife’s hurt. She has got major health problems. And if anything happens to her, I will kill myself.’ And I mean it. I can’t live without her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” — Tim Salers

“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.”

“Me and my husband stayed in an apartment for over a year but lost the apartment because of payment issues. We paid late and we were kicked out on August 27. We had mailed the check, but it was going to arrive the day after it was due. Still, we were kicked out into the streets, the day after my birthday—and then they cashed the check! They didn’t even let us take any personal belongings with us.” — Dee Snow
“I had graduated nursing school and was working in a nursing home when my mental health went to crap. I have been self-medicating with weed to help with anxiety ever since. I like to make jewelry and I go dumpster diving to find all sorts of things—copper, beads, glass—to use. I also look for unfinished cigarettes—or cigars. I’ve been staying at the Motel 6 with my husband until we recently separated after 16 years” — Dee Snow

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.

“I was born and raised in Albuquerque. I’ve been staying here for a month and a half. I am blind. I stayed here with my husband, who I’m separated from, to support him after the death of our son. He got very sick and passed away three weeks ago. He was 33 years old. You know, one day you will be up high, doing fine, and a month will go by, a day will go by, and then you’re at the bottom and staying at a motel. But I’ve gotten close to my neighbor Carlos Junior and his wife, who is five months pregnant. We are like a community.” — Renay Torres