HOBBS, N.M. (AP) — Cristian Nopal doesn’t touch his food despite being a child accustomed to being hungry.
He sits, arms crossed, watching the stranger across the table as the man asks his mother Pamela George, about how the family became homeless and how they ended up in the shelter at Manna Outreach in Hobbs.
His eyes convey an expression belying his short 7 years when he breaks into the conversation to talk about what it is like to be hungry.
“Your stomach growls and burns,” he states, his eyes searching for the next words. “It is like something is in you that is hot… real hot.”
When asked if he likes the shelter he nods in the affirmative.
“There is a lot of food,” he adds. When Pamela gets to the point of talking about the first night she was forced to move herself, Cristian and little sister Tiffany George, 5, into the family car and sleep on the streets Cristian speaks up again.
“It was cold,” he said.
The family moved into the shelter two nights earlier after becoming stranded in Hobbs when their car broke down while attending a funeral away from their home town of Truth or Consequences.
T or C may be home, but the family has been living where ever they can find since Pamela lost her job several months ago. Most recently, the family was staying with Pamela’s aunt in Jal, in a home with no running water.
“I couldn’t allow them to stay in that situation,” Pamela said. “In T or C I’ve had to stay on the streets for a few days in a car because there is no shelter there. If this wasn’t here I’d be out on the street.”
“There is mostly no food at our aunty’s. None,” Cristian chimes in again.
After a few more minutes Cristian seems more comfortable with this unknown person asking his family questions and begins to eat his supper — a meal of beans, rice, enchiladas and some strawberries provided by the employees of Manna Outreach.
It is his second supper at the shelter and just how many he will be able to eat there is unclear.
Pamela is banking on a job interview from the day before to come through, but she faces an uncertain future along with the two dozen other residents of Manna Outreach’s shelter.
An uncertain future made even more bleak by the financial crunch the non-profit is in.
By December Manna Outreach will be $88,000 dollars in the hole, predicts Rick McComas, the shelter’s director.
The shelter is not just short $30,000 in the usual financial assistance it gets each year, but the demand for their services has gone up as the economy in Lea County continues to boom.
“We have more people accessing our services that are moving to Hobbs and looking for a job and have no means of gaining housing because of the cost of housing,” McComas said. “Although the jobs are available here in Hobbs, the pay is not commiserate with the cost of housing.”
That is exactly the case for Shauna Jacobs, her husband and two children. The family moved back to Hobbs a month ago and even though Shauna’s husband has a job working in construction, the family can’t afford a place to live.
“It is coming up with a deposit and first month’s rent that kills us,” she said. “That is $2,000 right off the top.”
Hobbs is home for the family, but rental prices for homes in Hobbs are far beyond the means of the small family. Shauna said the family found one place in their price range, but it was unlivable.
“I couldn’t raise my children in there,” she said. “It was an old trailer house and it was awful.”
It is a story McComas is all too familiar with.
“Another circumstance is we are having is more people stay here because of homelessness,” he said. “They lost their place for one reason or another. Maybe they lost their job or couldn’t make ends meet.”
As the county’s economy has boomed the price of rental housing has gone up because of supply and demand. Such movement may be good for the owners of rental properties, but for the poor it has forced many onto the streets.
Kris Terry, 58, is one such case.
The former oilfield worker and Vietnam veteran has done everything from drilling rig work to working at the refinery in Big Spring before the plant explosion in 2008.
At the time Kris was working part-time, his ability to work hindered by back problems. He is diabetic, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and now walks with a walker. He said he is more like a 78-year-old than a 58-year-old.
When the oil industry boomed and reconstruction work on the refinery began, rent went from $125 a week to $190 in one week and then up to $295 within two months, Kris said.
The cost drove Kris out of his home and he eventually landed in Hobbs four years ago. He has in and out of the hospital and then a nursing home.
He claims he literally escaped the nursing home and found his way to Manna last year when McComas took over as director and changed the non-profit’s policies allowing the disabled to stay in the shelter.
“We have seen an increase because we are accepting people who were not being accepted previously,” McComas said. “People with disabilities before couldn’t stay at Manna. We have two people using walkers now. They are the elderly who have lost their homes. The other lady is blind in one eye and partially blind in the other and has a rod in her left leg that causes her lots of problems.”
The shelter can house 25 people and in July 2012 was home to 14. By December it reached capacity and has stayed full with many having to be turned away, McComas said.
The shelter also provides three meals a day, food baskets to the needy and offers free shower and laundry services to the homeless. Those numbers have also climbed sharply.
The shelter had gone from 714 meals in July 2012 to 1,289 provided to the needy last month. The number of food baskets give over that time frame has also increased from 55 in July to 84 last month.
The number of walk-ins for showers and laundry has quadrupled to nearly 20 on a daily basis.
McComas said the need in Lea County is so diverse that Manna had no choice but to start accepting people who previously weren’t eligible.
Among them an 18-year-old high school student who is homeless. The shelter took him in and gave him a place to live so he could finish school.
“We were making sure he stayed in school until he graduated,” McComas said. “Now we are trying to get him into a vocational program so he can be a contributing member of society.”
“Our culture and our society is changing,” McComas added. “There are probably more homeless children or young adults than we really want to admit.”
As the shelter has expanded services it has increased costs for more staff to cook, clean and oversee the facility and a huge increase in food and utility costs.
“I have had to hire additional staff to handle housekeeping, cooking — we have increased how many household goods we give out,” McComas said.
McComas is afraid he may have to start putting people on the streets as the non-profit nears a breaking point in funding.
“I don’t know what will happen,” McComas said. “I don’t want to think about it. It breaks my heart. We would have to become more stringent and possibly rejecting people who really do need our services.”
The first will likely be those who were only recently allowed to stay with Manna, those who can’t work, like Kris, or those who have jobs but can’t afford homes, like Shauna’s family.
“My world would come to an end without this place,” Shauna said, adding she doesn’t know what the family will do.
With all the demand McComas said the shelter is taking steps to curb spending and still provide services.
They have changed how they purchase meat, cutting monthly spending in half to about $600 a month; they have held fundraisers, the most recent was during Cinco De Mayo, but it only raised $444; and they found new ways to stretch the most mileage out of the food they do have.
“We have done some really dynamic things to try and compensate,” McComas said.
However, it may not be enough.
“About half of what we will be short is just for our services like food baskets and the cost to run the shelter,” he said. “If things stay the way they are we are looking at a 100 percent increase in our budget this year.”
The shelter generally operates on a $108,000 a year budget, it is looking at closer to $208,000 this year.
“The county gives us about $14,500 and the City of Hobbs gives us about $10,000,” he said. “We have churches that are faithfully giving every month. I don’t see why we aren’t knocking on the doors of these others Lea County Towns and from Eddy County and asking if they can help us, because we are helping people from their towns and locations.”
The shelter also receives help from United Way of Lea County, various local businesses and The Salvation Army.
“We are the only shelter this side of Midland and Albuquerque,” he added. “That is a large span of distance and we get people from every walk of life.”
During all this discussion Braden Marshall, 60, sits by quietly watching. The veteran has 22 years service in the Army and 10 as a Marine reserve.
He became homeless several years ago when he lost his job. He said he has a wife and child overseas depending on him and he was eventually forced to sell all his possessions and home to send them the money. He ended up in Manna.
When he finally found a job, the wages were too meager to afford rent, but too much to allow him to stay on food stamps assistance and he has been staying a Manna ever since.
“Put yourself in the shoes of those who are put in this position,” Marshall says breaking into the conversation. “It is easy to look the other way, but put yourself in that other position. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen to people. The guy under the bridge, he could have been a millionaire yesterday. You never know how close you are away from ending up here.”
Manna Outreach is located at 909 S. Selman in Hobbs and can be reached at 397-1155.