Shawn Michael Barnes’ pit bulls were flying through the air, jumping into his arms and bouncing off his body as he attempted to play catch with them late last week in a vacant field off the south end of Cerrillos Road.
The homeless Army combat vet — whose “stranded-in-Santa Fe” plight in July brought him national attention that helped raise about $3,000 through a GoFundMe account — is back in the city after a thwarted trip to Colorado.
His vehicle is once again broken down, undone by transmission problems. Last time, in a dry July with record-breaking heat, he found himself stranded near the landfill several miles from town. Now he’s within walking distance of a grocery store and a water supply for the dogs.
“I feel like I’m supposed to be out here,” he said one recent morning while playing with his seven dogs. “It’s where I keep getting stuck.”
Barnes, 31, took to the road in February from his home state of New Jersey to find inspiration, land and support to build The Barracks, a nonprofit motel for veterans and their dogs. It would be a place where veterans can get a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed for them and their canines.
According to the National Coalition For Homeless Vets, about 48,000 military veterans are living on the streets on any given nights. Some have dogs.
Barnes has seven pit bulls: Prince, Sateen (pronounced “Satin”), Xena, Apocalypse, Paris, Syria and Sienna. They are oblivious to their plight, happy to be sleeping in the back of Barnes’ SUV and running around the vacant field. Low-flying ravens and fast-moving lizards continually distract them.
When he was stuck in Santa Fe last month, Barnes got some help from local people, including Brian Redondo, an ex-Marine mechanic, and managed to get back on the road for a trip to the mountains near Westcliffe, Colo. When he hit Trinidad just across New Mexico’s northern border, however, his car broke down again. He stayed in a chain store parking lot for nearly a week until Redondo drove up to help him.
His first night in Trinidad, flashlights beamed in through his car window, waking him and alerting the dogs. The next thing Barnes knew, he said, a couple of police officers were putting their hands on their weapons and asking him if he was hoarding fight dogs.
“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, calm down, you surprised us. They are good dogs. They are service dogs,’ ” Barnes recalled. “Once I explained it to them, they backed off. They left me alone. It could have been a lot worse.”
He returned to the safety of Santa Fe, where he broke down once again a few days ago.
Barnes has always been wary of general contact with other human beings — he said he knows combat vets and pit bulls are often viewed as dangerous — but his experiences in Northern New Mexico have warmed him up to the idea of companionship and of asking for help.
Barbara Odell of Santa Fe, one of the local people who have reached out to help him, spent some time tracking Barnes down last week to bring him food and gas. One day, she loaded him and his dogs into her car for a shopping trip to Wal-Mart. She waited outside with the dogs while he ran in to buy supplies.
When he returned, she noticed he had bought transmission fluid, dog treats and hot dogs for the pit bulls.
“Did you buy yourself any food?” she asked him.
“No,” he said.
She said another once-homeless veteran who has gone through a similar situation is working to help Barnes — who has post-traumatic stress disorder — become eligible for more veterans’ benefits so he can “find his footing and get out of that car and get a house and take care of those dogs.”
“I feel it’s our responsibility as human beings to give back,” Odell said. “I feel it is my responsibility to do that.”
Barnes said he knows his refusal to abandon his dogs is preventing him from finding housing — permanent or temporary — and damning him to a life on the road. But while a month ago he saw his pets as both a blessing and a curse, he’s since changed his mind.
“I’m glad I keep them together, glad I have them with me because they push this purpose of mine farther,” he said. “The more I struggle and tell people I’m not splitting them up … the more they can see I’m serious about The Barracks. … With seven dogs, maybe I’m making a statement. They’re my trademark. They are a blessing.”
Odell, among others, is urging Barnes to get his dogs neutered and spayed. He’s beginning to consider it. The GoFundMe account created by one of his sisters should help.
In the meantime, Barnes has met a number of homeless people — some veterans, some civilians — near his improvised campsite. He’d never envisioned himself in their similar situation, but his experience has opened his eyes.
“They’re just people who want to help other people make it another day,” he said. “That means a lot to me.”