Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Pastor Joanne Landry spent years working to open a new day shelter – a dream she finally realized last summer when the Compassion Services Center launched in an old portable classroom across the street from her church.
But the center had been operating only a few months when Landry decided she had to do more than provide her unhoused clients with meals, outdoor camping showers and a few hours’ respite from the streets.
A longtime pastor at the Interfaith Bible Center in the International District, Landry saw too many people spending their nights outside at nearby Phil Chacon Park, weathering frigid temperatures and playing what she calls a cat-and-mouse game with city authorities who come through to break up the encampments over and over again.
“We thought ‘Let’s clear the park; let’s get them out of there and bring them into a safe place,'” Landry said in a recent interview. “I would say half of the park is (staying) here.”
By here, she means the Compassion Services Center’s Warming Station – the latest evolution of the day shelter.
The shelter now provides overnight accommodations for up to 25 people and reaches others through its “gate” program, providing blankets, gloves and other essentials to those who walk up to the premises at night and are too late to secure a cot.
She calls it one of the most valuable things she has done in her 26 years in the community.
“It’s been very, very heartwarming, especially at night when it’s so cold,” she said, noting that some of her clients are generally shelter-averse. “People are saying, ‘Pastor, we’re freezing; thank you so much for doing this.’ ”
The city of Albuquerque is contributing about $137,000 to help sustain the warming station through the winter, with money going to utilities, client stipends and the professional security guard who provides night-watch services. The city also has provided a mobile six-unit showering station Landry hopes to have hooked up in the coming weeks.
Less than two miles away, the city’s own shelter project – the long-promised Gateway Center at the old Lovelace hospital, which could house up to 100 individuals and 25 families – remains mired in a zoning battle. A hearing examiner last year granted the approval needed to open an on-site shelter, but neighbors have appealed.
Landry, who is also president of her neighborhood association, said she’s encountered no significant pushback. She said people who live nearby have not only accepted the project, many also have made donations.
Since it opened in late November, the warming station has attracted a cast of regulars.
That includes Bill Van Bebber, who has been homeless for most of the past seven years, sleeping “here and there,” he said, including Phil Chacon Park. Van Bebber has avoided traditional shelters, in part because he does not trust them. But there’s also the matter of Zeus.
“He takes care of me,” Van Bebber said of the good-natured English pitbull who has been his trusted sidekick since jumping into his lap several years ago at a friend’s house.
Many homeless shelters do not accept pets, but Landry said the warming station has had as many as seven at a time staying overnight with their human companions.
“One time (a client told me) ‘You know what? All my family is gone – I need something to love,'” Landry said, explaining her animal policy. “Their animals are very important to them.”
Not only does Van Bebber stay at the shelter, he helps keep it running. Landry provides some of her most trusted clients a daily stipend – $20-$35 – to help with operations, from the nightly cot setup to distributing supplies at the gate. Van Bebber, for example, recently cooked a spaghetti meal – with his scratch-made sauce – for the group. He also helps enforce the rules, which include a prohibition on drug and alcohol use.
Landry – herself recovered from alcohol and methamphetamine addiction – said she’s had to ban clients for infractions like smoking fentanyl in the bathroom. Maintaining a drug-free site is one of Landry’s chief challenges, but she considers the rules essential, as do the clients who have stepped up to make sure they are followed.
“That’s the beauty of what we do. They’re the shining stars – all of these workers. They’ve been homeless on the streets and they (have) dedication to the mission,” Landry said.
The pastor aims to make the center a pass-through on the way to more stable accommodations and actively works to get her clients on the community’s housing waiting list – something that is often more complicated than it sounds. The qualifying process requires personal documentation that many people living on the streets do not have; Van Bebber, for example, had to get a new Social Security card before he could get on the list, but he recently received his replacement card and is now awaiting a call about permanent housing.
Landry said she would love to see other faith-based organizations follow her lead – “Can you imagine if mega-churches got ahold of this (idea)? We could take so many people off the streets,” she said – but acknowledges that it is not easy. She runs it as an unpaid volunteer, often not leaving for the day until 9:30 p.m. when the paid security guard arrives for the overnight shift.
“I feel this is my mission and that God has called me to see other people be the best they can – help them and understand them and not judge them,” she said.