A local nonprofit that works to get military veterans back on their feet broke ground Wednesday on a transitional housing complex for vets and their families as residents of the surrounding neighborhood protested concerns the complex could lead to crime and drive down property values.
The New Mexico Veterans Integration Centers on Wednesday launched the first phase of a larger concept to build a VIC Campus on Mulberry near Interstate 25 and Gibson SE. The VIC is hopeful the first phase, a transitional housing site, will be open in May 2024, said VIC CEO Brock Wolff.
Transitional housing units will give homeless vets a place to temporarily live as they work to reintegrate back into society.
“They have to have a commitment to get better,” Wolff said of the veterans who will use the facility. “And then we work on their substance abuse, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), life skills, and we help them get ready to move into an apartment.”
Assistance for vets
Albuquerque’s 2022 point-in-time count found there were a total of 86 homeless veterans in the city. That included 25 unsheltered veterans, 43 staying in a shelter that night and 18 using transitional housing. But Wolff said that is likely an undercount and the campus will also be a place to help vets who may be living on a friend’s couch, for example.
The city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and the Department of Veterans Affairs have pledged $8 million, of which $1 million went to land acquisition and $6.7 million will go to building the transitional housing buildings, according to VIC’s website.
The 20,000-square-foot building will be able to provide temporary housing for 42 veterans and 24 family members. The VIC’s current transitional housing program pairs up homeless veterans and places them in rented apartments. Wolff said.
Once entirely completed, the VIC envisions the transitional housing program will be part of a $17.8 million campus that includes affordable housing, office space, a wellness center, a food pantry and a thrift shop, among other services. The complex will be just east of the interstate between an Optum facility and a Baymont hotel.
The vacant land is currently a mixed-use low intensity zone district, said Tim Walsh, a spokesman for the city’s planning department.
The VIC, which was formed in 2005, is a nonprofit business whose most-recent tax return said it helped 455 veterans and 235 family members with $1.4 million in housing assistance and other support in 2021.
‘Right to protest’
As officials broke ground at the new complex, about 10 residents gathered on the other side of the street with signs that complained about what the complex would do to their property values. Some neighbors were sour because they said they weren’t part of discussions before Wednesday’s groundbreaking. The homeowners’ association is trying to intervene to stop construction, said Leslee Horn, the vice president of the association.
“The Kirtland Community Association supports the Veterans Integration Center project, it’s a beautiful project, our veterans deserve services and resources,” Horn said. “But the project being in our neighborhood is not an asset to our neighborhood.”
She said the neighborhood already has issues with crime.
“We have always worked hard to combat those, and we’ve got a good grasp on what’s going on,” Horn said. “So now you’re talking about an organization that is going to bring in people who have additional problems as well, they were talking about mental health and behavioral health.”
On the other side of the street from about 10 protesters, supporters of the project filled underneath a tent for a ceremony that included the presentation of the colors, the national anthem and a Native American ceremony, as well as speeches.
Wolff said he was sad the neighbors were upset with the project and said the VIC will continue to meet with them to address concerns. He said the entire complex will be gated and have surveillance. Residents in the transitional housing program will have curfews, as well as a requirement that they are committed to reintegrating into society, he said.
And, he pointed out some ironies of the protest, including that the neighborhood association bears the name Kirtland after nearby Kirtland Air Force Base.
“Their right to protest wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these soldiers,” Wolff said.