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Veterans Heading Home

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

For the past 2½ years, Army veteran William Roper, his wife and their four preschoolers have lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment at Joy Junction, a South Valley homeless shelter. For four months before that, they lived in a local hotel room after he was laid off from his job and could no longer afford the rent on their mobile home.

Soon, they will be the first family to receive housing under the city’s Veterans Heading Home program.

While Roper and his family are grateful for the apartment and the maintenance job Joy Junction has given him, the family was feeling stuck in an increasingly untenable situation.

Army veteran William Roper, left, in downtown Albuquerque with wife, Elimar Mireles, and children Jerome, 1, in stroller, Jonathan, 5, Kacie, 4 and William Jr., 6

Army veteran William Roper, left, in downtown Albuquerque with wife, Elimar Mireles, and children Jerome, 1, in stroller, Jonathan, 5, Kacie, 4 and William Jr., 6. (Marla Brose/Journal)

“It’s a good program for getting families off the streets,” Roper said of Joy Junction, the state’s largest homeless shelter. “But it can get in the way of people moving on.

“And the older the kids get, the more crowded it became,” said the 37-year-old veteran and father of three sons, ages 6, 5 and 18 months, and a daughter, age 4.

Roper joined the Army in 2001 and was assigned to an infantry unit at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Since being honorably discharged in 2003, he has had trouble finding jobs that pay enough to support his family.

Roper even moved to Florida for an information technology program that promised on-the-job training, but it folded just two weeks after he enrolled.

Nearly destitute, he and his family moved to Albuquerque in 2009 to care for his ailing grandmother, who died a few months later. Though Roper was hopeful he could get housing through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, that, too hit a major snag.

Roper’s wife, Elimar Mireles, immigrated to the United States from Venezuela with her family when she was 7. Though she’s been a permanent resident since 1994, she had misplaced her green card and was in the process of trying to get it replaced. Without that documentation, she was ineligible to live in VASH housing – though her husband and children could.

“I could visit them every so often, but I could not stay with them,” she said.

Rather than split the family, William decided not to take the VASH housing.

Fortunately, a VA representative recently steered them to Veterans Heading Home, a new branch of Albuquerque Heading Home – a taxpayer-funded program the city launched in January 2011 to address its chronic homeless population.

“All the studies and research say if you provide an individual with a roof and basic needs, then add supportive care and other resources, you will see a decrease” in the problems that can plague the homeless, such as substance abuse, violence and crime, said Jodie Jepson, deputy director of Albuquerque Heading Home.

Mayor Richard Berry said he hopes the new program will find a home for every veteran before he or she spends 30 days on the street. His administration launched “Heading Home” nearly four years ago.

“We really believe that we can end veterans’ homelessness in Albuquerque by the end of 2015,” Berry said in an interview. “It’s a good feeling as mayor to know you live in a city that is willing to take on a daunting task and succeed and be a role model for other cities in the nation.”

Volunteer support

Megan McCormick, Heading Home’s director of development, said $100,000 in seed money for the project was raised by three local women, Kyla Thompson, Thelma Domenici and Dorothy Rainosek.

Like others enrolled in those programs, Roper will be assigned a case manager who sets conditions and requirements for receiving vouchers from the Supportive Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that works with local agencies to prevent and reduce homelessness.

Participants can stay in their new homes as long as they comply with their lease agreement and don’t cause problems. Some are required to pay a portion of their rent, McCormick said.

Although participants are not obligated to use any particular social services, case managers steer them to whatever resources they need to get their lives back on track, Jepson said.

Proponents say such programs lessen participants’ reliance on other social services, ultimately saving taxpayers’ money.

A study by the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research shows that after being in the Heading Home program for a year, there’s an overall savings of roughly $13,000 per participant, compared with the costs of caring for them when they were homeless.

According to a 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate, there are about 1,170 homeless people in Albuquerque on any given night. Local VA officials estimate that more than one-third of those are veterans, including many from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

A report released recently by the National Center on Family Homelessness, part of the American Institutes for Research, said New Mexico has the nation’s 46th-highest rate of child homelessness. The report, titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” estimates New Mexico has 22,463 children age 17 or younger who are homeless.

Because of Veterans Heading Home, Roper and Mireles are now confident their children won’t be among those statistics.

A home for Christmas

Gina Campbell, program manager for Veterans Heading Home, said she believes the family will be in a new home by Monday and able to celebrate Christmas “in their own home” for the first time in three years.

“This means a better living situation for my kids and a happier home life,” Roper said. “It means more room and more freedom for my kids to go out and play.”

Roper said his next goal is to obtain a commercial driver’s license and become a professional truck driver. Until then, he will continue his maintenance job at Joy Junction or “until something better comes along.”

“I’m relieved,” Mireles said. “Having a home will give us a foundation and a stable roof over my kids’ heads. We’ll have more space – and more freedom.”