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Groundbreaking ABQ program inspires other cities

Roger Melbihess, 47, homeless since the age of 14, sits in the living room of his rented home, obtained through the Albuquerque Heading Home program

Roger Melbihess, 47, homeless since the age of 14, sits in the living room of his rented home, obtained through the Albuquerque Heading Home program. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Roger Melbihess gets a little teary-eyed when talking about how his life has changed since getting his own home through the Albuquerque Heading Home program last October.

“When you have your own place, you get your dignity and self-respect back,” he says as he shows off his tidy one-bedroom home.

The program, which houses the most medically fragile among the homeless, is turning into something of a national model for cities looking for better ways to deal with their own homeless populations.

Charlie Lanter, director of the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, in Lexington, Ky., was in Albuquerque this week to talk with city officials and examine how Albuquerque Heading Home operates. Previously, representatives from Anaheim, Calif., came to study it and created their own program based on what they saw here.

“We will probably replicate some of it,” Lanter told the Journal. “We already have a small pilot program for about 20 people. We want to take that, and expand and broaden it so it looks more like Albuquerque’s program. We expect that, within the year, we will have something that looks like Albuquerque Heading Home.”

Thus far, Albuquerque Heading Home has housed about 485 people, including family members, and another 20 military veterans under a related Vets Heading Home program.

A happy and proud Roger Melbihess leads visitors on a tour of his tidy one-bedroom home. "I have a responsibility and an obligation I never had before," he says

A happy and proud Roger Melbihess leads visitors on a tour of his tidy one-bedroom home. “I have a responsibility and an obligation I never had before,” he says. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Melbihess, 47, is an Albuquerque native who had been homeless since the age of 14 and never finished high school.

Over the years, he worked only sporadically, drank too much, alienated himself from his family, and spent 15 years of his life in and out of jail and prison.

Life was made even more difficult since a 1993 car crash left him permanently disabled with a leg and pelvic injury, kidney damage and a traumatic head injury.

“Having my own home means I have a responsibility and an obligation I never had before. It’s just so hard to live on the streets,” Melbihess said, his voice cracking.

“… I can go out with a smile and take care of my business, and I have a place to come back to and relax. It’s my sanctuary. Before, I pushed people away and hid from society because I was embarrassed about where my life was at and where it was headed. Now, people give me compliments. I never heard that before. Having my own home brought me back to life.”

Roger Melbihess says his new home has given him a reason to smile and a place to come back to and relax. It has even brought estranged family members back into his life

Roger Melbihess says his new home has given him a reason to smile and a place to come back to and relax. It has even brought estranged family members back into his life. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

It also brought once-estranged family members back into his life, including one of his daughters. “I know how lucky and blessed I am,” Melbihess said. “I never even heard of Albuquerque Heading Home until a friend told me about them. I got on their waiting list and it took three years to get a home, but they saved me.”

What particularly appeals to Lexington, Lanter said, is the housing-first approach that’s central to the Albuquerque program.

“Our approach has been more traditional, with recovery programs, and getting people to stop drinking and using drugs, and agree to mental health compliance and take their medications. What we want is to put the focus on housing first because, once people have a home, it often creates a situation where they can address those other issues.”

Lexington has a population of about 320,000. Lanter said estimates put the number of homeless people living in shelters and other transitional housing at about 1,200, with up to another 100 living on the streets, depending on the time of year.

About 18 months ago, representatives from Anaheim came to Albuquerque to study Albuquerque Heading Home. They now have their own program called Coming Home Anaheim that has found homes for 320 formerly homeless people, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait told the Journal.

Anaheim, home to Disneyland, has a chronic, though transient, homeless population that makes estimating their numbers difficult, he said. Complicating the year-round homeless problem is that “housing is so expensive here,” Tait added.

“We wanted to see what you guys were doing in Albuquerque and I was impressed that there was a citywide focus on the issue. Our big takeaway was how your mayor was able to get the whole community involved and treat homelessness as a community problem.”

In addition to Coming Home Anaheim, another project resulting from that city’s talks with Albuquerque officials is that construction is about to begin on a new homeless shelter in Anaheim, Tait said.

Both Tait and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray learned about Albuquerque Heading Home from Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry during a U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering.

Berry said that he has made presentations about Albuquerque Heading Home at these conferences, and has received “lots and lots of interest.” The program began in 2011 as an initiative of Berry’s office during his first term.

Last year, it became a nonprofit and, for fiscal year 2015, it received just under $500,000 from the city and nearly $600,000 for FY 2016. The program is also supported by some private donations.

“I’m proud of Albuquerque. We’re taking on a very difficult and very emotional issue,” he said. “We’re making a huge difference locally, and people around the country are noticing and want to know how to replicate it.”

It is estimated that 83 percent of people placed in homes suffer from behavioral health issues.

A study of the program conducted by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research showed that it is more than 31 percent less expensive to house people than to leave them homeless and on the streets, where they tend to become sicker, and require more interactions with first responders and more expensive hospital emergency room visits.

Housing them and surrounding them with support services saves taxpayers an estimated $6 million a year, the UNM study found.

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