Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
LAS CRUCES – In the fight to end veteran homelessness, New Mexico cities are among those leading the nation in meeting that goal.
A national campaign to house all homeless veterans by the end of 2015 drew commitments from dozens of states and cities nationwide, including Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe.
Last week, Las Cruces became New Mexico’s first city to “functionally end” veteran homelessness, according to Mayor Ken Miyagishima. Advocates say Albuquerque and Santa Fe are also on track to meet that goal before year-end.
At the same time they celebrate success, advocates say housing homeless veterans solves only the first of many problems. With a roof over their heads, formerly homeless veterans often face obstacles to gainful employment, including battles with substance abuse or mental health issues, a lack of reliable transportation and weak job prospects in the state.
More than 8,000 homeless people sought services in New Mexico last year, according to the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, and about 10 percent of those were veterans. Before the initiative, veterans often made up one-fifth of the state’s homeless population, according to Hank Hughes, the coalition’s executive director.
“With a lot of veterans returning from wars in the Middle East, there has been awareness among Congress and the public that we need to take care of them when they come back,” he said. “Politically, it’s an issue Republicans and Democrats agree on, and it’s a doable goal.”
The coalition estimates that more than 800 homeless veterans will again seek shelter this year in New Mexico, including more than 500 in Albuquerque.
Advocates have already helped house more than 400 veterans in the first five months of the year statewide, Hughes said, thanks largely to a boost in federal funding.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry said 228 veterans in the city have been housed successfully through May this year – an average of 45 per month. Backed by federal funding, the city has partnered with the multiagency effort Heading Home to create an offshoot project specifically to house homeless veterans, he said.
“This housing-first model really does work and saves money in the long run, but we can’t stop there,” he said, pointing to other needs, such as work training, counseling and health care. “Let’s surround these individuals with services instead of just getting them into a permanent housing situation.”
Nationwide, the Veterans Administration committed $75 million to permanently house disabled homeless veterans this year and set aside $300 million in short-term rental assistance to veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
New Mexico communities are defining success as the point at which the number of veterans waiting to be housed is less than or equal to the number the state has been able to house in an average month – in other words, the point when no veteran will be homeless more than a month.
Berry said Albuquerque is on track to meet that goal this year if the federal funding available can be stretched. Albuquerque is spending about $68,446 each month in VA funding – about $821,000 per year, according to the Mayor’s Office.
“There is a concern that those (VA) vouchers are going to run out before we get to the end of our goal,” Berry said.
In Santa Fe, Mayor Javier Gonzales last year publicly resolved to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 in the capital, where 10 percent of people receiving supported housing services who would otherwise be homeless are veterans.
While the city’s population of homeless veterans is small compared with Albuquerque – in the dozens, not hundreds – Santa Fe’s housing market is tight and expensive, said Terrie Rodriguez, Santa Fe Youth and Family Services division director.
“We’re definitely up against a shortage of affordable housing,” she said.
Miyagishima said the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope – the nonprofit behind the oft-lauded “tent city” Camp Hope – has been instrumental in driving veteran homelessness in Las Cruces to “functional zero.”
The nonprofit served 263 homeless and near-homeless veterans in some capacity between July 2014 and April 2015, said Executive Director Nicole Martinez.
Even with funding and housing available, caseworkers often face additional obstacles housing veterans, she said.
“Some (veterans) have expressed feeling let down by the government they served,” Martinez said. “They say, ‘I don’t want government money.’ A lot of them have had a hard time coming home and translating their skills to regular workforce skills. For someone who was a sniper, how do you get them a job at Wal-Mart?”
Berry said the Albuquerque city government has a veterans-first initiative that guarantees them an interview when they qualify for a position; 70 of 502 new city hires in fiscal 2015 are veterans, he said.
The city is also encouraging employers to give veterans a chance by looking at their skillset – not only whether they meet prerequisites like a college degree, he said.
Michael Hood, 58, said he was on the brink of homelessness after a divorce knocked him off his feet following decades of success with financial services firms in southern California. Bankrupt, he came to Las Cruces, where he had gone to high school. Because he joined the Army for four years in 1974, he was eligible for veterans’ assistance.
The Mesilla Valley Community of Hope secured him a one-bedroom at Oak Street Apartments, a transitional residence for about 20 homeless veterans. Hood furnished his apartment with a donated kitchen table, sofa, lamp and a Bible on an end table.
“I went from hero to zero,” he said. “Everybody in here is here because we made mistakes. Now the hard part is finding a job.”
Hood said he is grateful for the housing, yet hope is hard to come by.
“It just hit me like a sledgehammer that I am not going to get a good job and I’m almost better off taking a menial job that pays $500 a month” in order to retain government assistance, he said. “I feel trapped.”
“We need to remember we’ll never be finished,” Berry said. “Look, realistically, the day I stand up and say we’ve ended veteran homelessness, we’ll celebrate that. But if we walk away and say we’re finished, that’s the worst thing we can do.”