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Henderson House A Godsend

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: Today, the Journal begins its annual Help for the Holidays series, which spotlights areas where community members can reach out to neighbors in need. The series continues the next three Sundays in the Living section.

It’s not yet a year old, but Henderson House, a transitional residence for homeless female veterans, is changing lives. Just ask Casey Smith.

How to help
Anyone interested in making a tax-deductible donation to Henderson House can call Tish Frederick at 332-3033, drop off donations at the YWCA office at 210 Truman NE, Suite A, or donate online at www.ywca-nm.org.

“This is a blessing,” Smith said in a recent interview at the comfortable Northeast Heights house where she and her 8-year-old son, Donovan, are living. “If not for Henderson House, we would be on the street.”

Smith, 42, is a former Navy cryptologist who, despite an impressive résumé, solid employment record and herculean efforts to find a decent job, was one step away from living in her car before she found Henderson House, a project of the YWCA Middle Rio Grande and Rebuilding Together Albuquerque. Clients are referred through the New Mexico VA Health Care System.

Henderson House, named in honor of project patrons Mark and Linda Henderson of the J.B. Henderson Construction Co., opened in March. The completely refurbished five-bedroom, three-bath house is home to six female veterans, two of whom have children.

House manager Tish Frederick said the women can stay for up to a year. During that time, they are assigned a caseworker who helps them address any problems that are preventing them from moving successfully from military life to civilian life.

“This facility was the first in the nation to address only women veterans’ homelessness issues,” Frederick said.

“The one basic need I see,” among female veterans entering the program, Frederick said, “… is the need to feel safe, and to feel they have some control over their lives. Until we meet that basic need, it doesn’t matter what else they need.

“We can try to address those other needs, but until they feel secure and back in control, the rest of it is not going to have nearly as good a chance at success as we’d like to see.”

Qualifying female veterans must be homeless, stable with any prescribed medications and willing to work at whatever programs their caseworker deems necessary, Frederick said.

The need for such programs is undeniable.

According to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, homelessness among female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has increased every year for the past six years – from 150 in 2006 to 1,700 this year. It’s estimated there are more than 1,100 homeless female veterans in New Mexico.

Two months ago, Smith and her son were living in a room above a friend’s garage in Augusta, Ga. To be closer to family – and hopeful the job market in Augusta would be better than her hometown of Boston – Smith reluctantly made the move.

“Like a lot of people, this recession has gotten the best of me,” Smith said. “I just haven’t been able to recover from it.”

“I spent six months at the (Augusta) library emailing résumés, and I got two interviews. Both times, they told me I was overqualified,” she said, noting that she has an associate’s degree in hospitality management, a culinary arts certification and is nationally certified as a food safety manager. She has managed restaurants and been a food and beverage coordinator and events planner. She also designs, bakes and decorates specialty cakes.

“It was right after 9/11 that the bottom fell out of the hospitality industry,” she said. “After 9/11, the best I could find were temporary jobs. I have a good résumé and great references, but they haven’t helped me in this economy.”

Unable to find work in Augusta, the electricity to her small apartment was shut off, forcing her and her son to shower with cold water and store perishable food in an ice chest.

“I sold everything I had,” Smith said. “I sold my blood for plasma. The last thing I sold was my car.”

Because Augusta had no opening at its homeless shelters, she soon found herself looking for any place in the country that had room for her and her son. During a frantic Internet search, she came across Henderson House. She and Donovan arrived here by bus Oct. 8.

Since then, she’s been posting résumés online, networking and hitting job fairs. Donovan, an avid reader and budding artist, is making new friends at a nearby elementary school and making impressive grades.

Smith, an articulate woman with a self-professed “wacky” sense of humor, is bothered by the stereotype some people have about homeless veterans, which make up a disproportionate segment of homeless Americans.

“People find themselves homeless for a lot of a lot different reasons, but the stigma is that they have mental health issues or substance abuse problems,” she said. “I’ve never smoked, I drink twice a year (on her birthday and New Year’s), I’ve never done drugs, and I do not have mental health issues.

“I’m just like anyone else who has worked really hard to get a well-rounded education, who has worked hard and who, like my mother used to say, was always two paychecks away from the street,” she said.

Despite the trials she and Donovan have faced, she’s upbeat about their future. That attitude, she said, comes from the support she has found at Henderson House.

“This place is great. It’s so supportive,” she said. “They know where the resources are, and everyone is so positive.”

House manager Frederick said Henderson House, and places like it, will be in even higher demand as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

“The hard part is when I have to tell women we don’t have beds available, knowing they might be living on the streets or in their car, and they don’t have any other options available to them,” Frederick said, adding that the house typically receives several calls a week from female veterans seeking help.

Funded by donations and grants, Henderson House always has a few unmet needs, she said.

“Like most of America, we’re finding it hard to afford gasoline for the van. It’s impacting our budget in a way that was unforeseen when our budget was created,” Frederick said. The donated, 10-passenger van is mainly used to get residents to VA appointments, training classes and job interviews – which costs upward of $200 a month, she said.

The house can also use monthly city bus passes, which cost $30 a month for unlimited use.

“Monthly bus passes help a lot, but sometimes there’s not a timely or convenient bus route,” for residents, she said.

Though residents get most of their groceries from Roadrunner Food Bank, the house can also use meat, pork and poultry year-round, she said.

Also on Henderson House’s Christmas wish list are certified child care providers who can donate a few hours here and there when harried moms need a little backup.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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