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Homeless Coalition reopens men’s shelter; New director also talks about progress in women’s facility

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Renovations to the men’s shelter, which reopened Friday, are in progress. Improvements at the women’s shelter have included cleaning, repainting and purchasing a new industrial stove for the kitchen. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The Roswell Homeless Coalition will reopen the men’s shelter this weekend, five months after previous ownership closed it.

“Our goal here is to provide them with the resources and referrals for them to make progress,” says Sarah Lewis, the new director of the shelters. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

That is one of several steps of progress for the coalition since it took over the shelters in November. A new director also has been hired, and some women are talking about the benefits that the women’s facility has offered them.

For Nicole, a Roswell resident for about eight years, the reopening of the women’s facility on East Bland Street in late February has offered an escape from living under a bridge.

She said that years of being in an abusive relationship where she was prevented from developing friendships or social connections, as well as other difficult circumstances, had left her without options when Roswell’s homeless shelters closed in fall 2017. Consequently, she was forced into the outdoors and the harsh winter weather for two and half months.

Now she is able to focus on replacing a lost birth certificate so that she can get official identification and take the next steps to rebuild her life.

Also in the women’s shelter are Alicia and her son.

In a letter, Alicia wrote, she has “no place to go, no place to sleep, except for Roswell’s Homeless Coalition. The thought of where’d we be without the shelter is unimaginable.”

Both the men’s and women’s shelters were operated for about 14 years by Rivers of Life International until that organization’s board of directors voted to close both facilities Oct. 15 due to operational issues and budget deficits.

In November, the nonprofit Roswell Homeless Coalition, which includes members of local churches, businesses, nonprofit groups and service organizations, signed two-year leases to manage the facilities. The group pays utilities, insurance, and operational costs for the shelters, which are estimated at somewhere around $5,000 a month.

The women’s building, which can house up to 19 women and children, reopened first, after hours of volunteer efforts and thousands in donations to make needed repairs and provide new bedding, furnishings, equipment, flooring and paint.

The men’s shelter opened Friday night, although renovations are still needed, including repairs to showers.

Sixteen men can live in the facility on East Albuquerque Street, and six men have completed intake forms to move in. Several more men are in the process of becoming residents.

In addition to getting the two facilities up and running, the coalition also has hired a new director, Sarah Lewis. She is previously served as a River of Life cook, transportation director and women’s shelter manager, and as a supervisor at other local businesses.

She and two night-time managers are the only paid staff at this point, Lewis said.

She characterized herself as “blessed” to have the job and is happy to say that two women who came to the shelter in February have already been able to move into their own rental units.

The program is intended to move people to permanent housing and better circumstances within 90 days, she said.

“Our goal here is to provide them with the resources and referrals for them to make progress,” she said. “We meet with them every 30 days to review their cases. If they are making progress, then they can stay another 30 days, up to 90 days. If we find at the end of 90 days that they have made progress but just need a little more time to save money for their own place or something of that sort, then we can extend the time a bit.

“We can’t keep someone here who isn’t making progress and keep someone else out who does want to make progress. So we review each case.”

To help residents rebuild their lives and find permanent housing, Lewis said, the shelter will connect them to many agencies and services. Some of those include potential employers or the Workforce Commission or Goodwill for job searches; the Roswell Refuge thrift store, Jireh Ministry, Allianza and Starting Lines for clothing and accessories; child care services; the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation or Choices for job training programs; landlords who have agreed to reduce move-in costs; state offices for benefits; and La Casa Family Health Services for mental, dental or physical health needs. Food while in the shelter comes from Harvest Ministries and the Roadrunner Food Bank.

Residents have access to the internet and computers for job searches or to connect with service agencies. They will be helped in meeting any parole, court hearings or other legal requirements, Lewis said. Residents are also encouraged to participate in a weekly Reflections and Recovery 12-step program. They also have the option of taking part in Bible study. Requirements include staying sober and clean and contributing at least 10 hours a week of “sweat equity” in household chores.

Lewis said that if people are in the midst of alcohol, drug or severe behavioral problems, they will be referred elsewhere, although she does acknowledge that not many options exist in Roswell. The options available include mental health units of hospitals, law enforcement or the Angel Program.

One of the major issues for many residents is transportation, Lewis said, so the coalition plans to start a program to obtain donations of bikes for residents’ use. Bus passes at $27 a month were provided for one month but determined to be too expensive to continue for the time being, she said.

The coalition’s short-term goals are to finish the renovations and improvements to both facilities, she said, but the long-term goals include more or larger facilities to house the many people in Roswell who identify themselves as homeless.

A “point-in-time” survey conducted in January 2017 by coalition members found that 150 people in the city were homeless, with 75 without access to even temporary shelter.

“We are raising funds. We have several of the churches in town supporting us and local businesses,” she said. Some of the major donors have included Wells Fargo Bank, First Presbyterian Church and Christ Church, she said, adding that other individuals and groups have donated items for the shelters as well.

A local health expert said that the reopened shelters help not only the residents but the community at large.

“Every time we lose a temporary housing in Roswell, whether it be a shelter, or halfway house or a church-sponsored recovery home or something, we feel it everywhere from the jail, to Sunrise (a mental health unit at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center), to mental health people, to substance abuse,” said Bobby Heard, clinical director of La Casa Health Services.

“It is really a big deal for everything from the money the county spends running the jail, to who ends up sleeping out in the riverbed by Wal-Mart or sleeping on the side of a building or in an abandoned house “ he said. “It has a huge impact on that kind of stuff.”

He said he thinks emergency housing is a crucial part of getting people back to functional lives, including for some inmates who have nowhere to go upon release, some of whom have been detained due to homelessness.

“It’s the one thing that helps people get back on their feet,” Heard said, “and that’s the one thing that keeps people from getting back on their feet.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.