A new shelter serving young adults ages 18-25 will provide services at a critical time for a population who often falls through the cracks when trying to navigate the streets of Albuquerque on their own.
Quinn Donnay, an independent contractor who worked on the Gateway Center project and at New Day Youth and Family Services, says the population the shelter will serve are different than older individuals experiencing homelessness.
“Young people experience homelessness so much differently than adults do. They are more invisible of a homeless population. They are not as out there as the adults are, nor are their struggles the same,” Donnay said. “This shelter would be for individuals that are 18 to 25, and this is a really important age because the service drop off is so dramatic after an individual turns 18. This is a very critical time that young people often fall through the cracks.”
Plans for the shelter have been in place for months, but there is still no timeline as to when it will be built or where it will be located. Federal and city officials announced late last month that $8.75 million of the estimated $10 million needed to build the shelter was secured through the American Rescue Plan Act and community project funds requested by U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury.
Proposed location and safe outdoor spaces
City Councilors Brook Bassan, Renee Grout and Tammy Fiebelkorn worked through a bipartisan effort to help bring the shelter project to life. In a written statement, Bassan acknowledged young adults in her district are less likely to experience homelessness than in other parts of the city.
“I am not exactly sure which locations of Albuquerque have more unhoused youth. However, I would guess there are less in District 4 than other areas,” Bassan said. “Sadly, poverty and homelessness do have a direct impact on each other. And, although there is some poverty in District 4, there is less here than in other parts of Albuquerque.”
Current proposals suggest the new shelter will be located somewhere in Fiebelkorn’s district, between Montgomery, Lomas, Eubank and Interstate 25. The location will be based on the population’s needs and easy access to transportation and other services.
Bassan, who co-sponsored legislation creating safe outdoor spaces for unhoused populations with Fiebelkorn but later backtracked on the proposal, said such spaces are not appropriate for young adults experiencing homelessness. “I will add, I do not believe Safe Outdoor Spaces is the location we would likely recommend for youth.”
After receiving public pushback, Bassan requested the city place a moratorium on safe outdoor spaces, which passed on a 6-3 vote. Mayor Tim Keller then vetoed the moratorium, providing the final say on the matter after city council failed to garner the six votes needed to override the veto. A total of three applications for safe outdoor spaces were approved by the city, with two of those bordering Fiebelkorn’s district close to I-25. One application is under review and another awaiting review in District 7. No applications have been submitted for safe outdoor spaces in District 4.
Although Bassan is still publicly opposed to safe outdoor spaces, she said the need for a young adult, or youth, shelter is important. “I am very excited for the future Albuquerque Homeless Youth Center,” Bassan said. “Currently there is definitely a gap to meet the needs of housing 18-25-year-old individuals. I am working with Councilors Fiebelkorn and Grout, along with other experts, to see what we are able to create for this here in Albuquerque.”
Homelessness is everyone’s problem
According to the “Comprehensive Needs Assessment of Young People Experiencing Housing Instability and Homelessness in Bernalillo County, New Mexico,” there are 1,200-2,300 people ages 15-25 without stable housing in Bernalillo County. The New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department and Albuquerque Public Schools’ Title I McKinney Vento Program help to address some of the needs of unhoused youth, but there are currently very few options for those ages 18-25 seeking shelter and other services.
According to Donnay, the new shelter will only serve this age group. When asked what would happen if an individual who was under 18 or over 25 showed up at the shelter, Donnay said, “They’d be turned away. So, in terms of those that are under 18, there’s two youth shelters in Albuquerque that serve 11- to 17-year-olds. That is a more age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate and safe place for them to be, so that would be where the natural referral point would go.” Donnay said individuals over 25 would be referred to Joy Junction or the Westside Emergency Housing Center.
The new shelter will help fill the gap for those who receive fewer services after turning 18. Donnay explained there are certain individuals who are more at risk of becoming homeless, but homelessness does not discriminate based on location. She said anyone can become homeless and that some people will get trapped with no alternatives other than to go to a shelter.
“I worked with this young man, he was 18 at the time, but actually I met him when he was younger because he was at the youth shelter, and he came to transitional living. His dad moved here with him from California and then his dad was like, ‘Well you’re almost 18; I’m leaving,’ and just left him, he just left him. This happens a lot,” Donnay said. “There are parents that just drop their kids off at the youth shelter and say, ‘I’m done; you take care of it.’”
There are others who age out of foster care with no place to go and others who come to Albuquerque to find work but end up on the streets instead. Donnay said unhoused young adults in the city could be from small rural towns or they could’ve grown up in a wealthy neighborhood in Albuquerque or Santa Fe.
“I had asked some of my colleagues if we know what part of Albuquerque homeless youth are coming from and no one really knows that. For example, Manzano High School, they have a high level of homelessness in families but after they turn 18, we don’t really know,” Donnay said. “They could live in Tanoan. This is how it goes.”
One way to determine if an individual is at risk of becoming homeless is to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz before turning 18. The ACES quiz asks if an individual has experienced physical, sexual or verbal abuse; physical or emotional neglect; separation or divorce; if they have a family member who has a mental illness; a family member who is addicted to drugs or alcohol; a family member who is in prison; or if they’ve witnessed a parent being abused. Quiz-takers receive one point for every question they answer yes to. The higher the score, the higher they risk getting a disease or having social and emotional problems as an adult.
Erika Robers, a community and natural resources planner for the architectural firm Groundwork Studio, said a lot of thought has gone into how the new shelter will be built and designed. She said Bassan, Grout and Fiebelkorn insisted there be a long-term vision and strategy.
“Those three folks said before we launch into building something we need to have a planning and visioning workshop where we sit with providers, all the stakeholders in this group, and try and envision where we’re going and what we’re going to build,” Robers said.
Groundwork Studio was hired as a consultant to help the city decide the best design for the shelter. Two-day charrettes, or workshops, were held in June and July where unhoused youth, researchers and experts in the field met with Groundwork Studio consultants to discuss all the pieces needed to create a successful transitional housing solution. Robers and others asked what this specific population of young adults would need and the type of space that would make them feel comfortable.
“That’s where trauma-informed design comes into play. People are re-traumatized when they go through the shelter system. With the noise and crime, it is not a place they want to stay,” Robers said. “In the field of architecture, we’re seeing new trauma-informed care. When people have PTSD from earlier trauma, they want to be in an environment that helps with the healing process. To heal and be more empowered individuals.”
Six different tenets are being used as a framework for the design process, which are dignity and self-esteem, connection and community, joy and meaning, peace of mind, empowerment, and safety, security and privacy. Robers said it is important to find the right balance between safety and privacy when considering how to design living spaces for an already-traumatized group.
“We’ve been told by providers who work with the homeless that one of the major things they lack is quiet space. They don’t have that on the streets,” Robers said. Common areas called nests or nooks are being considered where someone can read privately but still be seen by others for safety. The nooks could also be used as meditation or yoga spaces to help with healing.
“There will be more calm spaces that are not quite as open as a traditional shelter. The bedrooms themselves would most likely have three or four people to a bedroom,” Robers said, adding they want to house as many people as possible, but with the trauma-informed design in mind a 25-resident limit is what is feasible. “We’re trying to have a large capacity but a space for people where they can at least let down their defenses for enough time to get back on their feet to be more stable.”
Donnay said 20-25 residents is the just right amount. “Here’s the thing. I always have to say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Meaning, just because we could have a 500-bed shelter doesn’t mean we should because you cannot have quality service.”
“For people in their developmental stage at this point in their life, it is so important to help them feel a sense of belonging and connection to something else, and so with less people in a shelter, you have a higher likelihood to have a higher impact,” Donnay continued. “So, while we say there’s only beds for like 20-25 people, we’re talking about serving roughly 250-300 people a year.”
Robers said it is important for residents to have a safe place to put their belongings and to provide a facility that is actually used. She said there are still many levels of detail that haven’t been discussed yet, but they are looking at a full range of services. “Making transitional housing that’s specific to young adults is a fairly new concept only tried in a few states,” she said.
In addition to creating a trauma-informed design, planners are looking at how to provide services such as substance abuse treatment, STD tests, health care, job training and educational opportunities. Donnay said the shelter will provide more than just a place to sleep at night. “We want to create enough flexible space so we’re meeting multiple needs but in a thoughtful way. And creating impact through connection and relationship and thinking about that rather than how many bodies can we fit in a space, how many people are off the street tonight. Because it’s more comprehensive than that. It’s not simply sleeping for the night. It’s what else do you need, and we are here to help.”
It could be your kids
Both Donnay and Robers said it is important to remember the brain doesn’t stop developing until around age 25 and that although legally adults at 18, many individuals in this age group still need a lot of support.
“All this stuff that we feed young people — ‘Oh, you’re 18, you have to be out on your own.’ It can be really damaging and create lots of isolation for individuals that have experienced complex trauma or that have had severe mental illness or addiction. It just creates a lot of layers of struggle,” Donnay said. “So, in this shelter we want to create meaningful connection and relationship with the goal of helping individuals exit the system, because with young people experiencing homelessness you never want them to stay in the system for too long.”
Donnay said 18- to 25-year-olds still have a vision of who they want to be, and many have not given up and still have hope for a better future. “Why you don’t see that many young people in tents is because they’re more resourceful,” she said. “They haven’t burned all their bridges yet, so they go stay at some friend’s house. They can stay at friend’s here; they can stay with a friend there. They can go maybe to an auntie or cousin, but they can’t ever stay permanently, so it’s like this constant state of motion. When you’re really in motion like that all the time, you can’t self-actualize.”
She said providing shelter and services can help individuals self-actualize and become who they want to be. What Donnay really wants to convey to the public is that 18- to 25-year-olds are not only vulnerable and at risk of becoming homeless, but also in need of community support. She said it could happen to anyone and to not dehumanize the problem.
“As like a plea, just think about your own kids if you have kids and if they ever came into a situation where maybe you as their parents passed away and they didn’t have anybody. Where would you want them to be and how would you want them to be taken care of?” Donnay asked. “Young people are the future, and with all the things that have happened in the past 10 years, it’s like holy crap, where are we headed? We got to really create some hope and help them not lose the hope they have.”