The Power of Housing

Santa Fe nonprofit home for people with mental illness stands out as state moves to regulate such homes

Donna Marie Lievens had a happy childhood on Santa Fe's Southside—until her father died and her mother married an alcoholic. That's when her mental struggles began. By 16, she had tried to commit suicide. Her junior year of high school, she dropped out and got married.

Despite early-onset symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness, Lievens didn't become homeless until her early 30s. She lost her house and lived out of her car; she lost that, too. Then she camped on a mesa in a tent, even in the dead of winter, to avoid the police and other people.

"I was depressed. I was sad. I was happy. I was doing this thing," Lievens says, using her arms to create an up-and-down motion. "And I said, something is wrong with me. I went to go see a psychiatrist [about three years ago] and they told me I have bipolar and borderline personality disorder."

For nearly a decade, she hopped from shelter to shelter in Santa Fe, empty parking lot to mesa wherever she could.

Now, Lievens has a home. She has her own room, regular meals and daily chores. Lievens speaks with SFR on a hot afternoon sitting on the back stoop of a 6,200-square-foot house on the Southside where she now lives: Casa Milagro, a 12-bedroom, six-bath nonprofit home for people who are both mentally ill and homeless. It's singular in New Mexico and has been operating since 1995, when Meryl Lieberman and Carol Luna Anderson co-founded it with financial help from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after seeing horrifying living conditions inside New Mexico's notorious boarding homes for people with mental illnesses.

Casa Milagro is still mainly supported by HUD, along with individual donations and grants.

"When people come out of the state mental hospital in Las Vegas, there are several board-and- care homes there—'care' in quotes," Liberman says. "It was because of those places that I opened Casa Milagro."

Lieberman perches on the edge of a brown couch with her dog, Bear, while several Casa Milagro residents and two case workers prepare lunch in the kitchen.

"We create a sense of community," Lieberman says. "We have a culture of kindness. … For me, one of the important things was animal companionship. … We even had a resident here who had an emotional support hedgehog."

Residents may keep pets if they're able, and they're also expected to be employed and spend time in the community. They pay rent—a third of their monthly income—and contribute $200 toward food each month. Each resident has chores and must remain drug- and alcohol-free. Casa Milagro can be a lifetime home: One resident has been there two decades, another for 10 years.

When there is a chance opening at Casa Milagro, the staff select people from a list provided by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. People who apply through the coalition are given a survey that rates their level of vulnerability. The most vulnerable are chosen first when there is an opening.

Full-time, trained staff also differentiate Casa Milagro from the unlicensed and unregulated boarding homes in New Mexico.

"I'm hoping once the governor doesn't have to focus so much on terrorism, I actually want to get her out here so that she can see what the alternative to those places are and hopefully allocate some state money to start places like this all over, because there should be one in every community," Lieberman says.

The New Mexico Department of Health under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to release rules for boarding homes for people living with mental illness in the fall, followed by a public hearing. There are about 100 unregulated care homes in New Mexico, mostly in and near Las Vegas. Once the rules are complete, the homes will be licensed and regularly inspected for compliance with regulations governing fire safety, staffing levels, overcrowding and bathroom quality.

The rules come after a 2016 Albuquerque Journal investigation that exposed terrible conditions and their consequences in several of the homes.

The state has been unable to blunt near constant increases in homelessness. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2018 report, there was a 2.8% climb in New Mexico's homeless population that year, with a 16% increase in the number of homeless veterans.

Shannon Milligan, a Casa Milagro case worker, believes more homes like Casa Milagro in Santa Fe County could help solve the state's homelessness problem long term.

"There's not enough housing," she says. "If they had even a couple more places like this … I think it would change Santa Fe and New Mexico."

At Casa Milagro, Milligan says, a safe environment is one of the main draws for the demographically and mentally diverse residents. They have all faced significant trauma, and being homeless put them in a position to be continuously revictimized.

"The majority of people who are homeless have a mental illness, which is mostly trauma-based," she says. "It's just a vicious cycle. They're continuing to have trauma by being homeless. Especially women, they get victimized on the streets."

Lievens is Casa Milagro's newest resident. Her black hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, she looks out over the sweeping backyard, shadowed by the falling afternoon sun. She has only been living in the house for two and a half weeks, but she already believes in the power of having safe, stable housing.

"Everybody's so sweet around here," she says. "They do a lot of hugs and stuff like that. The staff is wonderful, too. They listen to you if you have a problem. They help you with your medication and stuff like that. This place saved me. It really did."

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