Several years ago, when the state fair commission decided they no longer wanted the fairgrounds to serve as a temporary winter overflow shelter for homeless men, community members operating as the Homeless Advocacy Coalition planned to create a year-round, secular men's shelter in Albuquerque. It was an ambitious plan for a small coalition operating on a $35,000 annual budget.
When the group found the old Penske Trucking Company warehouse—a 9,000 square feet hangar on a three acre, industrial lot at 715 Candelaria NE—for sale last year, the germ of an idea became a hopeful dream. Then, the dream moved a step closer to reality when the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority board stepped up and unanimously approved the group's $1.1 million loan request—the first of its kind in MFA history. It seemed the Albuquerque Opportunity Center was destined to be complete.
Josh Allison, the center's executive director, however, laughs when he looks back on what happened next. "It was phenomenal that we got that loan," said Allison. "We bought the building and, suffice to say, nobody really knew what we were getting into."
Following the purchase of the property, the group had $250,000 remaining to turn an empty warehouse into a residential shelter fixed to house 60 men on any given night. Wright & Hammer Architects generously donated a portion of the design and project management, after receiving input from homeless folks. Then, in July 2003, the coalition set out to find a general contractor to accept what Allison jokingly called, "a really goofy development."
This April, the Albuquerque Opportunity Center opened its doors after a remarkable community effort, assisted in no small part by Ron Romero. The cost estimates made the rehab work a daunting task and the general contractor, realistically, had to accept a project with slim chance of getting paid. He had to ask others in the trades to help as well.
"Ron took on the project, agreed he wouldn't accept money for it, he would help find donations, labor and materials, and would work with homeless folks on a design and employ them in the construction phase," said Allison. "Without Ron this development wouldn't be completed. He literally decided he was gonna get it done."
Romero, who declined to be photographed for this story and steadfastly refused to take much credit, took responsibility for supervising homeless men on his crew, which allowed the project to pay them nearly $50,000 for labor.
As practically anyone who has ever remodeled a home can imagine, the final rehab cost exceeded the estimates, amounting to $450,000. Allison credits Romero for finding the additional $200,000 by bringing in over 40 local subcontractors who volunteered time, material and money. In the end, Allison said Romero donated his entire fee, materials, and his staff's labor, which equaled another $56,000 out of his pocket. What stands today is a shelter with a library, locker room and beautifully xeriscaped courtyard.
In an interview with the Alibi, Romero said he only agreed to work as a volunteer once he was assured it would be a community project. "To me, that meant not just building a building, but also to involve the homeless and community at large. So many contractors that I work with know that I'll be knocking on their door. And they're willing to help out when called upon (and) put life on hold to see a project through."
"He had loads of other projects going on at the same time, probably worked 80 hours a week," said Allison. "He always wanted to thank contractors and not himself."
Mr. Romero asked that this article focus on the community really stepping up and making the project a success. He doesn't like attention, but he personifies the belief in volunteerism and working for the greater good in the community. For information to donate men's clothes, books and other supplies, call 344-2323. (TM)