Al McCly came to Albuquerque in 2001 to see how far he could get from his estranged wife. Before long, he had lost his car, been in jail and lived underneath a tree in an abandoned lot all due to his problems with alcohol. McCly explains that camping under the deserted tree was easy. With his last few bucks he bought all the supplies he'd need to live in the open. “I didn’t have to pay rent or worry about anything,” he says.
And as is the case with many other homeless people, he says, food was never a problem: “When I was on the street, I knew I was gonna have a free meal.”
McCly says he couldn’t get a job due to his social security card being taken away after getting a D.W.I. Since he didn’t have his birth certificate, he was never able to get a new card. "I went to get my paycheck, and I found out I needed my social security card," he says. "I didn’t have it, so I lost the job.”
Without a social security card, McCly lost all motivation to find a job until he was recruited to help build the Albuquerque Opportunity Center (AOC) in 2004, a homeless shelter for men that would offer beds to the homeless at night but also help them attain jobs.
Eventually, McCly found a place as a maintenance man for the AOC. His long journey to the shelter is similar to that of other homeless men--the center gave him a new life, as it strives to do for many more.
According to McCly, there are multiple factors that contribute to homelessness. “Some medical problem, physically, or in your head; maybe you were abused as a child; maybe you had been abandoned," he says, listing common causes. "Some just get into drinking, become an alcoholic, and it’s hard to get away from it.”
Most men on the street have lost everything, says McCly, and they get stuck in a cycle that prevents them from getting back on their feet. “It’s a habit that you get trapped into. Once they have this free meal or free treatment, [they] just get into it.” Many homeless shelters are abused as free handouts, he says--they don’t help people get a job or restart their lives.
The AOC stops the cycle with their 30-day program that encourages men to get a job and doesn’t merely hand out free meals and free beds. They offer financial assistance with rent for an apartment, health programs and counselors that help find employment. After 30 days, each man loses his bed, but hopefully leaves with tools to improve his life. The AOC has helped about 25 percent of the men who've entered its program exit into affordable housing, according to their informational brochure. If someone fails at the program, he cannot return to the shelter for another year.
McCly says the most difficult part of homelessness is finding a place to sleep every night. Most shelters that offer beds require that people commit to a program that lasts for at least a month. If they can’t commit, they don’t get a bed. This discourages many people from using the program and getting help. The AOC is different. Their program lasts 30 days, but if a person wants to leave, he has every right to do so.
“There is no restriction,” says McCly. “If you want to, you can go back on the streets.”
Once a week, homeless men can call the shelter and try to make a reservation for the program. If there is space then they are offered a bed and help for a month.
The program supplies 71 of the 111 year-long shelter beds available for homeless men in Albuquerque and has given 40,000 nights of shelter to 1,300 men since the program began two years ago.
Yet despite the success of the shelter, it hasn't always been welcomed by the neighborhood. When the building was still under construction, many surrounding businesses were displeased with the thought of having a homeless shelter next door. “The neighbors wanted us to leave,” says McCly. The outcry of the neighbors was the motivation to build a wall that now surrounds the facility, blocking out any potential problems.
Today, McCly says the neighborhood is welcoming to the shelter's residents. “People always say 'hi,' and tell us we have the best yard on the street.”
The men of the shelter also work to improve the facility. With their help, the center has a fully landscaped courtyard, a library and well-maintained facilities.
From the ground up, the AOC has helped men get their lives back.
McCly is living proof. “If it wasn’t for shelters," he says, "I would probably be in jail or stealing.”