Learn how we can help homeless people with the innovative approach of Casa Milagro in New Mexico. Co-founder, Meryl Lieberman, discusses how her model could be an example to follow to help homeless people. The interview has been edited for the purpose of this article.

Poverty is one of the leading causes to mental health issues.

The United Nations number 3 goals of the 17 goals for a more sustainable world, is about well-being and health. To understand what it means in action to tackle the goal number 3, we are traveling to Sante Fe, New Mexico, to meet with Meryl Lieberman. She is the co-founder of the non-profit Casa Milagro or House of Miracles. We are talking to Meryl today about her commitment and innovative approach to end homelessness and address mental health for homeless people in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I had a grandma who was a Holocaust survivor who spent some time in mental hospitals. And when I used to act out, my mom would sometimes threaten to send me to one of those places. And so early on I made a decision that that's my life's work is to keep people out of those places. Meryl Lieberman

In this article, you’ll learn about

Homeless People in numbers: 2% of the global population is homeless.

About 2 percent of the global population or 150 million people are homeless. In the United States alone in 2019, more than 500,000 people reported being homeless…and the number of people experiencing homelessness in New Mexico is on the rise. From 2018 to 2019, the number of people living on the streets in New Mexico rose by 27%, one of the largest increases in the country.

Mental health and homelessness go hand-in-hand.

Meryl Lieberman believes mental health and homelessness go hand-in-hand. That is one reason why she opened Casa Milagro, a residential community for adults. She helps residents who were formerly homeless people and lives with a severe mental illness. A community of caretakers lives in the house to help residents eventually transition to an independent life.

What is Casa Milagro? a therapeutic and residential community for formerly homeless people

Casa Milagro house of miracles is a therapeutic community, residential community, for adults who have previously experienced homelessness and who are living with a diagnosis of a severely disabling mental illness. And the reason they would even need Casa Milagro is that they haven't yet developed the confidence or the skills to live independently in a safe way, meaning remembering to take prescribed medications or to eat well or to turn the stove off, for example. So we teach living skills as well as independent skills on how to foster community by cooperating every day.

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Who are the profiles of formerly homeless people who live at Casa Milagro?

Several women who were either victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking are part of our community. Some of them had multiple personality disorders now called associative disorder and we've had several residents with that particular diagnosis. Some have severe depression or bipolar disorder; you any people with a diagnosis of depression or bipolar can function beautifully in, you know, our culture. Others have been more limited in their experience and they don't have the confidence yet.

How did you start Casa Milagro?

We started out with six men and six women and then what happened was as people started becoming more gender-fluid, describing themselves in many different ways. Let me just describe the house. It's an H shaped house and each end of the letter H has three bedrooms, a sitting room and a shared bath. And what we have found is in a community of respect where people really see each other's family members, it's okay to have people of different genders sharing bathrooms. We do have a non-fraternization rule. We've had a couple of people who have fallen in love and moved out and gotten married actually, but we do ask that people not be romantically involved with each other in the house because it disturbs the family dynamic.

A diverse community

There are many political views represented at Casa Milagro. We have every possible spiritual from let's say conservative Christian to Buddhist to atheist and everything in between. This year one of our Jewish residents chose to do a Passover Seder and include her whole community so that they could learn more about what that is, cause a Seder really is just about liberation. And so we celebrated everyone's liberation, not just the Jews leaving Egypt. People of different ages.

Right now, I think our youngest is in her twenties; the oldest is close to 70. Every possible identification that you can imagine. And within that what's so beautiful, it's harmonic every day. If people have a disagreement, they name it and they respectfully give their experience of what happened. And if they need help, there's always someone to witness and to help untangle if there's a communication gap. For the most part, everyone is so respectful because we all want to be treated that way. So that's our culture is kindness.

Where does the name Casa Milagro come from?

Even though I am not bilingual, I've taken so many classes trying to learn conversational Spanish because I do have a bias that anyone who lives in New Mexico should be bilingual. I've really tried. New Mexico was a predominantly Spanish speaking state. You know, I'm a local immigrant, right? I came in as a stranger and so I think it's important to embrace the language and the culture that exists here.

How to avoid the stigma attached to previously homeless people?

That's a really good question. I really think that most of the people who show up have already done that work on themselves. Do you know what I mean? They already either have at the very least non-judgment and, at the very most, a deep curiosity. They have an interest in making good connections.

And I do have a bias. I believe that we all are on the spectrum somewhere and that our culture's pretty ill right now in terms of divisiveness. And so, you know, I think we were kind of needing each other more than ever right now has been my experience. So most of the people who come on, I don't think they'd have so much fear. Meryl Lieberman

A lot of people will come, let's say from the schools, the graduate programs because they had a mentally ill family member or they know they want to go into psychiatry perhaps or psychology working with severe mental illness. This is a really good training ground for them. And to be with people in their own home is so intimate, you know, it's very humane rather than sitting in an office and having the 50 minute hour.

And you know, we think that every moment at Casa is a potential therapeutic moment because we're holding somebody in light. Right. And that's the healing.

You have a very holistic approach to your residents.

Well, I had to get over some biases to be honest, because when I was in private practice in the Bay area, I really did not believe in any kind of psychotropic medication. I thought it was a tool of the pharmaceutical industry to keep us all down.

I still have biases, but for some people who have a severe brain chemistry malfunction, it's lifesaving and I've come to understand that. So it's been a really mind-opening experience for me to overcome.

Healing homeless people: the importance of companion animals

Most of the time, though for myself and for the community, I think eating well, being kind, keeping good thoughts, meditating and doing yoga and the animals is helpful. The animals are everything. Every resident is invited to bring a companion pet. One woman who lived there for a few years had a companion hedgehog and she used to carry it in a little scarf, it would be right by her heart all day long. Bear, my service dog, used to come to work with me every day and people have dogs and cats and aquaria. I don't think anybody has a snake right now, but they're talking about it. So yeah, that's important to have something to care for each person.

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What is unique about Casa Milagro? A sense of equality

At the moment I'm with you and you're with me and we're in it together. There really isn't that separation of the helper and the helpee. I say this all the time when people come to visit Casa, and people come often.

The thing that makes me the proudest is there's nobody wearing a name tag saying I'm the doctor, I'm the social worker, I'm the counselor. Everybody's there together. We are all there together.

Somebody is mopping the floor. It might be a staff person, and it might be a resident. Do you know what I mean? There is no separation because everybody's role is so important.

How many homeless people have benefit from Casa Milagro?

A couple hundred probably. I mean, one resident came in 2000 and he will probably be with us until such time as he'd need skilled nursing care. This is his home. Others, it's so amazing, it can be one year, three years, five years, they get what they need to go and have a wonderful independent experience.

I want to talk about our first resident, who wound up teaching at a university, starting his own computer company, marrying and having a child. And here's my best news, weaning off of his psychotropic medication and treating himself with herbs and diet and this, he moved out maybe nine years ago and um, isn't that wonderful?

I mean, so all of the diagnostic stuff and the stigma that he carried, it's not his anymore. That, that was then.

Can you share another story of a resident?

One I missed very much died some years ago. She had been a nurse for years and years at UNM hospital. She had some serious bipolar episodes and she lost her job, her kids, by acting out in these ways. When she came to Casa Milagro, she could not make eye contact with anybody. She had not just no self-esteem but like negative self-esteem. Everything about her was horrible to her by the time she lived there.

She lived there for about 15 years. She felt like the matriarch of the house. People would come to her for advice. She was able to call on her nursing experience to give people some medical and mainly herbs to take different things to do if you have arthritis or whatever. And she found her value and to me it was everything. And she died knowing that she was loved and that she was valued that was Helen Lane.

Where does your drive for helping homeless people come from?

I'm going to be honest. I was acting out as a child. I had a grandma who was a Holocaust survivor who spent some time in mental hospitals. And when I used to act out, my mom would sometimes threaten to send me to one of those places. And so early on, I made a decision that that's my life's work is to keep people out of those places. I got working with homeless people when I lived in the Bay area.

I realized that homelessness and mental illness are pretty much one diagnosis.

It doesn't matter what occurred first. When I came here, I started a program called the mentally ill homeless services and that's how I got around the state gun, getting to see what resources we lacked.

Did it influence you in creating Casa Milagro?

The idea of Casa Milagro for sure, because if I'm going to create a home, it's got to be a home I'd want to live in. Right. It's got to have all of the things that I would want in a home. And most, especially people who are gonna make eye contact, eye contact with me every day with respect. I mean if, if they have that every day, that's everything because then they get the confidence to go out. Several of them right now are volunteering other places in the community. One has a part-time job out in the community. I love to see that, you know, just to pay it forward in that way.

Do you think your Jewish background influence what you are doing today?

Yeah, I grew up very much with that sensibility. Unfortunately, quite a bit of fear that they're going to come for us. Be careful. And the man I married, his last name was Micknew. And I kept that name for a long time because it was easier to be a Micknew than a Lieberman in this culture. Right? I think the Holocaust is happening now. It's happening again and we have to witness, we have to bear witness and we have to acknowledge that we, only we can stop. We're the only ones who can stop it and because of the stigma attached, we blame the victim rather than look at the context.

We are lucky here in Santa Fe. There are a lot of activists in this town, a lot of people doing really important ground-level organizing. Not just throwing money at things, which is easy to do for some, and I appreciate them very much. But the day to day knocking on doors and changing gerrymandering. For example, in our area, making sure that elders in this town get to vote, get to register to vote. You know, especially now it's important.

How do you collaborate with other organizations to help homeless people?

One thing is we work with all of the local shelters for homeless people. We work with local mental health agencies. We are all a part of the New Mexico Coalition to end homelessness. So we stay up with what funds are available, where are the places right now. The coalition is paying a lot of attention to the rural communities that are very horribly underserved to start like young people, young women and children. We don't have children at Casa Milagro.

We work with the local government agencies, the city, the County. It just seems that we're working now on trying to go solar and we're working with a local group called positive energy that I believe is going to be very kind to us in partnering to make that happen. In Santa Fe, particularly, there is so little social service money. So many organizations are fighting for the same little pot of money that we have to work together. If we compete with each other, it'll destroy all of us.

How Meryl's work with homeless people has influenced others to follow her path?

HUD came. They sent people from DC. The man said they thought it should be a model for the country. It made me really happy because he was greeted at the door by dogs. Art was everywhere and it's a beautiful house. You know, it's out in the County. It's about eight and a half miles out. And yeah, it made me really happy. I said, you go for it, you just put them everywhere. And you know, we have a wonderful governor right now who is not only an ally around mental health but around education, around the environment. She's actually holding a summit to see how we can stay protected from the violence that's epidemic right now. And I'm hoping that she will be on board to allocate some state money for Casa Milagro to use our model across the state.

Even in Santa Fe. Right now, there is nothing our state mental hospital is in the process of being regulated, they've never been regulated and that needs to happen.

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Why are homeless people in the street?

There is a street culture and we need to be respectful of that. There really are some homeless people who do not want to be on any kind of role anywhere with the government. And they really have adapted to living in the streets and getting their meals where they can.

We're very fortunate. There's a very strong interfaith community here. I mean the Muslims and the Christians and the Jews, everybody the Buddhists have all come together to try to make Santa Fe at least a sanctuary city and, and we're very welcoming in that way.

And so I think a lot of people come who don't have any resources because they know they're going to get a meal somewhere. They know they're going to be taken in at least temporarily, I think it's an easy place, even in the winter. It's an easy place to come.

Are you hopeful about the future of homeless people?

I'm hopeful that eventually more people are going to recognize that we're all part of the problem and all part of the solution.

Right now, there's the university of art and design down the road that has been sitting empty, I think, for close to a year. And there's some talk about the city selling it to some other corporation. They probably got to knock down all the buildings and put a shopping mall. Right now, it could house every homeless people in this town and it's sitting empty. So I have to fight with feeling powerless about that. You know, that there's still always the bureaucratic red tape and business as usual.

What can you suggest for those of us who have mental health issues or who have family members with mental health issues and do not know what to do?

Definitely to contact their local chapter of the National Alliance for mental illness. There's always family groups. Family to family it's called. They do training locally. That's the very first place. And just to contact your local community mental health center and find out how they're addressing these issues rather than just writing prescriptions. Ask what are there groups available? Are there life skills being taught? What kind of psychosocial rehab was going on besides to teach independence skills, not just to Medicaid, and tie them to a chair?

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What would you say to someone considering opening a Casa Milagro?

Give everything you have. Keep your heart open. You're probably going to encounter some of the 'not in my backyard.' We're out in the County and some of our neighbors were pretty not excited that we were coming. We had a barbecue when we first opened. They realized after meeting our residents and actually seeing humanity, that these were just people. One of them invited one of our young women residents to a babysit for their kid. Another one hired one for a dog walking assignment. They really had a bias that we were somehow going to be violent in the neighborhood. And, once they saw who we were, we were so accepted. And I think it's just all a matter of bearing witness really.

Listen to the full interview with Meryl Lieberman below