Outreach Worker’s Fire Sets Off Alarms

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The city’s most famous homeless youth advocate and onetime accused killer sits in Denny’s, although sitting doesn’t really describe the behavior of shelter operator Donna Rowe. She struggles to stay still enough to gulp down her favorite meal – a couple of poached eggs and wheat toast – at 3 in the afternoon.

Her arms spin, her head bobs, her fingers pierce the air, all in rhythm with the passion and profanity that pounds forth as she talks about her program, Youth in Transition (YIT), and how it manages to function despite it all.

All, as in fighting perennial efforts by neighbors and the city government to close her shelters; as in scrapping to stay afloat with meager funding and no grants; as in dealing with youth too dangerous, damaged and old for Albuquerque’s other programs; as in seeing her work wreck her health and third marriage; as in feeling torn over spending more time with street kids than with her own children.

That isn’t the worst of it.

On Thanksgiving night 2002, Rowe watched her shelter burn to the ground. Four months later, she was marched off to jail, accused of masterminding the arson as a ploy to draw sympathy and financial donations. Prosecutors also charged her with murder solicitation, saying she coerced one of her homeless minions to kill a fellow firebug who she feared had loose lips.
Though she was acquitted last September, her landlord closed her shelter in March. Today she runs her agency from a 1996 Dodge Caravan.

It’s a different world across town at A New Day Youth and Family Services, one of Albuquerque’s two licensed shelters for homeless youth. Sitting on 21û2 acres, far from the mean streets Rowe walks, the facility offers 16 beds, round-the-clock staffing, therapy, case management and educational enrichment.

The beds are new, as are the dressers in each room and the appliances in the kitchen, paid for by profits from New Day’s annual Valentine’s Day charity ball.

New Day took in $2.2 million in fiscal 2003, according to its tax records – more than 38 times the $56,729 in revenue reported that year by Rowe’s Youth in Transition (YIT).

In many ways, the differences between YIT and New Day reflect what’s been happening with the country’s youth shelters for decades. Rowe is a throwback: a former homeless kid who founded a shelter on passion, and who connects with street youth because she is so much like them – cursing, smoking, caring little for rules. She has written no grant applications. She doesn’t run structured programs or conduct formal evaluations.

She is the antithesis of where youth shelter services and funding have been going – toward agencies like New Day, where the rules include “no smoking” and where Vice President Jerry Otero refers to his six funding sources and says, “I’m up to my ears with reports I have to file to satisfy those sources.”

Rowe eschews most grants because she doesn’t want to follow funders’ requirements. “There are just people who follow the rules, even if it means someone doesn’t get the help he needs,” the 49-year-old says in a raspy voice raked over by years of nicotine and hard living. “Well, that ain’t how I work. That’s pure bull…t.”

The Runaway

It is easy to see how Rowe can make some adults uncomfortable. She is pale and bone-thin. Her body rattles with the early stages of emphysema. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

It shows in the way she furiously chews on her pen, squirms in her seat, picks at her skin. She’s been accused of being a methamphetamine addict because of her nervous ticks, and some have mistaken her for a homeless person because of her gritty appearance and gutter mouth.

“But it works really, really well,” she says. “No pretensions.”

She is the product of her experiences. Rowe grew up as a military brat, moving with her parents from place to place. It was exciting – until her childhood crumbled when her parents divorced. She was 11. Her mother remarried almost immediately, to a man Rowe says began molesting her.

“My mom said I was trying to break up her marriage. She wouldn’t listen,” she says. Her mother sent her to a psychiatrist, whom Rowe describes as a cold man who said she was an “attractive young woman, and crap happens.”

Rowe repeatedly ran away from home, but each time the authorities returned her. At 18, they stopped. “I hit the street,” she says. “I was officially homeless.”

Running provided no surcease from abuse. Rowe says she was raped at gunpoint at age 15, gang-raped a year later, and date-raped at 20, too high to fight back.

Two years later, she says, she swore off drugs. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She says she married three times and bore two children.

She never forgot the kids who are like she was, with no place to go and no one who listened. “I will never sit with a young person and not believe them,” she says. “Everything’s important to these kids, and I know how awful it feels to be alone.”
She founded YIT as a nonprofit in 1995, running it from an old school bus, searching the streets and adult shelters for kids she could help.

In August 1997, Rowe opened her first drop-in shelter, in a small dilapidated home in a neighborhood struggling to rid itself of doped-up stragglers and dealers. Some neighbors complained that Rowe’s shelter made things worse.

“There were kids crawling in and out of the windows night and day,” next-door neighbor Zoe Economou later recalled. “There were so many of them, dozens of them, crammed in there. There was loud music and parties all night long. There were kids sleeping in the yard, smoking their dope on the sidewalk. We didn’t have anything against the kids, but for one thing, it seemed to me that it wasn’t doing anyone any favors cramming 30 or so kids into this little bitty dump.”

Pressured by neighbors and by visits from law enforcement and county zoning agents, Rowe moved to an area of Albuquerque littered with run-down motels and fast-food joints. But the neighbors on Central Avenue complained, too, and the city’s nuisance abatement team hounded her.

She moved again. YIT’s shelters were always in low-rent buildings cluttered with mismatched furniture and donated televisions. The last location, which boasted 14 couches, had been a beauty shop.

The Professional

Otero has always been the big guy with the big heart from a big family, where his most difficult challenges were on a basketball court. “I’ve never been homeless or anything like that,” says the 55-year-old police officer’s son. “I’ve always just liked the kids.”
His work with teens began when he served as a coach and umpire in summer recreation programs. After earning a psychology degree from the University of Albuquerque, he became a youth care worker, then a counselor, at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center.

When New Day opened in 1975 to provide overnight shelter and support, Otero became director of the runaway program. “I had been seeing that the long-termers in the detention center were often homeless,” he says. “Nobody really cared about them, and nobody wanted to just cut them loose, so their cases would be continued 80, 90, 100 days, before finding out where they could go.”

New Day became that place. It provides shelter for up to 90 days, stabilizing youth and ensuring that they move on to a safe place – generally home, foster home or treatment center. The clients are predominantly adjudicated youth, ages 12 to 17, who are on probation or parole and have no other safe place to go, Otero says. Others are homeless or unwilling to return home.
“Our kids are different than the ones Rowe deals with, because there is some adult attached,” Otero says. “They are not the kind of runaways she has.”

Since opening its doors, Otero says, New Day has provided shelter and services to more than 22,000 youths.
Most of its funding and many of its clients come from the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which oversees New Mexico’s juvenile justice and foster care systems. The U.S. Administration for Children and Families reports that New Day has a Basic Center grant of $88,000 a year.

“It’s a business that requires passion and professionalism,” Otero says.

Rowe, he says, has the passion. “There’s a place for her,” he says. “But there’s a need for structured programs that hold kids accountable. That’s not what she does. Not like us, anyway.”

“Our program requires the kids to meet certain criteria,” he says. “We don’t let them smoke. They can’t do illegal drugs. They have to go to school.”

New Day is a member of the New Mexico Youth Providers Alliance, which includes New Mexico’s seven licensed shelters for youths ages 12 to 17. Rowe’s organization is not a member.


Rowe’s clients seem to love her. “In my eyes, she’s a beautiful person,” says James Vaughn, a former YIT client who testified at Rowe’s trial. Vaughn says he was a homeless 18-year-old with bipolar disorder when Rowe found him staying at a shelter for men.

“She came to me, asked me how old I was and says come with her,” he says. “I stayed for two years.”
They call themselves YIT kids, but many of the clients are hardly kids. Eighty percent are ages 18 to 24, Rowe says. “There’s no other program that takes in the age group I do,” she says.

Others say there is no program. “I never saw a program,” the city’s deputy police chief, Ed Sauer, testified during Rowe’s trial last year. Sauer, then commander of the area in which Rowe’s ill-fated shelter was located, says neighbors frequently complained to police about the number of people loitering outside Rowe’s building.

“It was a place for these kids to hang out,” Sauer testified. “There was no structure. Kids were not getting the help they needed, and it was making their lives worse.”

Rowe bristles at criticisms that her shelters have had no structure or rules. “I do hold my kids accountable,” she says. “We do have rules. The kids know they can’t do drugs here. They don’t stay overnight. They take their fights elsewhere.”

She sees no problem with kids hanging out at her shelters. “They need someplace to feel safe,” she says. “These aren’t overnight shelters, but that doesn’t mean kids didn’t sleep there during the day. Sometimes that’s all the sleep they got. It was a place to shower, to eat, to get some clothes, sit around and talk, watch TV. It was like a home.”
It became clear during the trial that youths sometimes did stay all night.

YIT handles 600 clients a year, according to its 2003 federal tax returns. About half of those received treatment plans, Rowe says. She says the plans primarily involve devising ways to acquire jobs, birth certificates, Social Security cards, Medicaid, food stamps and housing.

Rowe is the only paid YIT employee, listing a salary of $22,915 on her 2003 tax returns. She serves as outreach coordinator, caseworker, financial adviser, executive director, janitor and fund-raiser.

She spends hours driving clients to appointments, scrounging for donations, arguing with police about their interactions with homeless young people, and brokering deals for day-old bagels and boxes of ramen noodles. And listening.

“It’s unqualified love she gives them,” says George Chandler, a lawyer, retired physicist and president of YIT’s board of directors. “It’s a spontaneous thing, and sometimes it’s an unorthodox thing. It helps her to get through the defenses these children have. They return that love. They’re grateful for that love, because they haven’t had much of that in their lives.”
The kids call her Mama Donna. But “she would do stuff a parent wouldn’t,” Isela Roeder, a senior program manager at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Addictions, testified during Rowe’s trial.

Roeder says Rowe worked briefly for the agency’s youth program. “She got very upset with the way we ran things, the rules, the behaviors we were required to report,” Roeder testified. “She started telling the kids that we were using them as guinea pigs.
“She was let go after that.”


After the fire and Rowe’s acquittal, the donations all but stopped. “People still thought I was guilty,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Oh, isn’t she the one who burned down her shelter?’ And the checkbooks would go away.”

Otero believes the fire is not to blame. “She wants people to give her money, but people want to see where that money goes,” he says.

For a while after the fire, Rowe ran YIT from another location – its fifth. It survived on severely curtailed hours and a shoestring budget, much of it from one benefactor, who anonymously funnels $2,500 to the shelter each month.

One weekend in March, while Rowe was hospitalized for a collapsed lung, several YIT clients broke into the shelter and trashed it, according to police. The nuisance abatement team came to look the place over, which was enough to convince Rowe’s landlord that YIT had to go.

Rowe went mobile again. Before her agency bought the Dodge Caravan in May, Rowe drove her own 1998 Chevy Cavalier, tracking down her clients across the city and crashing on friends’ couches. On a legal pad, she scribbles notes about what each client needs: a visit to the medical clinic, a pair of socks, a Medicaid card.

“We started without a building,” she says. “We’ll do it again.”

Rowe is about to try a few more bites of her cold poached eggs when her cell phone rings.

“I was hoping it was you,” she practically shouts into the phone, a beat-up thing with its antennae taped on. “I’m coming to get you, sweetie.” The caller is a male youth whom Rowe has offered to help sign up for food stamps. He is staying on a couch in a friend’s apartment.

It’s unclear how long Rowe can keep helping. YIT’s anonymous donor has sent word that the money will stop in February. Rowe says she’ll look into other funding, even do some grant-writing. But she does not want grants that come with strings that would require her to alter the way she does business.

She is not willing to imagine a day when YIT closes for good. “YIT saves lives,” she says.

Joline Gutierrez Krueger can be reached at jglenn@abqtrib.com.

Donna Rowe
Youth in Transition
Albuquerque, N.M.
(505) 265-7690
Jerry Otero, Vice President
A New Day Youth and
Family Services
Albuquerque, N.M.
(505) 260-9912