The blog article is a “deep dive” report into the City of Albuquerque’s Homeless numbers, what the city is doing now to help and the prospects for the new emergency shelter.
In the year 2000, the non profit New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness was formed. The coalition is a coalition of agencies that assist people who are homeless throughout the State of New Mexico. According to their web page, programs that are offered by the coalition include:
1. bi-monthly membership meetings,
2. workshops on best practices for assisting the homeless,
3. advocacy at the local state and federal levels for policies that will end homelessness,
4. technical assistance to agencies developing new programs or for improving existing programs, and
5. management of the New Mexico Homeless Management Information system.”
The coalition has an annual budget of around $750,000. Through its volunteer fundraising committees, it raises funds to distribute to direct service agencies that are providing exceptional housing and services to people who are homeless. The Coalition relies upon volunteers for the Advisory Board and its Veterans Helping Homeless Veterans Committee to help raise funding for projects that have the ultimate goal of ending homelessness.
A DESCRIPTION OF HOMELESSNESS IN NEW MEXICO
According to the New Mexico Coalition To End Homelessness, the cause of homelessness and the number of homelessness can be described as follows:
“Homelessness is caused by poverty and a lack of affordable housing. Homelessness has grown dramatically since the 1970’s due primarily to the steady decrease in public benefits for people living in poverty including welfare payments and public housing. In part because of the decrease in spending for public housing, there has been a steady decline in affordable housing. According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, between 1970 and 1995, the gap between the number of low-income renters and the amount of affordable housing units in the U.S. went from almost no gap to a shortage of 4.4 million affordable housing units.
People who experience homelessness in New Mexico include families with children, people who are working at low-wage jobs, people suffering from mental illness, those with substance abuse problems, migrant workers, runaway or throwaway teens, victims of domestic violence and veterans. In other words, people who experience homelessness are a diverse group of people with a variety of factors contributing to their homelessness.”
Based on the Coalition’s 2005 homeless count, there are at least 17,000 people who experience homelessness in New Mexico over the course of a year.”
HOMELESS “POINT IN TIME” COUNT
Each year the “Point in Time” (PIT) survey is conducted to determine how many people experience homelessness on a given night in Albuquerque, and to learn more about their specific needs. The PIT count is done in communities across the country. The PIT count is the official number of homeless reported by communities to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help understand the extent of homelessness at the city, state, regional and national levels. The PIT count represents the number of homeless people who are counted on one particular night. This year, the count in Albuquerque was made on January 28, 2019.
The City of Albuquerque contracted The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness to conduct the annual “Point in Time” (PIT). In even-numbered years, only homeless people who stay in shelters are counted. In odd-numbered years, a more comprehensive count is conducted counting people wherever they can be found including people sleeping in cars, in parks, beneath underpasses, commercial entry ways, alleys and anywhere they can be found.
According to city officials, The PIT count requires the use of the HUD definition of “homelessness”. PIT following the HUD definition of homelessness and counts only people who are sleeping in a shelter, in a transitional housing program, or outside in places not meant for human habitation. Those people who are not counted are those who do not want to participate in the survey, who are sleeping in motels that they pay for themselves, or who are doubled up with family or friends
ABQ’S HOMELESS COUNT CONTINUES TO RISE
According to the 2019 Point-In-Time count, there are 1,524 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people counted in Albuquerque . This is 206 more homeless than the 2017 PIT count that recorded 1,318 homeless people in the city limits. The 2017 survey found that there were 1,318 people reported experiencing homelessness on the night of the count, which then was an increase of 31 people over the 2015 PIT Count. The 2015 survey count found 1, 287 people reported experiencing homelessness on the night of the count.
For 2017, 379 people self-reported as chronically homeless, which was an increase of 119 people over the 2015 PIT Count. PIT counted 39 more people who self-reported as chronically homeless who were sheltered and 80 more people that self-report as chronically homeless who were unsheltered in 2017. The 2019 PIT report states that most people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Albuquerque were residents of Albuquerque before becoming homeless.
Lisa Huval, Deputy Director for Housing and Homelessness in the city’s Department of Family and Community Services expressed the opinion that there is no definitive answer for why the number of homeless has risen. Huval said it may be partly because the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness is getting better each year at locating and counting unsheltered homeless people.
According to Huval, people who keep track of the homeless population believe there are more homeless encampments than in previous years and she said it suggests “there’s an increasing number of folks who are sleeping outside” This in turn, may be a reflection of the opioid epidemic affecting communities across the country, including Albuquerque. Huval put the problem this way by saying:
“Often, substance abuse makes it difficult for people to access shelters, or makes them unwilling to access shelters, so they prefer to sleep outside … [Although the count shows an increase] we [also] know it’s an undercount, because it’s really hard to find people who are living outside, particularly if they don’t want to be found.”
For the full Albuquerque Journal report see:
ACTUAL NUMBER OF HOMELESS MUCH BIGGER
Government agencies and nonprofits report that the city’s homeless numbers are greater than the 1,524 found and the number of homeless in Albuquerque approaches 4,500 in any given year.
The nonprofit Rock At Noon Day offers meals and other services to the homeless. Noon Day Executive Director Danny Whatley reported that there are 4,000 to 4,500 homeless people in the Albuquerque area. What is alarming is that according to Whatley, the fastest-growing segments are senior citizens and millennials (ages 23 to 38 in 2019).
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is New Mexico’s largest school district, serving more than a fourth of the state’s students and nearly 84,000 students. APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta stated the number of homeless children enrolled in district schools, meaning kids from families that have no permanent address, has consistently ranged from 3,200 to 3,500. APS serves many students in need with nearly two-thirds qualifying for the federal school meals program. The APS school district serves 29,000 breakfast per school day and 41,000 lunches per school day.
The centralized citywide system known as the Coordinated Entry System that the city uses to track the homeless and fill supportive housing openings reports that approximately 5,000 households experienced homelessness last year.
CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE SERVICES TO THE HOMELESS
The Family and Community Services Department is a key player in the City’s effort to end homelessness. The Departments services include prevention, outreach, shelter and housing programs and supportive services.
The City of Albuquerque has at least 10 separate homeless service provider locations throughout the city. The entire general fund budget for the Department of Family and Community Services is approximately $41 million. The $41 million is not just exclusive funding for services to the homeless.
The service offered by the Family and Community Services Department are directly provided by the city or by contract with nonprofit providers. The services include social services, mental/behavioral health, homeless services, health care for the homeless, substance abuse treatment and prevention, multi-service centers, public housing, rent assistance, affordable housing development, and fair housing, just to mention a few.
The following homeless services are funded by the City of Albuquerque, HUD’s Continuum of Care grants, Emergency Shelter Grants, and other grants administered by the City of Albuquerque:
1. Emergency Shelters for short-term, immediate assistance for the homeless for men, women, families, emergency winter shelter and after-hours shelter. The city’s West Side Emergency Housing Center has up to 450 beds available. The shelter is now open year-round. The operating cost of the facility is $4.4 million a year.
2. Transitional Housing assistance designed to transition from homelessness to permanent housing.
3. Permanent Supportive Housing for homeless individuals dealing with chronic mental illness or substance abuse issues
4. Childcare services for homeless families
5. Employment Services and job placement for homeless persons
6. Eviction Prevention or rental assistance and case management to prevent eviction and homelessness
7. Health Care services for homeless individuals and families
8. Meal program providing for homeless individuals and families in need
9. Motel Vouchers or temporary vouchers for homeless individuals with immediate medical issues and families with children, where emergency shelters cannot accommodate them. The city spends $8 million a year to provide 775 vouchers for rental assistance and to move homeless people from the street into housing. In the 2019-2020 approved city budget, an additional $2 million was added to the fund which will allow another 125 to 150 people to get into housing.
10. The Albuquerque Heading Home program initiative which moves the most medically fragile and chronically homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing. Since its inception in 2011 to January, 2017, it has placed 650 people into housing that assists with housing and providing jobs.
PERMANENT EMERGENCY SHELTER
The city’s West Side Emergency Housing Center is the old west side jail that was closed for decades and then later converted for winter shelter for the homeless. One of the community jail pods has wooden cubicles constructed in order to give the homeless a little privacy. The westside facility is deteriorating needing major repairs and remodeling for use. The West Side Facility is not sustainable, it is 20 miles from downtown where the city transports by shuttle the homeless. It costs the city $4 million dollars a year to operate the West Side Emergency Shelter and upwards of $1 million of that is spent to transport people back and forth to the facility.
The building of a new and permanent emergency shelter has been planned now for a few years. The city hopes to break ground on a centralized 300-bed facility shelter in Albuquerque as early as 2021. The shelter would be opened 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to help families with children and single adults. Building a permanent shelter is a major goal to move people from the streets into permanent housing.
During the 2019 New Mexico Legislature, the city secured $1 million in capital outlay money to start the architectural design for the facility. Another $14 million for construction is needed. On the November 5, 2019 election ballot $14 million in general obligation bonds to build the emergency facility will be on the ballot for voter approval
GENERAL OBLIGATION BOND FUNDING
General obligation bonds provide funding for essential services such as police and fire protection, street maintenance and improvements, public parks and recreation projects, bus and public transit priorities, libraries and museums, social services to the homeless and and community facilities.
In February of this year, “2019 Decade Plan and General Obligation Bond Program” was released to the Albuquerque City Council. The released “2019 Decade Plan” lists over $800 million worth of taxpayer funded bond projects for the next 10 years but all the funding is not voted upon at once but voted upon in increments every two years. “General obligation” bonds are subject to voter approval every 2 years to fund various city capital projects. The next bond cycle up for voter approval is on November 5, 2019. $127 million in projects that are part of the Decade Plan will be on the November ballot for final voter approval.
The November 5, 2019 general obligation bond being request contains almost $50 million in community facilities that includes:
$14 million for the proposed emergency shelter for homeless facility.
$5 million going to affordable housing projects.
$2.8 million for Community, Health, Social Services Centers.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
It is far from certain that the $14 million to build the permanent emergency homeless shelter will be approved by voters. If it’s rejected by voters, much of the blame will rest squarely on the shoulders of elected officials because of their past actions which resulted in the loss of public trust.
The acute need for an emergency shelter has existed for at least 10 years. Notwithstanding, the city councils’ priorities did not recognize the need. On January 2, 2017 the Albuquerque City Council, including Pat Davis, Diane Gibson, Ike Benton, Ken Sanchez and Republicans Don Harris, Brad Winter, and Trudy Jones all voted to borrow over $63 million dollars over two years using revenue bonds to build pickle ball courts, baseball fields and the ART bus project down central by bypassing the voters. The $65 million dollars was borrowed with the Albuquerque City Councilors voting to use revenue bonds as the financing mechanism to pay for big capital projects they wanted. There’s no need for an election if seven of nine councilors agree to authorize the use of revenue bonds. You can read the full story here:
ART BUS PROJECT
The Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) Bus was a $130 million capital project to build a rapid bus line down the middle of 9 miles of central with bus stations and canopy stops in the middle of central. It was a project that was never put to a public vote, yet the City Council voted for the project and Mayor Tim Keller made the commitment to finish it. The ART Bus project has been a total disaster resulting the destruction of the character of Route 66 and having a negative impact and resulting in several businesses going out of business. Now the council and the mayor wants the public to vote for emergency shelter funding.
KELLER BREAKS NO TAX INCREASE WITHOUT PUBLIC VOTE
In 2017 on the campaign trail, Mayoral candidate Tim Keller said he would raise taxes as a last resort for public safety but only with voter approval. On March 8, 2018 the Albuquerque city council voted 8 to 1 to raise the city’s gross receipts tax rate by three-eighths of a percentage point with Democrats Isaac Benton, Cynthia Borrego, Pat Davis, Diane Gibson and Klarissa Peña and Republican Don Harris also supporting the measure. Councilor Brad Winter, a Republican, cast the dissenting vote. The tax generates upwards of $51 million a year. The main rational for the tax increase was that the city was facing a $40 million deficit, a deficit that never materialized. Within days after the City Council enacted the tax, Mayor Keller went back on his pledge “no tax increase without a public vote”. After the tax was enacted that took effect July 1, 2018, no money was budgeted for the building of the emergency shelter.
ORPHAN MONTH REVENUES DIVERTED TO OTHER PRIORITIES
During the 2019 budget cycle, it was revealed that the city would have a one time $34 million windfall as a result of the city changing its gross receipts tax collection. It was referred to as and an “orphan month”. It was an accounting policy shift that extended the window in which the city can recognize the revenue. The accounting reset resulted in an extra $34.3 million in one time revenue. According to the Keller Administration the accounting policy change was a “correction” of current practices and it aligns the city finances and accounting practices with state government financing and nearly all other governmental entities around the country. The $34.3 million was a “one-time, lifetime” boost in revenues that the city could not apply toward recurring costs.
The Keller Administration announced that $29 million of the $34.3 million would be applied to numerous one-time investments the Keller Administration felt were important. One-time investments include:
$6 million for public safety vehicles such as police cars for new police cadets.
$2.3 million for park security.
$2 million for the business recruitment and growth.
$2 million for housing vouchers and related programs.
None of the $34.3 million was dedicated to the homeless shelter with a decision made to ask for general obligation bonds of $14 million.
APS BONDS AND TAX FAILURE
On February 5, 2019, voters overwhelmingly rejected Albuquerque Public Schools’ (APS) two mill levy questions and a proposed bond that would have raised real property tax bills by 5%. All three questions on the ballot failed by wide margins. Had all three initiatives past, they would have generated $900 million for APS over the next 6 years to help execute its full capital master plan which included $190 million over 10 years to maintain APS current facilities. Many political pundits believe the APS bond and tax increase failed because the general public perception that APS and the elected School Board has mismanaged the school system and not enough is spent on the classroom.
Having a central homeless shelter run by the city is long overdue and there is a clear need for it. The number of homeless in Albuquerque continues to rise each year. It is likely that a permanent shelter will have a real impact on removing a good portion of the homeless from the streets and get them the help they desperately need.
Voters in November will in essence be asked to decide between building a homeless shelter and cleaning up the Albuquerque Rail Yards versus providing funding to maintain and repair APS public schools.
If the $14 million in bonds fails, or any of the bonds fail, you can attribute the loss to the cynicism voters have of government and elected officials and the lack of trust they have of them including the current city council and Mayor Tim Keller.