The upcoming November 5, 2019 election will be the first consolidated elections for the City of Albuquerque. The ballot is lengthy and will include 4 City Council races, $127 million in city general obligation (GO) improvement bonds, continuation of a city road tax, the Albuquerque Public School Board, a continuation of a tax levy for APS school maintenance, and the CNM governing board.
The most controversial bonds on the November 5 ballot are the $14 million designated for a centralized, 24-hour, 7 day a week homeless shelter. The $14 million in funding is buried in Bond Question 2 for $21.7 million with the language saying it’s for “senior, family, community center, homeless and community enhancement bonds”.
ELECTION RESULT UPDATE: On November 5, City voters approved the $14 million for the homeless shelter project as part of a $128.5 million general obligation bond package. You can read election coverage here:
This blog article is a deep dive into the ongoing controversy and the need for a centralized city sponsored homeless shelter.
IDENTIFYING CITY’S HOMELESS POPULATION
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.
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.”
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 Keller Administration estimates that 5,000 households will experience homelessness over the course of a given year in Albuquerque.
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’S WEST SIDE EMERGENCY HOUSING CENTER
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 city does not consider the West Side Facility sustainable in the long term. The Emergency Housing Center 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.
In the past six months, the city has added to the Westside Emergency Housing Center medical and behavioral health care, and career services for the men, women and children who stay on site. In recent weeks, the center opened a computer lab with about 15 computers that previously were at the Cesar Chavez Community Center.
On October 22, Mayor Tim Keller announced that the west side emergency housing center has been expanded to provide a coordinated approach to homelessness. The homeless can now use the facility to get medical care, treatment for addiction and behavioral health, job placement and case management services. According to a news release, the west side shelter now has the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, Presbyterian Hospital and ABQ Health Care for the Homeless providing medical services two days a week. It also has case management services being provided by Centro Savila, funded by Bernalillo County. Job placement opportunities are being provided by Workforce Connections.
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 within the city limits of 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.
24 HOUR, 7 DAY A WEEK HOMELESS SHELTER PROPOSAL
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has deemed that a 24-hour, 7 day a week facility to temporarily shelter the homeless within the city as critical toward reducing the number of homeless in the city. The city owned shelter would assist an estimated 300 homeless residents and connect them to other services intended to help secure permanent housing. The new facility would serve all populations, men, women, and families, and offer what Keller calls a “clearing house” function.
The city facility would have on-site case managers that would guide residents toward addiction treatment, housing vouchers and other available resources. According city officials, the new homeless shelter will replace the existing West Side Emergency Housing Center, the former jail on the far West Side. The former jail is so remote that the city must bus homeless to the facility and back at a cost of $1 million annually.
According to Mayor Keller, the new homeless shelter will provide first responders an alternative destination for the people they encounter on so-called “down-and-out” calls. Many “down and outs” today wind up in the emergency room even when they are not seriously injured or ill. According to city officials, only 110 of the 6,952 “down and out” people were taken by first responders to the Emergency Room in a recent one-year period had life-threatening conditions.
MAJOR BENEFITS OF CITY CENTRALIZED SHELTER
Mayor Keller and supporters of the city shelter outline 3 major benefits of the shelter:
1.Currently, the only option polices officers and firefighters have is to take the homeless to an emergency room or to arrest them on minor crimes in order to book them into the jail. on a minor crime. The hidden cost of an arrest includes the time first responders must devote to report writing and transporting to the west side facility. The city shelter center will provide an option and a place for police officers and Albuquerque Fire and Rescue responders to take the homeless individuals with whom interact.
2. The city shelter center will offer the necessary types of support and services the homeless individuals or families need. Substance abuse and mental health treatment or referrals will also be provided at the city operated shelter.
3. The city shelter will be able to provide safe, overnight sheltering for the homeless rather than relegating the homeless to use public parks, back alleys, or entry ways for overnight sleeping.
BIGGER SHELTERS DO NOT MEAN BETTER
Critics of the centralized shelter plan want Mayor Keller and the city to abandon the large centralized shelter model in favor of a dispersed shelter system and focus on smaller facilities that better blend into neighborhoods. According to many providers, smaller shelters promotes a higher level of comfort for both the homeless residents and the surrounding neighborhoods. Smaller shelters help deliver the services more directly to those in need.
Heading Home’s Albuquerque Opportunity Center is cited as an example. Albuquerque Opportunity Center has 101 men’s-only beds, 30 specifically dedicated to those who need “respite” care after leaving the hospital and the rest for emergency shelter.
Danny Whatley, the director of The Rock at Noonday day shelter had this to say about Mayor Keller’s proposed city shelter:
“I’m just not convinced that large shelter will attract those who are most vulnerable.”
Heading Home CEO Dennis Plummer said he supports relocating the city shelter away from the West Side but questions the wisdom of creating one large replacement facility by saying:
“We just know from best practices that serving sub-populations [in different locations] .. leads to better outcomes and it has less impact on neighborhoods.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, say they have not seen research that shows smaller shelters are more effective. Steve Berg the Vice President for Programs and Policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness said this about smaller shelters:
“… There’s just nothing we’ve been able to find that shows any evidence that one size is better than the other in terms of what works for the people … [however] there can be issues about siting a shelter.”
Lisa Huval, the Deputy Director for Housing and Homelessness with the city’s Family & Community Services Department said that trying to locate, design, fund and build a series of smaller shelters could take a decade. Huval says that the current crisis demands the city move quickly. According to Huval the city has a network of smaller, more specialized shelters that the city provides funding. The problem is that there is no shelter that does not restrict access based on gender, religion, sobriety or any other factor and that will take anyone at any time.
OPPOSITION BY DOWNTOWN BUSINESS OWNERS
NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” relating to proposed projects opposed by homeowners, property owners or business owners.
The location of a centralized shelter is a major concern to the downtown business community and downtown neighbor hoods. Many believe that there is too big of a concentration of providers in the downtown area such as the Brothers of the Good Shepard and the Albuquerque Rescue Mission that are literally adjacent to each other.
The Greater Albuquerque Business Alliance (GABA) , a coalition of 57 downtown business owners upset with the number of homeless in the down town, was formed to advocate and raise funding for a remote homeless campus. GABA is proposing a 20-acre complex on the far west side, beyond city limits, to provide feeding, housing, health care, treatment for mental illnesses and drug and alcohol addictions, social services, medical care and job training, and job placement to Albuquerque’s homeless. The project is being called “Homeless Vision 2018”. The ultimate goal of GABA is to create a single large “campus” or a complex for the homeless thereby eliminating the need for homeless providers concentrated in the downtown area or scattered throughout the city next to businesses or residential areas.
Connie Vigil, the President of GABA, is quoted as saying:
“The homeless [in Albuquerque] have not been seriously cared for the way they need to be. … There is homelessness and mental illness everywhere you look and crime is skyrocketing. The Downtown and surrounding areas are being seriously hurt. We need a real solution.”
According to Vigil, there are too many unknowns about the city’s current centralized proposal, notably where it will go, and feels a stronger analysis is necessary by saying:
“Just like [Albuquerque Rapid Transit] , they said they worked on it for six years and here’s what we have to show for it [a busline with no buses down Central Avenue.]
GABA is essentially proposing what the West Side Emergency Housing Center is evolving into with the recent services provided by the city.
DOWNTOWN NEIGHBORHOOD OPPOSITION
Martinez town resident Christina Chavez-Apodaca, who also serves on the mayor’s homelessness task force, said she worries about the “economic devastation it’s going to do to the surrounding neighborhoods” if the city builds one large facility in the in the downtown area or adjacent to it and the neighborhoods.
According to Chavez-Apodaca, her community is mostly low-income and lacks adequate street lighting and amenities. Area parks have already attracted a large transient population, scaring away many neighbors. There is fear the city could ultimately select a site in her area, potentially creating additional challenges. While she expressed empathy for those who are homeless, she does not agree a single large shelter is the best solution for the community as a whole.
At a recent District 2 City Council debate held in the Saw Mill Area, the topic of locating the homeless shelter in the Saw Mill area drew sharp and strong opposition. City hall insiders are reporting that land south of Lomas and east of downtown the possible shelter location. There are large swaths of vacant land owned by University of New Mexico which could partner with the city and University Hospital. The biggest problem is will neighbor hoods and other property owners oppose the use of the land being used as a homeless shelter.
The city does not plan to work on identifying a location until after voters approve the funding. Mayor Keller has said the selection will be a public process and said the city can take steps to limit the visibility and neighborhood impact, such as special landscaping and fencing, while at the same time ensuring safety and security for those inside.
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.
Charitable organizations such as Joy Junction, St. Martins HopeWorks project, Steelbridge, The Rock at Noon Day, Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, The Brothers of the Good Shepard and the Albuquerque Rescue Mission provide services and meals to the homeless. Many business organization and neighborhoods believe that there is too big of a concentration of the providers in the downtown area and that the city’s plans to build yet another will only exasperate the problems, create even more and attract more homeless to locate in Albuquerque.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The single most controversial bonds on the upcoming November 5 ballot are the $14 million designated for a centralized, 24-hour, 7 day a week homeless shelter. It is controversial not because it’s needed but because established businesses, neighborhoods and many charitable homeless providers object to the location or the need for a centralized facility somewhere within the city. Opposition arguments range from negative impacts on well-settled business areas, residential areas, increases in crime, reducing neighborhood safety to cost justification. It’s the classic case of “not in my back yard” (NIMBY).
The city will not identify a location until after voters approve the funding , no doubt for fear that the bonds may fail. It is very disappointing, but typical, that the city was not upfront on the locations being considered so that a more informed decision could have been made by the voting public.
The only way the city is going to be able to reduce the number of homeless in the city is to reach a viable consensus and implement an aggressive plan on how to reduce the number of homeless. This will mandate the city to work with virtually all the charitable providers and a “pooling of resources”.
Voluntary relocation of some of the charitable providers should be on the table for such discussion as part of consensus building with the city, the neighborhoods and the charitable providers. Design and construction remodeling assistance, regulations, and zoning changes, code enforcement need also to be considered as a means to implement a policy to reduce impacts of the providers to the neighborhoods.
THE CHALLENGE TO ALL
Albuquerque has between 1,500 and 2,000 chronic homeless, with approximately 80% suffering from mental illness. The city does provide extensive services to the homeless that include social services, mental or behavioral health care services, substance abuse treatment and prevention, winter shelter housing, rent assistance and affordable housing development, just to mention a few. But more needs to be done by the city to reduce the ever-increasing numbers.
However, too many presume that the homeless want our help which is part of the problem. Charitable organizations such as Joy Junction, St. Martins HopeWorks project, Steelbridge, The Rock at Noon Day, Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, The Brothers of the Good Shepard and the Albuquerque Rescue Mission provide very critical services to the homeless. They do so by being where the homeless can be found and where the homeless can reach out and have easy access to services if only if they want it.
Joy Junction, St. Martins before the HopeWorks project, Steelbridge, The Rock at Noon Day, Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, The Brothers of the Good Shepard and the Albuquerque Rescue Mission have been around for decades. More likely than not the organizations own the buildings and facilities they are housed in and comply with zoning laws to operate the facilities where they are located. There is no real incentive for the charitable providers to move elsewhere and to locations that would reduce their impact on the area or adjoining neighborhoods. It would be a major mistake for the city to try to close them down for any number of reasons including civil rights violations, unconstitutional taking of property and the resulting void in services to the homeless that would result just to mention a few.
The greatness of a city is reflected by the commitment it makes to help its homeless who suffer from mental illness. All too often, we tend to forget our humanity, our political philosophy and our religious faith and beliefs of hope and charity, and condemn the homeless for what we think they represent or who we think they are.
We condemn the homeless whenever they interfere with our lives at whatever level – such as pandering for money, begging for food, acting emotionally unstable, sleeping in doorways and defecating in public, and, yes, when we stand downwind from them and smell what living on the streets results in personal hygiene. The sight of homeless camps, homeless squatters in parks and living under bridges usually generates disgust and condemnation.
People condemn the families of the mentally ill for not making sure their loved one has been institutionalized or is taking their medications. All too often, the families of the homeless mentally ill are totally incapable of caring for or dealing with their loved one’s conduct. . Calling law enforcement in Albuquerque to deal with the mentally ill has a history of ending tragically, as was the case with mentally ill homeless camper James Boyd who was shot and killed by the Albuquerque Police Department SWAT in the Sandia foothills.
We easily forget the homeless are human beings who usually have lost all hope, all respect for themselves and are imprisoned for life in their own minds, condemned to fight their demons every hour, minute and second of their life until the very day they die. One thing that must never be forgotten is the homeless have human rights to live as they choose, not as anyone says they should live. The homeless cannot be forced to do anything against their free will or change their life unless they want to do it themselves. The homeless should not and cannot be arrested and housed like criminals or animals in cages.
Many homeless do not want to be reintroduced into society. Many have committed no crimes and they want to simply be left alone. The homeless who suffer from mental illness cannot be forced or required to do anything for their own benefit without due process of law. Too often, the homeless are the victims of crimes, even being bludgeoned to death for fun as Albuquerque saw a few years ago when three teenagers killed two Native Americans sleeping in a vacant lot on a discarded mattress.
Albuquerque voters will be deciding between greatness or benign neglect of the homeless and treatment of the mentally ill. These philosophies are fiercely raging in Albuquerque when it comes to mental health services and housing for the homeless in a centralized location.
We as a city have a moral obligation to make every effort to offer and make available to the homeless services they desperately need, especially to the mentally ill who need it the most. Funding of a permanent city facility is the first major step, but not as a means to compete with the charitable providers but to cooperate with them and encourage them to work with the city and affected businesses and neighborhoods.
Vote YES on Bond Question 2 for the $21.7 million with the language saying it’s for “senior, family, community center, homeless and community enhancement bonds”.