Albuquerque, you’ve made the top 10 list of places that I’ve visited that I could see myself living in. OK, I’m a sucker for a place that makes it possible to almost overdose on hot-air balloons. Dreamy weather. Friendly people. Clean, navigable streets.
Alas, one major concern taints your otherwise ideal community standing.
For the past seven years, I’ve racked up over 150,000 miles in my motorhome/office, chronicling the plight and promise of homeless kids and families under the banner of my nonprofit, HEAR US Inc.
Having run shelters in Illinois for 15 years, and being quite involved in helping homeless kids get an education, I figured it was time to see what homelessness was like in the rest of the country. I’ve hit all 48 contiguous states, filmed two well-received documentaries featuring homeless kids and women, and seen more of our great nation’s economic demise than any of our elected officials.
My biggest shock was discovering how many communities – small towns, mid-sized cities, resort communities and larger metro areas (like Albuquerque) – lack adequate resources to care for homeless families and youths.
For a metro area of around 1 million people, with a poverty rate hovering near 25 percent – despite the gallant efforts of human service professionals, volunteers and supporters – this city appears to have a significant gap meeting the needs of houseless parents with babies, toddlers, school kids and youths on their own.
The most vulnerable have the least assistance. The economy hasn’t helped, but even in more robust times, times would be hard.
Last year, Albuquerque Public Schools documented over 7,000 homeless students. The small staff charged with helping homeless students works miracles. They need to.
This year, that record will break. Remember, that’s just the elementary and high school kids, not parents, younger or older siblings.
Other than overcrowded Joy Junction and the handful of smaller – but invaluable – shelter programs, thousands of families and youths without homes have no safe place to stay.
Think of it from your family’s perspective: What if tragedy hit – domestic violence, natural disaster, major medical incident, job loss coupled with eviction, to name a few common misfortunes – and you lacked a safety net? Where would you and your kids go? How would you get back on your feet?
Many legislators I’ve spoken to in my travels, from mayors to members of Congress, seem unaware of the scope of homelessness in their communities. I don’t believe they are heartless. Homeless families and youths tend to be a less-visible issue. But they need to be aware and involved.
Saturday through Tuesday, hundreds of dedicated women and men will descend on this fine city for the 24th annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. It’s a lot of good energy, and many good ideas will be shared.
I’d encourage Mayor Richard Berry, U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich and other elected officials to sit down with a small group of us and explore possibilities for the most vulnerable here in Albuquerque.
For a city that pulled off the delightful Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, you have the track record for succeeding at challenging tasks. I’d love to return next year to find that significant steps have been taken to ease the suffering of homeless families and youths in your community. Who knows, I may stick around!