Like so many others in this community, all of us at the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness were horrified and saddened to learn that two homeless men were brutally killed in Albuquerque recently.
Our member organizations, which provide services and housing to people experiencing homelessness, hear stories every day about the violence that homeless people face. People living without homes are highly vulnerable and are often the victims of violence.
Sometimes, this vulnerability is because they simply do not have a safe, private place to live or sleep, and are vulnerable to rape, theft, muggings and fights.
Other times, it is because they are specifically targeted for being homeless. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that, in 2013, there were 109 reported hate crimes committed against people experiencing homelessness. This is the tip of the iceberg, since most such crimes go unreported.
This tragic, horrendous event forces us all to ask: What could we have done to prevent this? What could we do to prevent this in the future? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Provide safe, affordable housing, and the supports and services that people need to keep that housing.
And while we are developing this housing, we could also add additional protections for those who are currently homeless by making violence against homeless people punishable as a hate crime.
Here in Albuquerque, and across the state and the country, permanent supportive housing has proven to be a dignified, powerful and cost-effective strategy for helping people exit homelessness permanently. This is true even for people who have been homeless for many years, who have a serious mental illness or who are struggling with substance use.
In Albuquerque, we have several permanent supportive housing programs funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that serve homeless people with disabilities, including mental illness and substance abuse. Many of those housed through these programs had been homeless for a long time.
From May 1, 2013, to April 30, 2014, these programs had a 91 percent housing success rate, meaning 91 percent of clients were still in the program or had exited to another form of permanent housing.
The solution is straightforward, but building the community and the political will necessary to create an adequate supply of housing and services is a more complicated task.
Part of building that will is overcoming the mistaken belief among policymakers and the general public that many people “choose” to be homeless and that housing is a privilege to be earned. We believe that everyone has a right to safe housing regardless of their situation in life.
Furthermore, many studies have now shown that providing housing and social services to homeless people is no more costly to society than allowing people to live outside. This is because those living outside are heavy users of hospital emergency rooms and other costly emergency services.
In the short term, we call on the state Legislature and governor to enact a law that includes homeless people as a class of people protected by the New Mexico Hate Crimes Statute.
Doing so would add enhanced penalties to criminals that target people simply because they are homeless, as was clearly the case in the recent killings. This action would also be a powerful affirmation from the government that the lives and well-being of people who are homeless are important and deserve protection.
People need extra protection while they are homeless and more supportive housing options to help them exit homelessness more quickly. Our hope is that this terrible, tragic event will propel our community toward creating more permanent supportive housing and enacting the needed protections to prevent future tragedies.