Business alliance proposes solution to city’s growing homeless problem

Members of the Greater Albuquerque Business Alliance hold a news conference to announce their proposal for a large, single-site homeless campus. From left are members Sylvia Ortiz Spence, Gerald E. Bischoff, and President Connie Vigil. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Greater Albuquerque Business Alliance, a newly formed coalition of business owners, believes it has the solution to Albuquerque’s growing problem of homelessness.

The alliance, which thus far consists of 30 businesses in north Downtown neighborhoods where homeless service providers are located, says a single large campus that has on-site housing and social services is the answer.

The initiative, called Homeless Vision 2018, envisions a campus of about 20 acres located in a remote area — for example, on the far West Side near where the Metropolitan Detention Center is currently located.

“The homeless have not been seriously cared for the way they need to be,” said business alliance president Connie Vigil during a Wednesday news conference to announce the creation of the organization and its proposal.

“There is homelessness and mental illness everywhere you look and crime is skyrocketing,” Vigil said. “The Downtown and surrounding areas are being seriously hurt. We need a real solution.”

The proposed campus, Vigil said, would have different services spread out around the property. “There could be one section of the campus for youth, another for treating drug addictions, another for people who need help with jobs,” she said.

She acknowledged that nobody from the city or county has formally endorsed the project, which is still in the formative stages.

Gerald E. Bischoff, an attorney whose offices at Fourth and Interstate 40 are next to Coronado Park — now almost exclusively used by homeless people — said the current services in the north Downtown area are inadequate.

He also said a proposal by HopeWorks, formerly St. Martin’s, to build a 42-unit permanent housing site on its campus as part of a multi-phase redesign, is a “Band-Aid” approach. It doesn’t come close to addressing the housing needs for the estimated 1,400 to 2,000 homeless surviving in the neighborhoods just surrounding Downtown — and in fact may exacerbate the homeless problem.

“We’re asking the city to take another look at this and slow down the process until it can be further analyzed along with the proposal we have,” Bischoff said.

HopeWorks and the other service providers in the area, including Steelbridge, The Rock at Noon Day and Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, “would certainly be invited to enter into leases in this new facility” envisioned by the business alliance. And hopefully, he said, the city will buy into the concept, too, and help figure out the logistics of site location and funding.

Sylvia Ortiz Spence, who operates Silverado Apparel and Home at 1318 Fourth NW, said businesses in the neighborhoods where the homeless service providers are located are negatively affected as their customers try to avoid those areas.

Further, she said, there is precedent for the large campus, single-site approach the business alliance is proposing. It is modeled after similar campuses in San Antonio, Texas, and other cities.

“What we want to create is one centralized facility in a safe place, somewhere that all the services can be located, including housing, health care, treatment for mental illnesses, drug and alcohol addictions, and finally job training, so we can get these people introduced back into society, Spence said.

Mayor Tim Keller and members of his administration recently toured the 22-acre San Antonio campus, Haven for Hope, along with representatives of the county and the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

Following that trip he praised the “one-stop shop comprehensiveness” of the campus, but said he wasn’t convinced it would work in Albuquerque. For one thing, he told the Journal, the campus cost $101 million to build and has an operating budget of nearly $20 million, making it cost prohibitive.

Members of the alliance said they recently looked at sites on the West Side, near MDC.

“There’s a lot of open space out there” that could be used for the creation of a large homeless campus, complete with housing, meals, and wrap-around social services, Bischoff said.

Ideally, the city or county could contribute the land, and the business alliance would spearhead an initiative to find donors, Vigil suggested.

“There are agencies here in Albuquerque that don’t totally depend on government funding, and we’d like to approach it from that standpoint,” she said, pointing out that large organizations like Sandia National Laboratories, Intel and Kirtland Air Force Base, might be inclined to provide funding, along with smaller businesses and individual donors.

“Our goal is to present this to the city as a non-taxpayer based entity” Vigil said.

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