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Best practices can mitigate homelessness

Homelessness in Bernalillo County is a complicated, serious and intractable issue.

Improving how we address homelessness will require collaboration by community and government partners, embracing best practices and service-delivery models that have proven to work at reasonable scale, and a commitment to closing critical gaps in how we serve people experiencing homelessness.

At the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, our extensive engagement in this issue leads us to believe our community faces two predominant problems in how we address homelessness.

First, we have very limited around-the-clock sheltering services. Numerous organizations provide services to people experiencing homelessness, but day-and-night sheltering is severely lacking. Consequently, people experiencing homelessness have little other option than to wander through our streets during the day and sleep wherever they can.

This is a real problem for many residents and businesses in Bernalillo County – particularly in Downtown Albuquerque. People feel less safe, contributing to our Downtown core being less welcoming to visitors, and can increase business costs and hamper economic development.

This problem is not made up, and it is not overstated.

In fact, a recent scientific survey commissioned by the Chamber found residents would like to see new, game-changing investments in our Downtown, but crime and homelessness need to be mitigated first.

Our second major problem is that law enforcement officers are dispatched by the public to address disturbances involving homeless people, but they have no place to take these individuals – many of whom struggle with addiction and mental health challenges – other than to the local jail or an emergency room for treatment, often detoxification. This simply delays their return to the streets for a few hours. This is costly for taxpayers, an unhelpful strategy for police officers and not in the best long-term interest of people experiencing homelessness.

These problems are not unique to our city or county, but other cities have made great progress. The Chamber has conducted best-practice visits to some of these communities, including Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Last month, the Chamber hosted – alongside Mayor Tim Keller and Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins – a nearly 30-person delegation to San Antonio for a fact-finding trip to a successful homeless center called Haven for Hope. The delegation included government, social services and law enforcement leaders from both the city and county, in addition to leaders from Albuquerque businesses and the UNM Health Sciences Center. It was an impressive group that embodied collaboration in action.

There are a few key features of the model that are compelling.

• First, the center provides a 24/7 shelter called “The Courtyard” that houses 700 homeless individuals each day. It is a clean, safe and supportive place for people experiencing homelessness.

• Second, nearly 70 partner organizations have a physical presence at Haven for Hope to bring coordinated care to the homeless.

• Third, Haven for Hope built a behavioral health facility – called the Restoration Center – across the street from its shelter to help individuals in need of detoxification and mental health crisis intervention.

The results in San Antonio speak for themselves.

The city’s downtown homeless population decreased by 66 percent within two years of Haven for Hope opening.

In addition, there were 3,300 fewer jail bookings one year after Haven for Hope opened, and the city saved over $96 million in jail, emergency room and court costs with a single location for homeless people to be taken to receive help.

This kind of convincing success cannot be ignored.

To be clear, the Chamber does not believe Albuquerque should simply mimic what San Antonio or any other community has done. We also know that no strategy is perfect. We are a unique place, and we deserve an approach that is both feasible and meets our unique needs.

However, there are lessons that can be applied as the city, county and their numerous partners – including the business community – work on an Albuquerque solution. Coupled with a long-term focus on expanding affordable and permanent supportive housing options, the importance of around-the-clock sheltering, the co-location of homeless service providers to improve coordination of care, and the integration of behavioral health treatment cannot be overemphasized.

We have a moral obligation to improve our care for people experiencing homelessness and an opportunity to dramatically improve our city’s prospects for growth and development. It’s time to move forward together.

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