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Service providers struggle to coexist with their neighbors

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Service providers clustered north of Downtown and the city councilor who represents the area say they are aware of and try to deal with the myriad problems and collateral damage experienced by the residents who live where the homeless congregate.

District 2 City Councilor Isaac Benton, whose district covers much of the areas where homeless service providers are located, says he is in regular contact with residents, businesses and neighborhood associations affected by the homeless.

While he does not do “giant town hall meetings,” he says, “I go to their annual meetings and speak on these topics, and have regular discussions with the leadership of the neighborhood organizations.”

Further, he says, “I make it a point to meet with any resident who calls my office and wants to speak with me.”

One question that Benton regularly fields, he says, is why did the city allow these organizations to set up shop in their neighborhoods?

“The city didn’t place these services; rather it was independent, nonprofit organizations who placed their facilities based on existing zoning,” he explains. “There was no city decision as to their location. If properties are zoned for this sort of thing, the city can’t stop them.”

The advantage to having homeless services located relatively close together, he says, is that the people they serve mostly do not have vehicles and must either walk or take public transportation to get there.

“The downside, of course, is the impact that has on the neighborhoods,” he says.

And while the city may not have anything to do with locating the organizations there, it does have relationships and contracts with several of them.

For example, the West Side overnight emergency winter shelter, which has pickup and drop-off locations in these neighborhoods, was previously operated by Steelbridge and is now run by Albuquerque Heading Home.

The city-funded There’s a Better Way program, which provides daily work for panhandlers, contracts with HopeWorks.

A new city-funded free shuttle van service for people who live on the streets and others in need of services in the Downtown and surrounding area, is operated by the New Mexico Veterans Integration Centers.

In fact, the city’s Department of Family and Community Services has about 70 contracts with different nonprofits to provide services for the homeless, including housing, case management, mental and behavioral health treatment, children’s day care, motel vouchers, and emergency shelters for men and women.

Consequently, Benton says, “the city is not totally without responsibility for what goes on,” and does get to make its positions known, as it did in the recent debate about HopeWorks plans for constructing a 42-unit supportive housing building on its campus.

“Despite all the acrimony, there is a real commitment by this administration and the city’s Family and Community Services Department to take a harder look at these contracts as they come up for renewal,” Benton said. “My impression in the past was that Family and Community Services renewed these contracts without any discussion about how effective they were, how they might be improved and the outcomes. That’s something that should be asked at the end of any contract, and I think the city historically has not done a good job on that. I’m hopeful they will be doing a lot of that, and they have had a lot of those discussions around the HopeWorks project.”

Another comment Benton frequently hears is that by providing services to the homeless, these well-meaning organizations are “enabling” people to continue being homeless.

But that, he suggests, “is as absurd as saying, ‘Don’t provide Naloxone to people who have overdosed because in the process of saving their lives you’re just enabling them to keep using drugs.’ ”

Conflicting visions

The Wells Park neighborhood, which has seen a large presence of homeless for years, is not without compassion, says Doreen McKnight, president of the Wells Park Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood is home to HopeWorks, Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless and Coronado Park.

Marit Tully, left, president of the Near North Valley Neighborhood Association and Doreen McKnight, president of the Wells Park Neighborhood Association. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“If you ask pretty much anybody in the neighborhood, they’re not anti-homeless,” she says. “The residents are more upset with the homeless service providers, because once the homeless receive the services and leave the provider’s property, the service providers think they are absolved of any responsibility for anything that happens. They have never taken any responsibility.”

Service operators sympathize with those living and working in the neighborhood, but say they do try to mitigate problems.

Jennie Metzler

Jennie Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, says she sits down with neighbors and the neighborhood associations at least once a month to discuss issues concerning the homeless.

“There absolutely is an impact on the neighborhood because of people who have no choice but to live in public spaces,” she says, adding that AHCH responds to neighbor concerns and complaints.

For instance, AHCH has teams that go out in response to calls to collect syringes and other drug paraphernalia from residential and business properties.

In addition, the agency has social workers, case managers, behavioral health teams, medical providers and other health care professionals to work with the homeless population.

The organization also communicates with the Albuquerque Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team to request immediate responses in situations that may be dangerous to a homeless person, an area resident or both.

Ideas for the future

Like McKnight, Marit Tully, president of the Near North Valley Neighborhood Association, insists that neighbors have great compassion for the plight of the homeless.

“Nobody that I’ve been talking to from the neighborhood is saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ ” Tully says. “Rather, what they are saying is let’s respect the service providers and let’s address the impacts in a meaningful way so that you don’t see disinvestment, so that you don’t see businesses leave, so that you don’t see people and businesses move out.”

Tully offers suggestions compiled by the Near North Valley Neighborhood Association that it believes the city, working with the service providers, could implement.

Among them:

• Fill in the gaps along frequently traveled corridors where sidewalks do not now exist, forcing people to walk in the streets.

• Improve the streetscape aesthetics with more landscaping and regular cleanup of streets, sidewalks and parks.

• Place fencing along medians to force people to use crosswalks.

• Invest more in housing for the homeless.

• Create year-round day and night shelters, where homeless people can go for services and to feel safe.

• And make public toilets available to the homeless around the clock.

“You will never solve the problem completely, but there are things that could be done with more money, more time, more investment and more volunteers,” Tully says.

The city spends about $20 million a year on services for the poor and homeless, including behavioral health programs and housing; Bernalillo County spends more than $9 million on behavioral health and housing programs.

And there are several proposals on the table for addressing the need for day and night sheltering and increased housing for the homeless. (See Tuesday’s story that focuses on potential solutions.)

Benton confirms that he has seen the list of suggested improvements from the neighborhood association “and in general terms I’ve agreed with these things.” The problem is getting funding for them, particularly the paving and streetscaping items, which are very expensive.

Benton says he’d be willing to use his “meager capital set-aside funds for the district to erect median fencing,” but the construction of permanent restrooms is a more complicated issue involving ongoing costs for maintenance and monitoring, and the touchy issue of location.

He noted that he was the city councilor responsible for getting portable toilets set along First Street when a large tent city sprang up there for a while several years ago.

“It was well meaning, but it also turned out to be disastrous,” he says.

The homeless tent residents there used the toilets to hide illegal activity, including using and dealing street drugs, prostitution, and locking themselves inside to get shelter from the weather.

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