Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-day series on how the consolidation of homeless services is affecting neighborhoods in and around Downtown Albuquerque. Today, officials discuss possible solutions.
It’s known as “housing first,” and it’s a simple concept that many people believe can lead to profound changes.
It calls for moving people from the streets, often the most chronically homeless and medically fragile, into subsidized housing.
Once in their own homes with a door that locks, they feel secure and vested, and no longer need to wander the streets pushing shopping carts with all their worldly possessions.
And having an address allows case managers to find them and get them plugged into supportive services that can help them understand and deal with the reasons that contributed to their homelessness: drug addiction, alcoholism, physical or mental health issues, divorce, family death or job loss.
Over time, many of them become well enough to rejoin the workforce.
The housing first model has been embraced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as homeless advocacy groups in Albuquerque and around the country.
“The county has followed the housing first model since our first behavioral health appropriations in 2014,” says Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins. “It’s difficult for an individual to stay in treatment or stay healthy if they are homeless. Data show that a high percentage of people who are homeless suffer from a diagnosed mental illness or a substance abuse addiction, and without adequate supportive services and a safe place to live they have a hard time breaking the cycle of homelessness.”
According to a 2013 study by the University of New Mexico Institute of Social Research, it is 31 percent cheaper to house the homeless than to allow them to remain on the streets. Housing them decreased their hospital visits by 36 percent, their inpatient costs by nearly 84 percent, their medical outpatient costs by 39 percent, and the cost of involvement in the criminal justice system by 64 percent.
The county provides vouchers for a number of housing programs, Hart Stebbins says. They include vouchers for family unification, for veterans’ case management and clinical services, for permanent supportive housing for people with severe mental illnesses, and Section 8 housing rental assistance for people with very low incomes, the disabled and the elderly.
Albuquerque Heading Home, an initiative sponsored by the city of Albuquerque and operated by the nonprofit Heading Home, has been guided by the housing first model since 2011, says Benito Aragon, the organization’s communications director. Since 2011, it has housed more than 800 individuals in permanent supportive housing with wraparound services.
“We have an agreement with a variety of landlords around the city, and get vouchers from the city and HUD to pay for this housing,” he explains, noting that the wraparound services are integral.
“We found that 83 percent of clients in the Albuquerque Heading Home program have a behavioral health diagnosis,” Aragon says. “Many of these people have such severe need it is not as simple as just going out and getting a job. Many of them will never be employable.”
Which means these people were destined for a life on the street were it not for intervention of the program.
HopeWorks, formerly St. Martin’s, has eight housing programs for people with different eligibility criteria and that annually provide case management and housing to 300 to 350 people, Executive Director Greg Morris says.
“We’ve been getting feedback for more than 30 years from the neighbors,” and not all of it is pleasant, he acknowledges. “What the neighbors don’t see is all the folks we’ve been able to permanently house and integrate back into the community. That’s a pretty tangibly felt impact and while feeding people is important, it doesn’t end homeless.”
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller was part of a delegation of city, county and law enforcement officials, and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the University of New Mexico Hospital that recently toured a massive homeless campus site, Haven for Hope, in San Antonio, Texas.
They walked the sprawling 22-acre site where 30 agencies and twice that many nonprofit organizations maintain a presence on the campus.
“It’s very unique in its one-stop shop comprehensiveness,” Keller said.
The campus contains an overnight emergency shelter, as well as longer-term supportive housing, a detox facility, mental and behavioral health services, meals, clothing, case management and all the services required for dealing with a homeless population.
About 1,700 homeless people receive some services at Haven for Hope daily and about 800 live on the campus in some type of housing unit.
Since the opening of the campus in 2010, nearly 4,100 people have moved on to permanent housing. San Antonio’s downtown homeless population has decreased by 66 percent and police there report 3,300 fewer jail bookings and $96 million saved in jail operations, emergency room services and court costs.
While Haven for Hope has been praised as a national model, Keller says the campus there is not without problems and the concept may not be workable for Albuquerque.
“It’s centralized, so it’s huge and it has redefined the entire landscape of a neighborhood and created additional issues, such as traffic, parking and the predictable ‘not-in-my-neighborhood’ resistance from area residents,” he says.
Haven for Hope is also expensive. It cost more than $100 million to build and has an operating budget of about $20 million yearly, Keller says.
“What we have going for us, and what San Antonio does not have, is available housing at a decent price. We have affordable housing all over town with vacancies,” a situation that’s ideal for promoting the housing first model, he notes. “If we’re willing to step up and fund it with housing vouchers, we could deal with a huge chunk of the homeless population, perhaps 10 to 20 percent.”
What Haven for Hope does have and could be useful locally, Keller says, is a 24-hour homeless shelter, and a 24-hour detox, mental health drop-off and triage center. Conceivably, this would not only more quickly aid individuals needing help, but when those individuals are brought in by law enforcement it would not tie up their time.
While there are some smaller detox facilities in the city, Keller says, they often have criteria for admission that homeless people can’t meet for a multitude of reasons. In the absence of such access, “you wind up with places like Coronado Park.”
In a letter to the Journal, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce also pointed to the lack of around-the-clock, day-and-night sheltering services, and the lack of places for law enforcement officers to take homeless people causing disturbances – many of them suffering from mental health and addiction issues – as the biggest impediments to dealing with homelessness in our community.
The lack of sheltering services causes people experiencing homelessness to “have little other option than to wander through our streets during the day and sleep wherever they can,” the letter said.
When a police officer takes a troubled homeless person into custody, the only places available are jail or an emergency room, a process that delays the officer’s return to the streets by hours, and is “costly for taxpayers, an unhelpful strategy for police officers and not in the best long-term interest of people experiencing homelessness,” according to the letter.
The Chamber letter was signed by president Terri Cole and board chairwoman Pat Vincent-Collawn, also president of PNM resources; Downtown Initiative chair Norm Becker, president of New Mexico Mutual; and Homeless Initiative chair Dr. Paul Roth, chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center.
Another business group, the recently formed Greater Albuquerque Business Alliance, or GABA, is made up primarily of businesses that operate in the neighborhoods where the homeless service providers are concentrated. It has thrown its support behind the large, single-site homeless campus concept. But, unlike San Antonio, where Haven for Hope is located in a mixed-use area just west of that city’s downtown, GABA suggests establishing the campus about 10 miles west of Albuquerque, on vacant land near where the Metropolitan Detention Center and West Side Winter Shelter are located. The group says the scattered approach now employed by service providers negatively impacts the homeless and the neighborhoods.
“The homeless problem is increasing in the Downtown area, the entire city is hurting and the status quo approach needs to change,” says GABA president Connie Vigil, a native of the Wells Park neighborhood, where she still lives. “We have a solution, a vision, and we’d like the city to take a look at it while we still have a chance to change things.”
District 2 City Councilor Isaac Benton, who was on the San Antonio tour, says the single-site concept may be a good way to mitigate problems and provide services more efficiently.
“It would be much more manageable,” he says. “What we have now are buildings and services scattered around the area without secure perimeters, and that open at a specific time, which means people waiting outside the gate at that time to get in.”
Benton, however, does not advocate for a single-site campus so far removed from the city.
“I can’t see how that would be workable,” he says. “It would either require a tremendous amount of expense to provide transportation, or the residents would be stuck out there, which would not be acceptable. They have the right to move around.”
Being a proponent of “decentralized models,” Keller says he is more open to the single-site approach being taken by HopeWorks, which is planning to build a 42-unit supportive residential housing complex adjacent to its current campus at 1201 Third Street NW.
It is intended to house some of the most vulnerable among the homeless, “the ones we engage routinely in outreach on the streets,” Morris says, meaning people who are chronically homeless, medically fragile and have severe mental health issues.
“People will receive direct services right where they live,” he says, “which will help mitigate some, but not all, of the neighborhood migration.”
Doreen McKnight, president of the Wells Park Neighborhood Association, isn’t convinced.
“The housing unit they’re proposing will barely make a dent in reducing the overall numbers of homeless in Albuquerque,” she says. “The neighborhood is not necessarily opposed to it, but what we want is for them to make concessions and do some other things to mitigate the negative impact their clients have on the community.”
Specifically, she says, neighbors would like to see 24-hour security at provider sites; regular cleaning around provider and adjacent properties; more lighting; secure and monitored restrooms; and transportation to move homeless people in and out of the neighborhood more quickly. (The city recently began sponsoring the weekday operation of a 10-person van to shuttle people along the route where service providers are located.)
Meanwhile, the county is moving forward with a tiny homes/tiny villages idea, in which the homeless are provided transitional housing for up to two years in very small homes that can be built and clustered together in self-contained and secure villages around the metro area.
Public meetings were held recently to discuss the six sites identified as candidates for the location of a tiny homes village. None is in the Barelas, Wells Park, Near North Valley or Downtown areas. All but one of the sites are south of Interstate 40 and east of Louisiana. One is on Central near Unser NW.
The public meetings were contentious, with most people opposed to the construction of a tiny homes village in their neighborhoods. Even most who thought the idea was sound also expressed the proviso – “but not in my backyard.”