City unveils plan to tackle homeless crisis

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Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Opening a 24-hour shelter, providing more housing vouchers, creating a new Downtown Public Safety District and providing more addiction and other support services are all part of a multipronged effort the city is proposing to tackle the city’s growing problem of homelessness.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said he planned to announce details today of measures that can be undertaken immediately and others that are more long term. He stressed that this is a preliminary “hypothesis” that

would need the support of other entities, such as Bernalillo County.

“We are going to lead the way with a plan for the community, but it’s going to take the whole community” including Bernalillo County and the University of New Mexico, he said Wednesday in an interview with Journal editors and reporters. “We are tired of waiting so we are going to step up with something we think will at least move the needle in a meaningful way on aspects of housing and homelessness. There is no silver bullet, no one idea that is going to fix this.”

The county has also invested millions of dollars in services for the homeless, and is formulating plans for best use of the gross receipts taxes it started receiving three years ago for the purposes of addressing mental and behavioral health issues.

Albuquerque’s estimated homeless population may be as high as 5,000, and many suffer from addiction and mental health issues.

One major city initiative would be transforming the nighttime winter shelter on the West Side into a year-round, 24-hour shelter for men, women and children. Keller said this would be a temporary fix until the city had the money to build shelters in the city.

In addition, up to 1,000 people could be helped and taken off the streets with housing vouchers, Keller said.

Providing vouchers are the “least expensive (measures) and have the highest return on investment to deal with that population,” he said. “That is a huge chunk out of the general homelessness problem and it’s a chunk we should go after and deliver on. So we are proposing ways to fund that. We will ask the community to come together and fund housing vouchers.”

In June, Keller and the Albuquerque Housing Authority announced a new partnership in which the city awarded more than $1 million through the HOME Program to increase tenant-based rental assistance vouchers to serve clients of the Albuquerque Heading Home program. The program provides rental assistance to people transitioning to permanent affordable housing.

Keller has also worked with the City Council to expand affordable housing projects, including the newly opened Sterling Downtown Apartments and included $15 million in the budget for affordable housing contracts.

In addition to housing, Keller said Albuquerque desperately needs a homeless shelter that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week – a safe place where people can go to sleep for the night. For years, Albuquerque has funded the operation of the West Side winter shelter that is open nightly from Nov. 15 to March 15. Keller said the city plans to keep the winter shelter open year round – and allow people to spend days as well as nights there – until a more permanent shelter solution is found.

Keller also noted that the city needs a triage center for health and addiction services.

The emergency room at University of New Mexico Hospital is the only place people can voluntarily go, or where police or paramedics can take them for treatment of addictions or alcoholism or an immediate mental health crisis.

But that treatment is expensive, and when an officer brings someone to UNMH, Keller said, “the officer sits there for 8 to 9 hours, sometimes over a shift, and then that person gets released and goes right back to the street anyway.”

While there are some smaller treatment facilities available, they have barriers for admittance, such as a cost or precluding people if they are drunk or on drugs.

Keller said the city could fund some of the capital costs through bond issues approved by voters. He was hopeful that the county could play a role in covering recurring operating costs.

“Collaborating with Bernalillo County, UNM, the business community and non-profit organizations is essential to moving the needle on homelessness and behavioral health,” he said.

Keller also said he is creating a new Downtown Public Safety District, where APD will place Crisis Outreach and Support Teams (COAST) to reach out to people in the Downtown and Wells Park areas who are experiencing homelessness or who are in need of behavioral health and substance abuse services. The district will include a Downtown substation.

Keller said he has also developed a new leadership structure in the Department of Family and Community Services to bring expertise and accountability as the city focuses on addressing education, behavioral health and homelessness, all of which have a major impact on public safety.

Lisa Huval has been named deputy director for Housing and Homelessness, and Gilbert A. Ramirez is the new deputy director for Health and Wellness Programs.

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Roberto E. Rosales/Journal

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Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal

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