Homelessness up in NM

New Mexico has had an uptick in homelessness, and it’s at the top nationally when it comes to the percentage of people experiencing chronic homelessness.

The statistics made public Monday were part of an annual assessment prepared by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The findings are based on surveys done in shelters and on the street during a single night in January.

In New Mexico, about 12 of every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness, an increase of 2.8 percent from 2017.

About 42 percent of them had been continuously homeless for a year or more. Only the District of Columbia had as high of a percentage of chronically homeless people. The problem has long vexed the state’s largest metro area, Albuquerque, as well as other communities around New Mexico.

Albuquerque’s mayor has highlighted homelessness as one of the city’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session, and commissioners in the most populous county are considering approval of a program aimed at getting more people into housing that comes with support services.

The idea in Bernalillo County is to make available a few dozen housing units with on-site support services. Some of the vouchers for the program would be available to veterans through HUD.

Trailing only Montana, New Mexico had the second highest percentage of homeless adults who were veterans at 15 percent.

Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said Tuesday that the county’s plan will serve veterans and others, including those with behavioral health challenges. She said housing is a key step toward stability.

“Being able to recover in the place you call home, having access to services in a place where you feel safe and being surrounded by your loved ones, all of these characteristics of a single-site housing program contribute to recovery, success and wellness,” she said.

Supporters are urging the county commission to vote in favor of funding that would amount to $1 million a year and a one-time capital investment of up to $8 million.

From Bernalillo County to Gallup and other communities around the state, officials have been looking for more comprehensive ways to combat homelessness as it’s often associated with substance abuse or behavioral health issues.

An estimated one-third of the homeless population in the U.S. is living with some form of mental illness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“We know in Bernalillo County that there is a not a one-size-fits-all type of fix to addressing homelessness as whole,” said Margarita Chavez-Sanchez, assistant director of the county’s behavioral health department.

With the help of revenue generated from a special gross receipts tax, the county is investing in several behavioral health programs and is looking to leverage some of the money to fill the gap that could be addressed by having housing with on-site services for mental health or substance abuse needs.

Officials say it’s often homeless individuals with higher needs who cycle through the criminal justice system and hospital emergency rooms.

“Really, it’s about being able to provide them a situation where they can be successful and give them the tools they need to flourish and end that cycle,” Chavez-Sanchez said.

According to the data collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 2,551 people counted in New Mexico as part of the annual homeless survey. That included 290 veterans, 182 unaccompanied youth and more than 600 people in families with children.

The count showed 552,800 people without homes across the U.S., marking the second consecutive increase after seven straight years of declines.

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