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City, UNM unite to take on homelessness

Dr. Paul Roth, chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center, speaks prior to signing a new letter of intent establishing UNM’s collaboration with the City of Albuquerque to address homelessness. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

An estimated 5,000-8,000 people in Albuquerque are currently homeless, according to city officials – a situation Mayor Tim Keller said will take more than just city government resources to fix.

Now the city has the help of the state’s largest university.

Keller and University of New Mexico officials have signed a letter of intent signaling a willingness to collaborate in seeking and providing solutions.

“We clearly have a humanitarian imperative to alleviate suffering and help our most vulnerable neighbors,” Dr. Paul Roth, chancellor of UNM’s Health Sciences Center, said during a Wednesday news conference announcing the new agreement. “I view our partnership as an opportunity – one that offers the possibility of affecting real change in our community.”

UNM President Garnett Stokes said the university has much to contribute, including research prowess, health care expertise and the volunteer potential of a large employee and student population.

“Homelessness in Albuquerque is complex social problem that requires attention and support on many fronts,” she said.

The new agreement says the city, UNM and UNM HSC will explore partnering on a more comprehensive response to homelessness, including “the potential development of emergency shelter facility(ies) with supportive services, and expanding ways to improve access so that the homeless populations may receive high-quality and coordinated health care services, including medical, psychiatric and addiction-related services.”

Keller said building a centralized shelter facility is a top priority. The city currently operates an emergency shelter on the West Side where about 325 people now sleep nightly. But he has called it a “Band-Aid” because it’s just a place to sleep and shower; it provides no food or medical care.

A new shelter would offer nightly accommodations but also serve as a gateway to health care and social services.

The city needs a place “people could go 24/7 with no questions asked, regardless of your state of mind or your condition,” Keller said. “That is what almost every major city in America has; that is what Albuquerque has never had.

“And I believe we will never make a significant dent in our homeless population unless we provide that location.”

That could cost about $28 million to build, and the city is currently asking the Legislature for that amount in capital outlay funding. The city may also seek funding through this November’s capital improvement bond election.

Officials have not identified a shelter site, but Keller said options will likely include property already owned by the city or UNM.

But with a new shelter still likely years away, the city will continue to operate its West Side facility and is working with UNM on a plan to bring in health care providers.

Carol Pierce, director of the city’s Community and Family Services Department, said the shelter – located about 20 miles from Downtown – is currently averaging seven to 10 calls per week to 911.

That can be a drain on the city’s emergency medical systems, she said, especially since many problems could be adequately managed with some on-site medical staff.

Roth said the UNM Hospital emergency room has for years been a destination for those who are homeless and have no other place to go. An ER physician, Roth said he remembers the department offering clothing and food to such patients.

If the community can successfully develop a plan to reduce homelessness, he said it would also reduce strain on UNMH, which sees some of the state’s most serious medical cases as New Mexico’s only Level I trauma center.

“We do have social workers and others that we can turn to – doctors to turn to, nurses to turn to – to help (homeless patients) arrange transportation or even work with the city on some of the housing vouchers, but we’d really rather dedicate operations of the emergency department to the critically ill and injured,” he said.

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