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County commits money to help emergency shelter run year-round

A formal agreement between the city and the county will provide extra county funding for the year-round operation of the city-owned Westside Emergency Housing Center.

During a Thursday news conference at the Westside facility, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca signed a memorandum of understanding in which the county committed $300,000 toward operating expenses.

The emergency shelter, open for four months during the winter, would normally close about March 15. The Albuquerque City Council allocated money to keep it open year-round, and the county’s funding will provide shelter residents with clinical mental health services and help pay for some meals and additional transportation services between the shelter and the primary pick-up and drop-off location at Coronado Park.

“This is another piece in our plan, working together with all of our partners … to deal with homelessness in central New Mexico,” Keller said at the news conference.

The shelter, which used to be a jail, is located on the far Westside, near the Double Eagle II Airport, about 20 miles west of Downtown Albuquerque. As a winter shelter, Keller said, it’s mostly served as a place homeless individuals and families can come in out of the cold and avoid freezing.

“But we know that so much more is needed,” Keller said.

The infusion of county money, Keller said, will allow some necessary supportive services to be provided. Still, it’s a temporary fix until funding is in place to build a year-round facility that is more centrally located, “with support services from all the partners.”

The cost of building such a facility has been estimated at $28 million, and the city is asking the Legislature for that amount in capital outlay funding. The city may also seek money through this November’s capital improvement bond election.

Keller and officials from the University of New Mexico and UNM’s Health Sciences Center signed a letter of intent Feb. 13 to collaborate on the problem of local homelessness. That might involve the “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.”

The Westside Emergency Housing Center has a 450-bed capacity and regularly serves 325 people during the winter. People needing shelter can catch a shuttle bus weekdays from Coronado Park, north of Downtown, to the shelter between 4 and 7 p.m., with return buses starting at 6 a.m. The center will now be able to be open around the clock on weekends, with breakfast and lunch served on Saturdays and possibly Sundays, depending on funding and meal sources.

“We see this shelter as a place of transition, a safe place where people can get connected to services and resources that are available through our behavioral health initiative,” Morgas Baca said.

She noted that 41 percent of people who have sought shelter at the Westside facility have a self-reported mental health condition, and 23 percent report alcohol or substance abuse problems.

The county’s behavioral health initiative, started five years ago, now has 18 programs for people living with behavioral health conditions, Morgas Baca said.

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