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Annual count shows city’s homeless numbers up

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Two homeless men at an encampment near Tramway NE and Interstate 40 read a pamphlet about local shelters that was handed to them earlier this month during an outreach effort by Health Care for the Homeless. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

There are at least 200 more homeless people in Albuquerque than there were two years ago – and those are only the ones who could be located.

The increase is reported in the findings of the recently released Point-In-Time count, which provides a yearly snapshot of the homeless population.

According to the Point-In-Time, or PIT, count, 1,524 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people were counted – 206 more than the 2017 PIT count that recorded 1,318 homeless people in the city limits.

The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness is contracted by the city to conduct the annual count. In even-numbered years, only homeless people who stay in shelters are counted; in odd-numbered years, a more comprehensive count is conducted to also include people sleeping in cars, outside in parks, beneath underpasses, “wherever you can find them,” said Lisa Huval, deputy director for housing and homelessness in the city’s Department of Family and Community Services.

The PIT report indicates that most people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Albuquerque were residents of Albuquerque before becoming homeless.

The PIT count, which is done in communities across the country, is the official number of homeless reported by those communities to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD uses that data “to show Congress the need to invest in homeless programs and to help understand the scope of the problem at the local, state, regional and national levels,” she said.

Although there is no definitive answer for why the number of homeless has risen, Huval thinks it may be partly because the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness is getting better each year at locating and counting unsheltered homeless people.

Anecdotally, people who keep track of the homeless population believe there are more homeless encampments than in previous years, “which would suggest there’s an increasing number of folks who are sleeping outside,” Huval said. That, in turn, may be a reflection of the opioid epidemic affecting communities across the country, including Albuquerque.

Lisa Huval, the city’s deputy director for housing and homelessness, talks about the recently released Point-In-Time count, showing an increase in the number of homeless people. (Rick Nathanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Often, substance abuse makes it difficult for people to access shelters, or makes them unwilling to access shelters, so they prefer to sleep outside,” she said.

Although the PIT count shows the number of homeless has risen, “we know it’s an undercount, because it’s really hard to find people who are living outside, particularly if they don’t want to be found,” she said.

Also, the PIT count represents the number of homeless people who were surveyed on one particular night – in this case Jan. 28, 2019 – rather than the number who are homeless over the course of a year or a school year. “It’s a snapshot taken on one night,” Huval said.

The count requires that the HUD definition of “homelessness” be used. “So we’re only counting people who are sleeping in a shelter, in a transitional housing program, or outside” in places not meant for human habitation, Huval said. “We are not counting people who don’t want to participate in the PIT survey, or who are sleeping in motels that they pay for themselves, or who are doubled up with family or friends.”

The bigger homelessness picture is captured by local homeless service providers, Albuquerque Public Schools and a city computer system that tracks supportive housing openings.

According to Danny Whatley, executive director of the Rock At Noon Day, which offers meals and other services to the homeless, there are 4,000 to 4,500 homeless people in the Albuquerque area, with the fastest-growing segments being millennials and seniors.

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the number of homeless kids enrolled in district schools, meaning kids from families that have no permanent address, has consistently ranged from 3,200 to 3,500.

The Coordinated Entry System, a centralized citywide system that the city uses to track and fill supportive housing openings when they become available, shows that about 5,000 households experienced homelessness last year.

Albuquerque currently spends about $8 million a year to provide 775 vouchers for rental assistance and move homeless people from the street into housing. An additional $2 million is being added to the fund this year, which will allow another 125 to 150 people to get into housing.

In an attempt to accommodate another large portion of the homeless population, those who welcome nightly shelter, the city’s West Side Emergency Housing Center, a converted jail about 20 miles west of Downtown, has up to 450 beds available. The shelter is now open year-round from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday.

Shuttle buses pick up and drop off homeless people from two locations in the city. The yearly operating cost of the facility is about $4.4 million, one-fourth of which is transportation costs, Huval said.

In the November election, the city will ask voters to approve $14 million in general obligation bonds for the construction of a new, more centrally located homeless shelter that will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That’s part of a long-term strategy to close the West Side shelter, which Huval said “is not sustainable, given the amount we’re spending on transportation, and it will never really achieve our vision of being a hub to connect people to services because of its location.”

Ultimately, the goal is to move people from the streets into permanent housing. A shelter is an intermediate but necessary facility.

“If we’re not thinking about the housing issue parallel to the shelter issue, we’re just creating a place where folks are going to get stuck,” she said.

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