It takes a village

When contemplating the breadth and depth of Albuquerque’s homelessness problem, it’s easy to get discouraged, to look at the problem nationwide and wonder if anything ever really helps this most vulnerable group of people living in our midst – on our streets, under our bridges, in our parks and open spaces.

For some, that sentiment was especially true this last week, when Journal reporter Rick Nathanson reported a survey that estimated at least 200 more people are homeless in Albuquerque than two years ago. Nathanson reported Tuesday that 1,524 “sheltered and unsheltered homeless people” were numbered in the city limits – a number up nearly 14% since the last time the survey was administered. Anyone who has been in the metro area for any length of time knows that’s doubtless far lower than reality – other estimates put the number of homeless Albuquerque area residents as high as 7,000.

It’s a troubling trend, and thankfully nobody’s saying it isn’t. So it’s a good time to step back and acknowledge the changes in the works in the local fight against homelessness.

In just a few months, Albuquerque voters will have a chance to weigh in on one of the most important potential solutions, $14 million worth of general obligation bonds to fund construction of a centrally located, low-barrier, 24/7 homeless shelter. The project will appear on the ballot as part of a $21.7 million request for senior, family, community center and community enhancement facilities. Passage will not raise taxes, though if the entire $125 million bond issue is defeated, taxes on a home valued at $200K would go down around $5 a month. The proposed shelter is an important effort that will fill in needs devastatingly lacking in the city.

A quick reference guide for some of the overnight resources available to people living without a home in the Albuquerque area:

• The Westside Emergency Housing Center, 7440 Jim McDowell NW. Formerly known as the “Winter Shelter,” the city-run facility, located 20-odd miles from the city’s center, provides a roof, and up to 450 beds for men, women and children. Previously only open during the winter, the Albuquerque City Council and Mayor Tim Keller this year agreed to provide funding to keep the center running year-round. However, the shelter is meant as a temporary fix. It closes during the day and spends a bundle on shuttles, and is not located close to central services – a must for any long-term solution.

• The Albuquerque Opportunity Center, run by local nonprofit Heading Home, provides an overnight emergency shelter with 71 beds for men, as well as connects them with other services and potential long-term housing. It isn’t open during the day.

• The Barrett House Shelter provides 31 beds to single women and women with children.

• SAFE House is an 80-bed facility that serves men, women and children who are survivors of domestic violence.

• Good Shepherd Center provides 75 beds to single men. It is not open during the day.

• New Day Youth and Family Services offers 16 beds. It is open only to youth.

In addition, Bernalillo County has a tiny homes village in the works for transitional housing and is implementing important mental health programs aimed at people who are homeless.

Other organizations provide meals, housing vouchers for rental assistance and other services. Each and every one of these facilities is run by passionate, well-meaning people who do what they can – for their designated mission. But those missions are limited; no facility can be all things for all people.

The centrally located shelter won’t be either. But it will provide all-day, all-night access to men, women and children living on the streets. It will provide a place other than the detention center or hospital emergency room for law enforcement to take homeless who are disruptive or need mental health assistance.

City leaders are working to find the perfect site, close to services and public transportation.

Planning and building the shelter will take time, energy and money; the hard work just kicks into a higher gear if the November ballot measure passes. After a physical building is constructed comes the task of staffing it, of making sure people who seek shelter there are safe and well-cared for. But it’s an important task. Just look around while you’re driving the streets of Albuquerque; look at the number of people begging on sidewalks, sleeping in public parks, camping in tucked-away areas near retailers.

We can do better. A 24-hour shelter can be a first step for those wanting to reclaim their lives and a major step in reducing the homeless campsites scattered throughout the city.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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