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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque’s mayor has deemed it a critical step toward tackling the city’s homelessness crisis: a centralized, around-the-clock facility to temporarily shelter an estimated 300 people and connect them to other services intended to help secure permanent housing.
It would replace an existing city shelter on the far West Side, a former jail so remote the city must bus clients there and back at a cost of $1 million annually. The new facility would serve all populations – men, women, families – and offer what Mayor Tim Keller calls a “clearing house” function, meaning on-site case managers could guide clients toward addiction treatment, housing vouchers and other applicable resources.
It would also provide first responders an alternative destination for the people they encounter on so-called “down-and-out” calls, many of whom today wind up in the emergency room even when they are not seriously injured or ill. Only 110 of the 6,952 “down and out” people first responders took to the ER in a recent one-year period had life-threatening conditions, according to city data.“The system is already telling us we have to have this (shelter),” Keller said in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters last week.
His administration estimates that 5,000 households will experience homelessness over the course of a given year in New Mexico’s largest city. And a New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness “point in time” study found 1,525 homeless people on a given night.
“It’s not going to solve all of it, but if we can take one-fifth out or two-fifths out and at least get them not sleeping on the street or in people’s yards and also hopefully get them the help they need, it’s worth it,” he said.
But some who work directly with individuals who are homeless believe the city should rethink the plan, saying there is a better option. They support a series of smaller, scattered shelters that cater to more specialized populations, saying it promotes a higher level of comfort for both the clientele and the surrounding neighborhoods. A person with paranoia, for example, may not want to overnight with hundreds of others, they say, while a woman fleeing domestic violence might avoid a coed facility.
The nonprofit organization the city has contracted to run its existing West Side shelter also is expressing doubts.
Heading Home CEO Dennis Plummer said he supports relocating the city shelter away from the West Side but questions the wisdom of creating one large replacement facility.
“We just know from best practices that serving sub-populations (in different locations) in this way leads to better outcomes and it has less impact on neighborhoods,” he said.
Keller said this shelter would be a first step.
“It actually would be great to have a few of these; that’s the best way to do that – you keep the volume down and spread them out, but we’re just trying to start with one,” Keller said.
An urgent need
The debate comes as the city seeks voter approval for the city’s $128.5 million general obligation bond package on the Nov. 5 ballot. While the bond question does not specifically mention a “shelter,” the mayor says $14 million of the bond money would go toward the project.
If approved, the city says it would begin design and site selection next year. Construction could be finished by early 2022.
Lisa Huval, deputy director for housing and homelessness with the city’s Family & Community Services Department, said that trying to locate, design, fund and build a series of smaller shelters instead could take a decade and that the current crisis demands the city move more quickly than that.
But a shorter timeline is not the only reason for the single shelter model.
She said need exists for a shelter that does not restrict access based on gender, religion, sobriety or any other factor. She said the community has a network of smaller, more specialized shelters “doing a great job” – the city provides funding to several of them – but that Albuquerque also needs a place that will take anyone at any time. The shelter would also allow pets. “We feel like by building this particular facility we are adding to the system of dispersed shelters in our community and we’re also meeting a need that none of those other shelters are meeting right now,” she said.
The city’s plan has the backing of other entities, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, which last month hosted a news conference to show support for the bond package, with chamber leaders specifically touting the potential shelter.
Critics of the centralized shelter plan cite other communities that are abandoning such a model in favor of a dispersed shelter system, including Washington, D.C.
But experts at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, say they have not seen research that shows smaller shelters are more effective. The success of a shelter – in terms of outcomes for people who use it – depends more on other factors, said Steve Berg, the alliance’s vice president for programs and policy, including that it is accessible to anyone who needs help and works to help people find permanent housing.
“Those are the things that will really make a difference. … There’s just nothing we’ve been able to find that shows any evidence that one size is better than the other in terms of what works for the people,” he said. “(But) there can be issues about siting a shelter.”
Indeed, the shelter’s ultimate location is already a concern for some who live in the middle of Albuquerque.
Martineztown resident Christina Chavez-Apodaca, who serves on the mayor’s homelessness task force, said she worries about the “economic devastation it’s going to do to the surrounding neighborhoods” if the city builds one large facility, and she contends the city should give the public some potential locations before the bond election.
Without that, she said “we start speculating, and the panic comes up.”
Chavez-Apodaca said her community is mostly low-income and lacks adequate street lighting and amenities. Area parks have already attracted a large transient population, she said, scaring away many neighbors. There is fear the city could ultimately select a site in her area, potentially creating additional challenges. While she expressed empathy for those who are homeless, she does not agree a single large shelter is the best solution for the community as a whole.
“What is correct for everybody – every citizen here in Albuquerque and the Downtown area?” she said.
Connie Vigil, an Albuquerque City Council candidate who has advocated for a remote homeless campus through her work with the Greater Albuquerque Business Alliance, said there are too many unknowns about the city’s current proposal, notably where it will go, and feels a stronger analysis is necessary.
“Just like (Albuquerque Rapid Transit), they said they worked on it for six years and here’s what we have to show for it,” she said of the long-delayed bus line down Central Avenue.
The city does not plan to work on identifying a location until after voters approve the funding, but Keller said the selection will be a public process. And he said the city can take steps to limit the visibility and neighborhood impact, such as special landscaping and fencing, while at the same time ensuring safety and security for those inside.
The city could consider separate buildings for different populations as part of this proposal, though they would be on the same property.
“We realize this brings its own challenges because of the scale of it and also the fact it will serve families, single men, single women – the range of folks experiencing homelessness,” Huval said. “We do feel like it’s a design challenge and a planning challenge, and we can meet both of those.”
Shelter success stories
Plummer of Heading Home said his own organization has “lived examples” that smaller shelters work.
He cites Albuquerque Opportunity Center and its nondescript location along an industrial stretch of Candelaria. The straw-colored metal building has 101 men’s-only beds, 30 specifically dedicated to those who need “respite” care after leaving the hospital and the rest for emergency shelter.
The campus – which has a garden and separate portable back buildings for a computer lab and TV lounge – currently buses clients to the site and will not accept those who walk up to the facility, an attempt to limit associated foot traffic through the area.
Heading Home’s communications program director Katie Knipe said people are often surprised to know the site houses a shelter.
“They say, ‘I drive by that all the time. I didn’t even know what that was,'” she said. “It’s very subtle.”
While Huval acknowledged that some providers clearly favor a scattered-site approach, she said most agree that the city must somehow find a better solution than its West Side shelter. She said its location – both its distant location and its history as a jail – have kept people from using it.
And given the pressing need, Huval said a single replacement shelter that can accommodate hundreds inside the city is the best available option.
Keller said the city can no longer afford to stand by.
“If we continue to wait for everything to be fully baked and all the designs to be done and the site selected, we’re never going to get this,” he said. “Meanwhile, you have people on your front lawn and (Albuquerque Fire Rescue) is taking 6,000 people to the emergency room.
“We have to step up as a community and say ‘We need to actually start working on this now.’ ”