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Editorial: Proposed homeless shelter is city’s first, very important step

How much research and planning is enough?

It seems for critics of Albuquerque’s proposed centralized, low-barrier homeless shelter, no amount will suffice.

The city is asking voters to sign off on a $14 million general obligation bond issue that will fund the first stage of the shelter. Early voting continues through Saturday; Tuesday is Election Day. Supporters, including the Journal Editorial Board, see it as an important step in combating homelessness. While the shelter is no panacea, it will help fill a number of needs not being met by the current disparate resources available.

Critics, including City Council candidate Connie Vigil in a column in the Journal on Wednesday, have voiced concerns the project is a knee-jerk answer and provides a short-term solution that won’t solve the larger problem.

Homeless shelters by definition are short-term solutions. But the proposed shelter also provides access to resources that could help provide long-term solutions.

It also creates a place for law enforcement to take the thousands of “down-and-outers” they come across each year. Currently they or other first responders take them to hospital emergency rooms, even though a fraction have life-threatening conditions, which costs more than $15 million. This shelter will provide a smarter alternative where individuals can get the care they need without clogging ERs or taking first responders off the streets.

Critics worry having a one-size-fits-all shelter will dump an even bigger burden on those living and working in the area it lands. The city has yet to pick a location but says it will work with the adjacent communities.

The fact is, the needs the shelter aims to fill are here, front and center. Voters just have to take one look around the metro area to know what we’re doing now isn’t working well. And it’s not like leaders haven’t been doing their homework. Last year a delegation of city, county and law enforcement officials, as well as representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and University of New Mexico Hospital, toured the massive Haven for Hope homeless campus in San Antonio, Texas. And while that may not be the exact blueprint for Albuquerque, Haven for Hope serves around 1,700 homeless people daily and has got nearly 4,100 people into permanent housing, cut San Antonio’s downtown homeless population by 66% and jail bookings by 3,300, and saved $96 million in jail, emergency room and court costs.

Currently, Albuquerque’s Westside Emergency Housing Center is a good resource, but many who need it won’t use it because it’s too far away from where they want or need to be during the day. Meanwhile, taxpayers spend around $1 million a year busing those who do use it out there and back. The other overnight shelters serve only men. Or only women and children. Or only youths. Or only victims of domestic violence. Or don’t allow pets. Or turn away those under the influence of substances.

Or they’re constantly at capacity.

Vigil is right to call for a statewide, comprehensive plan to address homelessness on multiple fronts, as well as metrics to measure success, failure and deliver accountability to the taxpayers footing the bill. But the time is now to embrace realistic expectations and secure $14 million for a low-barrier shelter. It’s the first important step in addressing our homelessness crisis.

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.