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Editorial: Record homeless count a sobering wake-up call for NM

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proudly pointed to the state’s Energy Transition Act, the nation’s most aggressive road map to a carbon-free future, and proclaimed a “moonshot” for education fueled by billions in new revenues.

The state is flush from the oil and gas boom in the Permian Basin, providing a seemingly unlimited source of money for significant broadband investment and other new and innovative ideas – while addressing old problems like out-of-control crime and deteriorating roads and bridges.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic appears on the verge of capturing the world’s attention with what would be the world’s first commercial flight into space – from Spaceport America right here in New Mexico.

All of which makes the fact New Mexico in 2018 had the largest percentage increase in homelessness in the United States all the more unacceptable. And it points to the need for a serious statewide strategy to address the gritty problem of men, women and families living on the street or moving from shelter to shelter and meal to meal.

This isn’t just a local problem – although kudos to Mayor Tim Keller for recognizing the seriousness of it in Albuquerque and pushing aggressively for a centralized 300-bed, no-barrier shelter. Voters have approved $14 million in bond money and the mayor is seeking another $14 million in capital funding from this year’s Legislature. The facility would provide a way to get many people off the streets who simply can’t or won’t take advantage of existing services offered by a bevy of providers. Maybe it’s because they have a pet and shelters don’t allow them. Or because they drink. Or because they don’t want to abandon their few belongings kept in purloined shopping carts.

On Jan. 13, the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness released a report saying a one-time $262 million investment to build permanent supportive housing and fund short-term rental assistance – evidence-based interventions – will allow the state to get another $30 million in federal dollars and end homelessness for an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people across the state.

The governor and legislative leadership should throw their full support behind the city’s request and carefully consider the coalition’s ask – especially in light of the new numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Based on HUD’s annual report on homelessness to Congress released this month, N.M.’s homeless population jumped by a stunning 27 percent last year – the largest percentage increase in the nation. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia saw decreases.

The state total in the HUD report was 2,464, with 1,283 being chronically homeless. But providers like Danny Whatley, executive director of the Rock at Noonday in Albuquerque, said based on his observations it’s between 4,000 and 5,000.

It’s not as if programs don’t exist. The state administers grants through the Mortgage Finance Authority. Bernalillo County lists 14 performance measures and objectives for its Department of Behavioral Health Services – of note because the lack of such services is cited as a driver of homelessness. The city lists more than two dozen items on its website under “What We Are Doing” about homelessness.

But given the recent survey, it’s fair to ask if these are effective. Without question, the city needs this homeless facility because it’s a well-thought-out approach to a chronic problem. But it’s clear this isn’t a local issue. State and local governments need a clear strategy to take it on – because solutions may not be the same in Albuquerque as elsewhere.

It’s not as glittery as carbon-free and moonshots, but it’s something the state needs to address.

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.