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‘A homegrown problem’

A homeless man who has been living on Albuquerque’s streets for the past 10 years pulls two shopping carts containing his belongings. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

A homeless man who has been living on Albuquerque’s streets for the past 10 years pulls two shopping carts containing his belongings. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Homelessness is overwhelmingly a homegrown problem. According to the Albuquerque Journal, August 2019: “The PIT (Point in Time) report indicates that most people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Albuquerque were residents of Albuquerque before becoming homeless.”

Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless data indicates most of its clients have lived in New Mexico longer than 10 years. Of more than 4,000 AHCH clients queried, 64% have lived in New Mexico for more than 10 years, 11% have lived in New Mexico for five to 10 years, and 25% have lived in NM less than five years.

Cities across the country have seen similar trends:

⋄ St. Louis County, Minnesota – 80% of people experiencing homelessness in St. Louis County were from Minnesota (The Globe, 2016);

⋄ Alameda County, California – 82% of people experiencing homelessness were residents of Alameda County prior to becoming homeless (Alameda County Homeless Census & Survey, 2017); and

⋄ King County, Washington – 85% to 90% of people accessing homeless services in King County list previous ZIP codes inside King County (Seattle Times, 2016).

We can no longer let ourselves off the hook with excuses that “people travel here for our great homeless services” or that “people are bused into our city at high numbers.” The data have consistently proven this to be false.

Homelessness is not the result of personal moral failings. Homelessness is the result of a structural lack of affordable housing, a living income and affordable health care. Decades of research and data have proven that homelessness is driven by economic forces and systemic and structural racism.

Put simply, homelessness exists because people cannot afford their housing.

Risk factors such as disability, lack of education, unaddressed chronic health needs, and/or gender-based violence make someone more likely to fall through the cracks of our broken safety net system. The population of people without homes is incredibly diverse, and homelessness disproportionally affects people of color, people with disabilities, etc. However, the one characteristic all people share is a lack of housing.

A historical and persistent lack of investment in permanent affordable housing is the cause of modern-day homelessness.

The good news is that the same policy mechanisms used to create homelessness can be used to end it. Homelessness can be eradicated through effective public policy. Homelessness is foremost a public health issue requiring policy, socioeconomic and public health approaches to solve. This is both a local and national issue and leadership is needed at the city, state and federal level.

Ending homelessness requires policy makers who are willing and able to think beyond “homelessness” to its root causes and structural context – i.e., poverty, housing instability and structural racism. We need to use cross-sector analyses to understand and address homelessness, ones that reflect the structural determinants related to lack of affordable housing, of living income and of access to health care. Ultimately, we need to address homelessness as a social justice issue and support housing and health care as basic human rights.

Currently, in New Mexico there are 41 units available and affordable for every 100 households with extremely low incomes. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the 2019 N.M. housing wage, or the hourly wage someone needs to make in order to not spend more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, is $16.34, which also means a minimum wage worker would have to work 87 hours a week to afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.

If we don’t invest in root causes, first and foremost a lack of affordable housing, we are only putting resources into a slowly sinking ship. Housing is the answer to homelessness.

It is time to end the excuses and remind each other that homelessness is largely a homegrown crisis. People experiencing homelessness are our neighbors, and it is our responsibility to ensure community resources are directed towards solutions that guarantee the right to housing. It’s time for real investments in permanent affordable housing.