Khadijah Bottom has for several years run an organization devoted to helping African immigrants and refugees in Albuquerque but broadened her focus last year after an encounter with an elderly man sleeping in her neighborhood park.
Bottom, executive director of Vizionz-Sankofa, felt compelled to help him, and others in similar circumstances, find a place to live.
“(He) was too frail to be sleeping under a tree,” she said.
Bottom learned about a city-funded housing voucher program and went through special training required to get people onto the waiting list. Working last fall and winter – often out of a Southeast Albuquerque soup kitchen – she helped an estimated 35 people complete the survey needed to get onto the “coordinated entry list.” It’s a vulnerability index that many city contractors and other providers use when determining who gets new vouchers when they become available.
To this day, Bottom said no one she helped has obtained a housing voucher.
So she was particularly rankled to learn recently that the city ended the 2020 fiscal year on June 30 with about $700,000 in unspent housing voucher money. By city calculations, that is enough to support 51 different households for a full year.
“That was heartbreaking – 51!” Bottom said in a recent interview, recalling that she cried when she first heard about the leftover funds. “I could’ve housed everybody (sleeping) in Wilson Park.”
And Albuquerque city councilors are also raising questions about another $2 million they had allocated last year for additional housing vouchers. The council approved the appropriation in the spring of 2019 at Mayor Tim Keller’s request.
Less than $100,000 of that money was spent during fiscal year 2020, in part because the city could not find contractors to distribute the vouchers that quickly.
Council President Pat Davis said he is frustrated, and the public likely is, too. An official count last year identified 1,524 people as homeless on a single night in Albuquerque, and there are usually thousands of people at any given time seeking housing support on the local coordinated entry list.
“I think people are going to drive past their park or drive down Central and see people sleeping (outside) who need a place to be, and they’re not going to accept an excuse that money is literally sitting in the bank but the vouchers to put these people into housing who want them just can’t be done because of paperwork,” Davis said. “That’s just not going to be an acceptable answer.”
Lisa Huval, deputy director of housing and homelessness inside the city’s Family and Community Services Department, said there are multiple factors at play.
The unspent $700,000 was due largely to understaffing within one of the 10 different organizations the city uses to administer the vouchers. Huval declined to identify the vendor, but said it has recently filled several open positions and should be better able to handle the workload this year.
The city, she said, ultimately bears the responsibility monitoring contract activity and performance.
“When I saw that number (of unused vouchers), I definitely felt we need to do better,” she said. “We need to work with our contractors to ensure they are fully expending these funds.”
While the city retained some of that $700,000, it lost about a third of it, as $235,000 reverted back to the federal government, according to Huval.
Despite its failure to spend all available money last year, the city still issued a total of 720 vouchers in fiscal year 2020, about equal to the year before, worth about $6 million total. That includes “rapid rehousing” vouchers for those seeking temporary rental support and “permanent supportive housing” vouchers for those who need more intensive, longer-term support, often due to a disability.
As for the $2 million for additional vouchers approved over a year ago, Huval said it is reaching the community, albeit on a longer timeline than originally anticipated. When the city issued a request for vendors to administer the vouchers, it did not get proposals large enough to account for all $2 million. Huval said the city decided to extend the $2 million appropriation into a three-year program and contracted with two nonprofits – the Barrett Foundation and HopeWorks – to issue a combined 145 vouchers over that span.
The contracts ultimately took effect Dec. 1, 2019. As of June 30 – a year after the council’s appropriation was available – Barrett had issued six, while HopeWorks had issued 32, Huval said, accounting for $99,710 in total expenditures.
New vouchers continue going out; Barrett Executive Director Heather Hoffman said this week that the nonprofit has now issued a total of 15.
Huval said launching any new program takes time – both for the city but also for the vendors who need to add staff – and that COVID-19 created some hurdles as well, but that the $2 million is being used effectively.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done; we’ve contracted with two very experienced providers that have an excellent track record of providing rapid rehousing to people in our community and over the next two to three years they will help close to 150 homeless households obtain and maintain permanent housing,” she said. “I think what we have structured is very sound and is going to make a huge impact for those families.”
But some city councilors say they are frustrated, in part because they expected the $2 million to have flowed into the community already.
Councilor Isaac Benton, who represents Downtown, said he did not know until recently that city staff had executed contracts to expend the money over a three-year period instead of one. He said the council – the city’s appropriating body – should have had a role in that decision.
“I’m not going to blame the present leadership, but this department has a history of problems as far as just effectively getting work out and money out on the streets where it’s needed,” he said.
The administration included information about the three-year rollout plan in a fiscal year-end status report sent to council last month. Such communication would normally have occurred earlier in the year, but COVID-19 altered the budget timelines, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller’s office told the Journal.
Davis, whose district includes Nob Hill and the International District, said he never understood the allocation as a multi-year expenditure and expected that Keller’s budget request for the funding last year reflected a ready program.
“I feel like when they make the request of money from the council to put a program in place, it assumes they’ve developed the capacity to do it in the field,” he said, adding that the way the city handled the voucher money raises questions about other new initiatives. That includes the mayor’s proposed “Community Safety” department, which gives the city a third option – beyond police and fire – for responding to 911 calls and addressing issues like homelessness and behavioral health. The mayor’s proposed 2021 budget includes $7.5 million for the new department, primarily moved from other departments in the city.
“People are going to look at that plan … in the same way and say, ‘You’re asking us for a big commitment to get something new started, but there’s no indication they’ve got a good track record of putting money into the systemic issues in a significant way even when they have the funds,’ ” Davis said.
Jessica Campbell, a spokeswoman for Keller’s office, cited both COVID-19 and limited provider capacity for the challenges of getting money out the door.
“This city has historically contracted with outside service providers to get people into housing in exchange for this funding, and we are equally frustrated that the money wasn’t spent. While we do believe this stems from pandemic related challenges around the inability to physically find housing and place candidates, it’s not something we ever want to see happen. We have instructed the department to work with the providers to make sure there is more capacity going forward to deliver on what the city needs when it comes to getting people housed, and if it’s not there, we’re going to help build out additional partnerships,” Campbell said.
Bottom said she has temporarily stopped trying to get people on the housing waiting list but has not forgotten about those living on the streets in her area. She tries to maintain regular contact and help when she can.
“Even though I’m not able to put them in housing, I still go feed them; I will just take off a couple days out of the week and either go buy 10 boxes of pizza or sometimes I’ll cook in my house and go feed them on the weekend just to let them know I still think about them,” she said.