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Editorial: Housing voucher failure leaves ABQ homeless in the cold

An official count last year, the most recent, identified 1,524 people as homeless on a single night in Albuquerque. There typically are thousands of people at any given time seeking housing support.

What makes these numbers even more depressing is the fact the city ended the current fiscal year June 30 with about $700,000 in unspent housing voucher money. You read that correctly. Despite the crushing local problem of homelessness, the city was unable to spend the money it had earmarked to help people put a roof over their heads, in the form of either temporary shelter or something more permanent.

Adding to the pain, about $235,000 of that unspent money reverted to the federal government. And only $100,00 of another $2 million the City Council allocated last year for additional housing vouchers found its way out the door. The administration of Mayor Tim Keller now says it plans to spread that amount over three years – frustrating councilors who thought that money would already have flowed into the community.

Or that at least there was a workable plan for that to happen.

“I feel like when they make the request for money from the Council to put a program in place it assumes they’ve developed the capacity to do it in the field,” said Council President Pat Davis.

Indeed. Can anyone spell “bureaucratic bungling?”

The city might like to step aside and let Khadijah Bottom give it a try. Bottom, who has run an organization devoted to helping African immigrants and refugees, expanded her work when she found an elderly man sleeping in her neighborhood park. “He was too frail to be sleeping under a tree,” she said.

Bottom doesn’t just talk. She acts. She learned about the city voucher program and went through special training required to get people onto the waiting list. Working last fall and winter, often out of a soup kitchen in Southeast Albuquerque, she helped an estimated 35 people get onto the vulnerability list that many city contractors use to determine who gets new vouchers when they are available. To this day, she said, no one she helped has obtained a housing voucher.

The money the city failed to spend would have supported 51 different households for a full year.

“That was heartbreaking,” Bottom said. “I could’ve housed everybody (sleeping) in Wilson Park.”

It should be noted the city did issue 720 housing vouchers in fiscal 2020, worth about $6 million. That was an amount roughly equal to the prior year. But the magnitude of the problem is obvious – hence the additional council funding. Against that backdrop, the failure to spend available funds and allowing some of the money to revert is inexcusable.

The city’s explanations are typical. The contractors hired to administer the voucher program didn’t have enough staff. COVID made it harder. It’s not easy to ramp up a program. Etc. Etc. Etc.

But the bottom line is they didn’t get the job done. People were still sleeping under trees or bridges when there was money available for housing.

As for the plans for going forward: “We have instructed the (Family and Community Services) department,” a Keller spokeswoman said, “to work with the providers to make sure there is more capacity … to deliver on what the city needs when it comes to getting people housed, and if it’s not there, we’re going to build out additional partnerships.”

Not the most concrete, reassuring road map.

And as for Bottom? She’s temporarily stopped trying to get people on the list for housing vouchers. “Even though I’m not able to put them in housing, I still go feed them,” she said.

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.