Editorial: Crisis triage center has a home, time shelter(s) did, too

Five years after taxpayers began paying tens of millions of dollars to Bernalillo County to address a lack of mental health programs for the homeless and addicted, Bernalillo County and University of New Mexico leaders have finally identified a location for the much-needed behavioral health crisis triage center they promised you in 2015.

The pair of buildings next to UNM’s existing psychiatric hospital seem like a logical location for the 24/7 facility. Besides being close to the psychiatric hospital, the buildings south of Marble and west of Vassar already have parking, the correct zoning and a courtyard area so clients seeking help can sit outside and get a breath of fresh air.

The new facility is intended for behavioral health clients who need stabilization services beyond outpatient treatment but do not meet the criteria for hospitalization — a pressing need that has gone unaddressed for years. There’s a wide spectrum of people who live on the margins in Bernalillo County and whose mental health or substance abuse issues often land them in the emergency room or jail, two expensive alternate overnight options. The new facility – which will require renovation of the current buildings – is intended to serve up to 16 people, with separate wings for male and female patient rooms, consultation rooms, administrative offices and common areas.

Bernalillo County and UNM have agreed to contribute up to $20 million each toward the project. Considering property owners support the hospital via taxes and consumers have been forking over $20 million a year to the county for half a decade, that should be covered – though county officials have been using some of the gross receipts tax money for other programs. That includes a 16-bed crisis triage unit set up last year at the county’s detoxification center in Southeast Albuquerque. County officials intend to keep it open for the long term as a backup to the new facility, which will handle higher-acuity cases with around-the-clock psychiatric services.

That makes sense. The two facilities should complement each other, and are an important step in helping get some of the county’s must vulnerable off the streets.

Now, it’s the city’s turn to pony up. City taxpayers in November 2019 approved a general obligation bond that included $14 million for a new 24/7 homeless shelter, but once again progress has been excruciatingly slow, the pandemic notwithstanding.

UNM nixed locating the shelter on its vacant land near Interstate 25 and Lomas, coincidentally not far from the new triage center. County commissioners and community leaders then vocally objected to a single, 300-bed Gateway Center. And so the city is now exploring a multi-site approach.

In the meantime, on any given night more than 1,500 people sleep on the street in the Albuquerque metro area.

With the selection of a site for a 24/7 crisis triage center, now is the time to ensure the city and county work together – something they are not known for doing well, especially in this arena – to build the long-promised homeless shelter or shelters for those struggling in our community. Our leaders and providers need to recognize that when someone is in crisis or dealing with homelessness, they don’t care if it’s the city or county or UNM or a nonprofit helping them – they just need the help.

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.

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