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University of New Mexico researchers who have spent the last year on a homelessness task force say they have found scant published evidence on how shelters affect the surrounding community and that, what little exists, indicates the reverberations are neither all negative nor all positive.
And, they say, the available studies show that potential negative impacts are limited to the area immediately surrounding the shelter.
“The literature defines (the impact zone) either a quarter-mile or a half-mile – this is kind of the extent to which any impact has been found,” anthropologist and UNM research team member Janet Page-Reeves told local officials during a Homeless Coordinating Council meeting this week.
The research was requested by the HCC, a body that includes city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and UNM leaders.
Made up of 14 people from departments across campus, the UNM Homelessness Research Taskforce had two aims: review existing data to see how different types of housing services relate to repeat homelessness and what works best for different populations, and to study the risks and benefits of emergency homeless shelters to communities.
The research has been referenced repeatedly by Southeast Albuquerque residents fighting the city’s plans for the Gateway Center homeless shelter and services center on Gibson Boulevard. They argued unsuccessfully in appeal hearings that the city should not get the needed zoning approval until the UNM team was done.
Page-Reeves told the HCC Tuesday a full report was not yet ready, but she provided an executive summary presentation that noted the challenges of answering the shelter effect question.
“Very little research has been published on the impact of emergency shelters … but from the sparse literature, there is some evidence regarding both associated benefits and risks,” she said, cautioning that even that information was not “robust.”
Page-Reeves said existing literature about crime and shelters shows an “increased likelihood of crime” within a fourth- to half-mile radius, though the types change. Vandalism and armed robbery go down, according to the research, but petty crimes like theft go up and “the people that are the victims of the crime tend to be those experiencing homelessness themselves,” she said.
When it comes to property values, Page-Reeves said research reflects some effect within the immediate vicinity, but no evidence it extends beyond 1,000 feet of the shelter. And a shelter may have some positive and some negative impacts on nearby businesses, she said.
While some questions are difficult to answer, task force member Brady Horn reiterated that others are much less ambiguous.
“I just want to make sure we’re clear: providing housing does reduce crime,” Horn said of the communitywide effects. “(But) it’s unclear exactly what happens right around the shelter (itself).”
The UNM team said some community members want an in-depth neighborhood impact assessment of the Gibson area as they believe the effects could reach up to 2 miles. Such an extensive and specific project would require more time and resources, Page-Reeves said.
Other findings from the UNM team:
• Those with lived experience reported that the eligibility qualifications for many support services are too rigid to meet.
• Nearly half (49%) of those who get enrolled in the state’s homelessness information management system as they seek shelter or other services have a disability – a category that includes chronic health conditions and substance use disorders – and 58% of those who have at least one additional enrollment have a disability.
• About a third of families enrolling in services are fleeing domestic violence.