Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s emergency homeless shelter capacity has more than doubled since 2016, especially in the Albuquerque area, but the supply of affordable housing across the state has declined by 50% over a recent 20-year stretch and shows few signs of rebounding.
Those dueling factors, presented to lawmakers in a legislative report released Monday, are driving the state to spend more money on homelessness and housing support, even as federal data shows the state’s homeless population has declined over the last decade.
Specifically, state and federal spending on housing and homelessness programs has tripled over the last three years, the Legislative Finance Committee report found. That includes $108.7 million in state funds allocated over the past three years for housing assistance, shelters and more.
Both Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature have proposed additional funding initiatives for consideration during the 60-day session that starts Tuesday, including $25 million in the governor’s spending plan for rental aid and eviction prevention over the next two years.
“In the coming years, with a new focus and funding to match, we will fight the scourge of homelessness that afflicts so many New Mexicans who are suffering,” Lujan Grisham said during her Jan. 1 inaugural address.
Legislative Finance Committee program evaluation manager Micaela Fisher said during a Monday hearing at the Roundhouse that New Mexico is doing a “decent job” at providing emergency shelter beds, compared to neighboring states, and with helping homeless individuals transition to more permanent housing.
For instance, the average stay in emergency shelters or temporary housing is 81 days in New Mexico, compared to 96 days in Colorado and 102 days in Arizona, according to the LFC report.
“Homelessness is actually decreasing in New Mexico, which is hard to believe, but on any given night we have about 2,600 people that are homeless, which is still a lot,” Fisher said.
However, New Mexico is struggling to provide sufficient affordable rental housing, especially for individuals struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, with the state reporting a 4.6% rental vacancy rate as of 2021 and an even lower rate of owned housing for sale, the report found.
In addition, while housing costs have risen due to inflation and construction challenges, personal incomes have not kept pace.
“One of the danger signs is that low housing stock and a lack of affordable housing it seems could tip folks that are on the edge into homelessness,” Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, said in an interview after Monday’s hearing.
He said the state was “moving in the right direction” to address the issue – at least $40 million annually will be funneled into a state housing trust fund under a bill passed last year – but said there’s more work to be done.
The issue of homelessness has emerged as a political hot potato in both the state’s largest city and on the state level, with Albuquerque city councilors and leaders engaging in a protracted debate over safe outdoor spaces, or managed sites where people who are homeless can sleep overnight, with access to toilets, showers and more.
Mayor Tim Keller’s administration also made waves last summer by closing Coronado Park, a site north of Downtown Albuquerque where up to 120 people were sleeping on a nightly basis.
On the state level, Lujan Grisham said in a televised debate during last year’s race for governor that she would push for legislation to restrict panhandling and criminal trespassing, while also touting her administration’s push to build 6,000 new houses around New Mexico.
Meanwhile, her Republican opponent Mark Ronchetti called during the hard-fought race for a ban on “tent cities.”
The report released Monday also showed divergent data when comparing Albuquerque to the rest of New Mexico.
In Albuquerque, there’s been a 43% increase in individuals using emergency shelters, which could be due to an increase in year-round shelter beds at Joy Junction, Heading Home and other venues.
The rest of the state, in contrast, has seen a decrease in emergency shelter use – from 1,035 people in 2011 to 785 people last year.