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Hundreds of volunteers counting homeless in Albuquerque area

Carmen Espinosa, right, fills out a "point-in-time" survey with Theresa Beyal at The Rock at Noon Day on Tuesday. Hundreds of volunteers are fanning out around the city as part of Survey Week, a biennial event to identify and count the number of homeless in Albuquerque. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Carmen Espinosa, right, fills out a “point-in-time” survey with Theresa Beyal at The Rock at Noon Day on Tuesday. Hundreds of volunteers are fanning out around the city as part of Survey Week, a biennial event to identify and count the number of homeless in Albuquerque. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Hundreds of volunteers are fanning out across the city this week in an attempt to count the number of homeless people living in Albuquerque and identify the most vulnerable among them.

The “point-in-time” count is done every two years in late January during Survey Week, which is coordinated by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and Heading Home, a local nonprofit that promotes initiatives to end homelessness through housing.

Having an accurate count of the number of homeless “drives funding for agencies that serve them,” and allows better planning for how limited resources should be divvied up, said Jodie Jepson, deputy director of Heading Home.

The focus and end game of the concerted effort is “housing first,” a national model based on the premise and supported by research that indicates moving homeless people into permanent housing and surrounding them with social services is often less expensive than allowing them to remain on the streets and exhausting resources at meal sites, shelters, hospitals and jails, Jepson said.

That is particularly true for the most medically vulnerable and fragile among the homeless. As part of the survey, people are evaluated using a “vulnerability index” to determine their physical and mental health status.

Chronically homeless people, defined as people who have been homeless for a year or more, or have had three episodes of homelessness within a year, generally lack medical care. They tend to wait until they are very sick before seeking treatment, and then repeatedly show up at a hospital emergency room, the cost of which can be expensive for a community to absorb.

These individuals commonly suffer from such illnesses as cancer, HIV, AIDS, liver cirrhosis, heart failure, stroke, diabetes, upper respiratory problems, schizophrenia and other mental conditions.

“These are the folks who we work really hard to identify so we can start to engage them and transition them into housing,” Jepson said.

Canvassing the homeless involves approaching them at agencies and shelters that serve them, such as St. Martin’s, the Albuquerque Rescue Mission, the Good Shepherd, Joy Junction, Healthcare for the Homeless, the Albuquerque Opportunity Center, the Albuquerque Indian Center and the West Side overnight winter shelter.

But it also requires making contact with homeless people where they congregate or make their encampments, including Downtown street corners, alleyways, parks, the Sandia foothills and the bosque.

Albuquerque police officers often accompany the volunteers to these sites as a precaution, particularly in the pre-dawn hours and at locales like the so-called Tent City, on First Street between Coal and Stover SW, which police say has a known criminal homeless element.

A tent encampment like Camp Hope in Las Cruces, which is sanctioned by that city’s government and allows the homeless occupants there to police themselves, is something that “not very many people are in support of” for Albuquerque’s homeless population, Jepson said. “We just want to work from street to housing, and don’t want to continue creating an environment that can possibly allow people to be victimized. We really want to put our money into the permanent housing model. That’s the goal. We’ve seen the solution and it’s working.”

The proof, she said, is in the numbers: According to the 2011 point-in-time count, of 1,630 homeless people in Albuquerque, 1,243 were staying in shelters operated by agencies, and 387 were living unsheltered; when the 2013 count was taken, the total number of homeless had dropped to 1,176, of which 1,032 were staying in shelters and 143 remained unsheltered.

The likely reason for the 454-person drop in homeless numbers, Jepson said, is because 433 formerly homeless people have been placed in permanent housing since 2011 under various Heading Home programs.

The point-in-time count likely under-counts the actual number of homeless in Albuquerque because “you can’t reach everybody,” Jepson said. Consequently, people who live in motels, sleep in their cars or find real estate on a friend’s living room couch are usually not included. “You can’t count them if you can’t find them,” she said.

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