Survey: ABQ tops 32 cities for housing the homeless

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque’s homeless picture is a mixed bag: We score high on reducing the homeless rate, but still remain above the national average.

That’s according to the just-released Hunger and Homelessness Survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

a00_jd_18dec_homelessness_barchartAlbuquerque’s number of unsheltered homeless decreased a whopping 80 percent from 2009 to 2016 by moving people from the streets into emergency shelters or some type of short- or long-term housing. That was by far the best among the 32 cities surveyed.

Albuquerque was also in the top five surveyed cities for reducing the total number of homeless by 39 percent over the same period.

Still, the city’s overall homeless rate of 21.9 per 10,000 population is higher than the national average of 16.9.

Mayor Richard Berry said he was pleased with the survey results. He said reducing homelessness in the city was accomplished through “an aggressive approach” and initiatives such as Albuquerque Heading Home and Veterans Heading Home, which have provided permanent housing for more than 600 of the city’s most chronically homeless people, and the There’s a Better Way program, which provides daily work for homeless panhandlers and offers them an opportunity to plug into an array of social services.

“If we’re going to tackle difficult social issues, we have to step up in a big way, and we’ve been able to do that,” he said. “The survey is nothing but good news for us but, not to spike the football, we still have lots to do.”

Not all agree

Some local homeless shelter operators, however, disagree with the conclusions drawn by the survey, which relies heavily on data compiled during the nationwide Point-in-Time count. The PIT counts are conducted in communities around the country every two years and organized by HUD, which also establishes guidelines for whom to include as homeless.

In conducting the PIT count for HUD, the staff of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness surveys shelter operators to find out how many people they put up on one specific night.

Then, on a subsequent day, and assisted by a cadre of volunteers, they fan out across the city to meal sites, parks, underpasses and other locales known to be frequented by the homeless in order to get the unsheltered count.

Both of those surveys must be completed during the last 10 days of January, explained coalition associate director Lisa Huval.

The latest PIT count done in 2015 estimated the number of homeless in America at just over 544,000, which is a 12.9 percent decline since 2009.

a00_jd_18dec_homelessnessIn Albuquerque, which has a population of about 560,000, the homeless rate is 21.9 per 10,000 people – a decline of 39 percent since 2009, according to the survey. That puts the city’s homeless population at just over 1,200, far lower than local homeless providers’ estimates, but higher than the national average of 16.9 per 10,000 population.

Jeremy Reynalds, chief executive officer of Joy Junction, the state’s largest homeless shelter, and Danny Whatley, director of The Rock at Noon Day, a day shelter and meal site, both say the PIT count greatly underestimates the number of homeless.

Rather than the 1,200 to 1,300 estimated under HUD’s formula, they say a more realistic estimate of Albuquerque’s homeless, based on what they see day in and day out, is 4,500 to 5,000.

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta previously told the Journal that the number of homeless kids enrolled in APS has ranged from 4,000 to 6,500 over the past five years, depending on changing definitions of who is homeless and how to count them.

Homeless defined

Under the HUD definition, a person or family is homeless if they reside or sleep in places not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations, airports, camping grounds, under bridges or on the street; if they reside in an emergency, transitional or other supervised shelter designed for temporary living; and if they live in motels, but only when the room is paid for through government programs and charitable organizations.

Not considered homeless are people who find temporary shelter on the couch of a relative or friend, people who use their own money for temporary motel room stays and the multitudes of “unsheltered” people who can’t be found or avoid being counted, even if they show up periodically at area meal sites.

Berry said the decline in the homeless population is real. Even if there’s disagreement over who fits the definition of homeless, he said, the PIT count is done the same way everywhere, every time, making comparisons easy.

The danger of undercounting the homeless, Whatley cautioned, is that it affects the amount of already limited federal and state funding made available for programs to help those who need them “and it impacts donations from people who are led to believe it’s not such a big problem.”

By the numbers

The Hunger and Homeless Survey, however, does provide useful demographic information about the homeless, Whatley said.

Of Albuquerque’s homeless, according to the survey:

  • 70.9 percent are individuals and 29.1 percent are families.
  • 65.4 percent are male, 34.3 percent are female and less than 1 percent are transgender.
  • 85 percent of the city’s homeless sleep in some type of emergency or short-term shelter, better than the national average of 68.4 percent.
  • 11.4 percent of Albuquerque’s homeless are veterans, higher than the national average of 7.2 percent.
  • 7.4 percent of the city’s homeless are unaccompanied children and youth, higher than the national average of 6.5 percent.
  • 19.6 percent are considered “chronically” homeless, higher than the national average of 13.9 percent.

HUD defines chronically homeless as someone with a physical or mental health disability who has been continuously homeless for 12 months, or who has had four episodes of homelessness over the previous three years, with those episodes adding up to 12 months.

Hunger findings

The report also addressed hunger in the United States by surveying 17 cities. Albuquerque was not among them.

Forty-one percent of the surveyed cities reported an increase in the number of requests for food assistance over the past year.

Among those individuals requesting assistance, 51 percent were employed. Another 63 percent of those people were in families, 18 percent were elderly and 8 percent were homeless.

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