As the homelessness crisis in Albuquerque continues to escalate, the city is hoping voters will approve a general obligation bond that would allocate $14 million toward the construction of a centralized emergency shelter.
The city’s plan, conceptualized in a presentation released by the Family and Community Services Department, would relocate Albuquerque’s city-run shelter on the far West Side to a site more centrally located within the city in an effort to focus resources and integrate homeless services under one roof.
Others, including service providers and advocacy groups, are skeptical that the city is on the right track.
At issue is the concept of a single site for the facility, which would be “centrally located” and operate on a year-round, 24/7 schedule. While the city contends that building the shelter at one location would consolidate services and reduce costs, critics have been largely unified in opposition and instead are advocating for multiple, smaller shelters distributed across the city.
According to data compiled by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness (NMCEH), 5,615 households in the city experienced homelessness in 2018. The NMCEH Point-In-Time Count for 2019, which collects data on both those staying in emergency and transitional shelters and those who are unsheltered on any given night, counted 1,525 people “without a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” this year.
According to City Councilor Pat Davis, the proposed shelter would serve as a “hub” for the city and county’s homeless services. Navigating the current network of services — which includes a variety of nonprofits, governmental organizations and other service providers — is cumbersome and often confusing to those trying to access them, he said.
“That’s a critical component we’re lacking right now — somebody who’s at that moment where they need help or are trying to access help has to navigate this bureaucracy of nonprofits and government organizations, and sometimes they don’t always work well together,” Davis said in an interview with the Daily Lobo. “We’re trying to put all those people in one place under one roof to provide that service.”
Davis represents District 6, which encompasses the University of New Mexico, Nob Hill and the International District.
Currently, the Westside Emergency Housing Center — the only shelter run by the city — provides 400 beds for men, women and families and operates year-round, according to the City of Albuquerque’s website. In previous years, the facility only operated for several months during the winter.
Central to the community and stakeholder input on the proposed facility has been the Homeless Advisory Council (HAC). Facilitated by the city, the HAC has been gathering input from service providers, outreach workers and community stakeholders and — according to a source involved in the process who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals — the Council's monthly meetings have lately been fraught with disagreements over the concept of a single site shelter.
“The general feedback that I can gather from my conversations from service providers is that there’s a lot of concern,” the source said. “The same congregate warehousing of people (as the Westside shelter) is a concern, and when you speak with people instead of looking at the data, the concerns (are) about the number of people that (are) present.”
According to Davis, the new facility will have the same number of beds as the previous facility. However, at its current location only half of these beds are used on most nights. Surveys to the community have indicated that this is due to other needed services not being linked with housing, Davis said.
The funding for the proposed shelter would come as part of a $128.5 million package of general obligation bonds on the Nov. 5 local election ballot. Just under $22 million — should the bonds be approved — would be designated for “city-owned community centers including those for families, youth, senior citizens, the homeless and for other community enhancement projects,” according to the language on the measure.
As for the $14 million earmarked for the shelter, the language doesn’t specify that the proposed facility would be single site. Brie Sillery, program coordinator at the NMCEH, said the single site proposal is at the crux of the dispute between the city and other stakeholders.
“(There are) a lot of major service providers who are saying (they) don’t want one single site shelter,” Sillery said. “We know that once we get past 100, even 200 beds, we start to run into a lot more complications that cannot be trauma-informed for folks that are receiving sheltering services when you have that many people in one congregate living.”
Sillery added, "We're hopeful that the bond passes but the city will reconsider a multi-site sheltering system as an option."
Davis said the city is trying to learn lessons from the much-maligned Albuquerque Rapid Transit project and gather more input from the community through the bond process and public hearings. He noted that while concerns about how and where the money will be spent are valid, waiting until the city has a detailed plan in place to approve the funds would be a mistake.
He added that early investments are essential because this opportunity for change only comes around every two years, in reference to the bond election.
“In a crisis and an emergency, you get up and you start putting out the fire wherever you see it first,” Davis said.
Andrew Gunn is a senior reporter and copy editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites