Last year, New Mexico had the largest percentage increase (27%) in homelessness of any state nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
This disheartening statistic came despite repeated efforts of municipal and state leaders in recent years to address the issue — and a North Valley-area legislator wants to take a different approach.
New Mexico State Representative Dayan Hochman-Vigil sponsored House Bill 19 as a way to better understand "the proposed housing projects, housing types and planning to reduce homelessness, eliminate how current systems for producing and regulating the built environment contribute to homelessness and propose improvements to public spaces to better support those without housing," Hochman-Vigil said.
The bill requests an appropriation of $372,000 for the University of New Mexico's School of Architecture and Planning to study homelessness.
Hochman-Vigil asserted that UNM's study aims to be different than previous efforts that have failed to gain traction.
"A lot of times, we're just putting up housing cheaply wherever for whomever, and it’s a one size fits all solution that in many instances doesn’t solve the problem," Hochman-Vigil said. "It doesn’t get utilized, doesn’t fit people’s needs or exacerbates the problem."
More than half of all individuals experiencing homelessness in New Mexico in 2019 had chronic patterns of homelessness (52%), according to the HUD report.
"This study is much more nuanced in that it is going to look at specific housing systems from an architectural and planning perspective, so as to make sure that the shelters that we do provide are appropriate to the environment in which they are going to be utilized and that they are fitting the needs and requirements of the populations they are serving," Hochman-Vigil said.
Mark Childs, interim dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, said HB 19 is intended to fund "Shelter and Dignity," a UNM research and public service project.
"I wrote a proposal last spring that went through the whole process and has been adopted by the Regents," said Childs, adding that the money would be used to hire two research faculty members and fund some graduate students.
According to Childs, the faculty members would also be expected to teach a graduate-level class wherein students would learn about issues surrounding homelessness and "engage with the public and (provide) a public good at the same time."
He said that this proposal came from the School of Architecture’s Design and Planning Assistance Center — a program with origins in 1969 — as part of a national community design movement that linked university design programs and design practitioners with communities in need.
Hochman-Vigil's legislation was introduced just months after Albuquerque voters approved a bond measure allowing for $14 million to go towards the construction of a centralized emergency shelter that the city has dubbed a "gateway center."
Lisa Huval, deputy director of the city’s department of Family and Community Services, said the city didn't develop the legislation in tandem with the representative but was hopeful for a working relationship should the funding be approved.
"If (Hochman-Vigil) is successful in securing these funds, our hope is that we can work with her ... to shape this study in a way that would support a lot of the work that the city is doing rather than on a separate track or working in isolation," Huval said.
HB 19 is scheduled to be heard in the House Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, Jan. 27. If the bill is passed by the committee, it's slated to be heard in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee before heading to the House floor for a full vote.
Lissa Knudsen is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen