More folks are experiencing homelessness around the country, and Albuquerque’s mayor says the numbers are up here, too. Mayor Tim Keller talked about the pros and cons of what his predecessor Richard Berry rolled out, and how the city can create a system that’s easy to navigate for people who don’t have a place to live.
KELLER: From the individual’s perspective, they just need help. It’s our job to sort them after that. We’ll figure out on the back-end whether it’s the county or the city, whether it’s behavioral health, or whether it’s housing vouchers. That’s our job. But until we provide a singular place for someone to go, we’re going to continue to have these problems.
And it even goes for law enforcement. Right now, if you’re an officer and you’re trying to help someone or take them somewhere, you have to figure out on your own between dozens of different providers. That has to change.
KUNM: There were initiatives under Berry, like he implemented these signs that said: You don’t have to pay panhandlers. You can call 3-1-1 and figure out how to donate money. Or there was a program where people could choose to work for the day. Are those programs that you’re going to continue as well?
KELLER: Well, with respect to the signs, I hesitate to say anything positive about them. I think they were just kind of feel-good signs that didn’t really do anything. So we’re really trying to focus on things that actually move the needle. For example, if our plan works, we’re going to have the signs changed so it actually gives you an app that you can donate to a housing voucher on.
The other work—like the work program—we’re going to continue that. The challenge is it’s only applicable to like a tiny slice of the homeless population. So it’s great for the 10 or 20 people who use it. It’s very helpful. But we have thousands of homeless in our city.
We’re building on some of the programs that were piloted under the past administration. First and foremost, is everything we’re doing through Heading Home and housing vouchers. They’re one of the cheapest ways we can help, and they have the highest success rate.
We look at it like this: There’s no one silver bullet that is going to fix homelessness in Albuquerque, and I think looking for a silver bullet was part of the problem in the past.
KUNM: We’re seeing more tents. We’re seeing more people Downtown. We’ve heard from the business community. They have concerns about it. What is the response to the idea that we have this collection of services in the heart of Downtown that brings a lot of folks to that area?
KELLER: Well, the homeless population is way up. There’s been debate about the numbers. We’re trying to push a little bit past that and say, we all know the problem is getting worse. So let’s just acknowledge that and work on it.
I think now we see homelessness all over town. It’s even in the Far Heights. It’s all the way on the Westside. And so this is a citywide issue. There are certainly concentrations Downtown where there are service providers. That has always been the case. But it is even more so now.
KUNM: In the short-term, you want to open that winter shelter year-round, right? Do you have concerns though about that shelter being an old jail, for one? Or about it being some distance away from public transportation?
KELLER: Absolutely. It’s the least-worst option. Right now, though, it is the only option we have. What has happened in the past is one small issue has prevented us from actually helping people. And so we’re not going to wait anymore. We’re going to say, we know this isn’t ideal. We’re also going to say, this is temporary, but we’re going to provide help year-round. That’s what we’ve got to do. And unfortunately, the only place we can literally do that right now happens to be the winter shelter on the Westside.
But the vision going forward is with leadership and cooperation with the county and UNMH, we are in discussions about building a crisis triage center, and also a 24-7 sort of respite and homeless—some sort of facility—that has a full range of services. And we might actually have multiple ones, so it’s a de-centralized model. And we might have a singular one. We’re in discussions on all of that.
KUNM: Your plan points to a lot of services that do already exist—or that were kind of already in the works, like that triage center is something that Bernalillo County’s been working on—what, in your plan, is new or additive?
KELLER: The difference is we have a bias toward action. And I think what’s happened in the past is there’s been so much task forces and studies and research, that we still have thousands of homeless folks who have nowhere to go for the night. So I’m saying, let’s solve a couple of problems, and we’ll keep working on the other problems. But I don’t want to wait for one at the cost of the other.