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Combing The Streets To Survey Homeless People

Ed Williams-KUNM

Two local nonprofits are leading a survey of the Albuquerque’s homeless population this week. Teams of volunteers are canvassing the streets in the pre-dawn hours to count homeless residents and interview them.

There were almost 1,200 homeless Albuquerque residents last time the count took place, and organizers are hoping there are even fewer people to count this year.

It’s 4:30 a.m. A cadre of volunteers is busy talking to residents of a homeless camp in a drainage ditch just off of I-40 in Albuquerque.  A handful of groups are participating in this year’s “point in time count,” a census of the city’s homeless population.  The homeless advocacy and housing groups Albuquerque Heading Home and the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness do this every two years.

  • Have you ever been attacked or beaten up since becoming homeless?
  • Do you have planned activities each day other than just surviving that bring you happiness and fulfillment?

The surveyors ask 70 questions with the hopes of being able to better identify people’s most pressing needs. Volunteers also use the interviews to help connect homeless people to housing and other services.

On this day, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry is helping one of the survey teams. He interviewed a man named Thomas.

An Albuquerque native, Thomas says he’s been living on the streets since he was 15.  He’s 43 now and says he’s been in this camp for a few months. He says he's struggling with serious medical problems. The survey team startled him at first.

“I thought that the police were going to come down here and do something really cruel to us,” Thomas said. “But I mean, all those that are eligible for a program they can get on, that’s awesome. A lot of people don’t know these programs exist, they don’t have a clue that there’s help out there.”

That “cruel” thing Thomas was referring to was being asked to leave the area by police — something he says happens frequently here. But Mayor Berry said that might be the least of the concerns for these residents.

"Today we hear a common story, we hear about how violent it can be being homeless and living on the streets,” Berry said. “We hear about services that sometimes work on the surface but don’t really work in the long run. And so we’re just trying to get this information back to our service providers and help them craft solutions that people can really utilize to improve their lives.”

Advocates say it’s hard to compare Albuquerque’s homeless population to that of other cities in the country because each point in time count is done differently. Still, there’s been some progress in reducing the problem here. The city’s last point in time count revealed a nearly 28 percent reduction in homelessness since 2011.

Mayor Berry says once this year’s survey results are analyzed, he’s hoping to see the number of homeless people has continued to decline. Those numbers are due out by early March.

Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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