At two different neighborhood association meetings this past week, I heard choruses of frustration over problems created in those communities by the large number of homeless people hanging out on street corners and in parks. For me it was déjà vu.
Six years ago I was part of a city–appointed task force that studied the problem of homelessness and was charged with making recommendations to the mayor and City Council for a plan of action. Our goal was to greatly reduce--if not homelessness (a condition with origins far beyond any mere municipal government to prevent)--at least the most damaging effects of homelessness on those in that condition and on the community as a whole.
We approached that year’s study and planning effort with full knowledge that for at least 15 years previously a succession of Albuquerque city administrations had undertaken similar initiatives … and that all had ultimately floundered. And, in the end, so did ours.
We still have--in Albuquerque, in New Mexico and certainly throughout this country--a serious and growing problem of homelessness; of men, women and even families with children who simply don’t have any place other than the streets, an old car or an emergency shelter in which to spend the night.
That reality is a scandalous indictment of our society. Maybe it’s an indictment of our economic system, too, but certainly it at least calls our public policy priorities into question.
I can put it simply. There is no legitimate reason why we should ever tolerate even one of our people not having a safe residence.
The money it would take to accomplish such a feat isn’t a fraction of what we are routinely spending on Iraq’s occupation, on buying high-tech armaments we know will never be used and on direct government subsidies showered on America’s largest corporations. (We pay Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, for example, to do business in China. Tax money. Our tax money. Don’t get me started.)
So the persistence of homelessness and the problems it causes (petty crime; aggressive panhandling; litter and filth in parks, alleys and streets; drug and alcohol abuse; to note just a few) exist not because they're too expensive to cope with but because of our failure of will as a community to act decisively.
What has happened over and over in the past is that political leaders have tried to find solutions that will not upset anyone. The problem is that waiting around for a solution to emerge that has unanimous support is kind of like hunting for unicorns—success is unlikely.
Yet there are many cities around the country where local leadership has been exercised even in the face of neighborhood opposition or fear-based criticism, with the result that significant gains have been made. The closest example is probably Las Cruces, where shelters, meal kitchens, a health clinic, a child care center and an employment, counseling and referral agency housed in a day shelter are all located in a city-built complex not far from the center of town.
It has significantly reduced the turmoil and friction that result when numerous homeless people are begging at interstate off-ramps, filling city parks, get picked up by cops and jailed for the full spectrum of petty offenses we lock them up for in Albuquerque.
If Las Cruces could do it, it could certainly be done here, too. All it would take would be for the mayor to decide it's an important enough matter for him to use some of his vast store of political capital to overcome the kind of knee-jerk opposition that even raising the issue has historically generated. He's a can-do kind of guy; if he leads, this issue can be handled.
We actually are much better off than we were at the time of the last task force six years ago. Now we have a detoxification and treatment facility for public inebriates in the old Charter Hospital on Zuni. We have a new, well-run overnight shelter for single men, the Albuquerque Opportunity Center, with a good track record of helping break the cycle of homelessness.
More transitional housing exists than did six years ago as well, and more is being built. Homeless women have more resources available. St. Martin’s Day shelter has worked hard and successfully to rebuild neighborhood support for its work.
In the near future, Noon Day, the Salvation Army, the Albuquerque Rescue Mission and the Storehouse are all planning on relocating out of the central city. They are all private agencies begun as faith-based initiatives. That is their strength and should be encouraged.
But city government could take a lead in proactively helping those organizations collaborate in a place where they would find their effectiveness enhanced and where the gaps in service can be plugged. And we should open our municipal pocketbook to realistically deal with these neediest of our fellows.
This is not a neighborhood problem; it’s an Albuquerque problem. No one neighborhood, whether Barelas or Wells Park or Huning Highland or South Broadway, should be expected to single-handedly cope with it. Caring and money in equal proportions will be needed. But, most of all, what we need is leadership.