Homeless Services Under Pressure To Relocate
Will Albuquerque’s homeless population still have access to necessary resources?
By Sonja Dewing
The city's homeless might soon have to thumb a ride to get the help they need. Mayor Martin Chavez and the Albuquerque Planning Department are pushing to relocate many Downtown services to disperse the concentration of homeless out of the Barelas area. In a recent phone interview, the mayor offered the reason why: Putting many homeless services in the same area is “incredibly destructive to neighborhoods," he said. "You can’t get your neighborhood up if someone is urinating or taking drugs in your yard. This gives us an opportunity to rebuild Barelas.”
The idea to move the services stemmed from the Barelas Sector Development Plan, which was submitted to the City Council for approval on June 4 after years of work by the Planning Department. One of the goals outlined in the plan encourages the move; it does not, however, address where the services should be located or how homeless people would have access to services spread throughout the city.
Whether the move is warranted remains in debate. According to the plan, "the Albuquerque Police Department notes that homeless people are generally not the ones engaging in crime, especially the purchase of drugs, as they have no money to engage in those activities." The plan would also potentially prohibit homeless people from waiting outside service centers, such as the Albuquerque Rescue Mission (ARM), before they open.
James Martinez owns Fast Signs at 407 Second Street, located near the Albuquerque Rescue Mission. “Having the homeless services here doesn’t affect my business," he says. One of his customers did express concern about coming to the area, but it Martinez says it hasn’t seemed to keep business away.
The Albuquerque Rescue Mission, established in 1954 at Iron and First Street, is “more than just a soup kitchen,” according to Doug Chandler, operations director for the mission. Up to 40 men at a time go through the 12-month-long New Life Program, which assists and equips homeless men in becoming responsible citizens. Once accepted to the program, the participants take part in a personalized, multidisciplinary course that includes addressing spiritual needs and physical addictions, vocational and life skills training, and finding the path to residency and long-term employment. The mission's location includes two buildings. One the size of a small warehouse is home to classes, day rooms for men and women, a rescue van, and donated clothing.
The Barelas Sector Development Plan would also prevent the expansion of homeless services Downtown, which creates a problem for any of the homeless services who want to broaden their programs. The rescue mission, for instance, would like to buy up some of the surrounding property that is unoccupied and offer another program for women, similar to their New Life Program for men. With the progress of the Barelas Sector Development plan and the possible future regulations, Pastor John Hill, executive director of ARM, is certain that they will come across opposition in purchasing future property.
This expansion is especially needed as men were traditionally the largest segment of the homeless population, but several studies completed by the National Coalition for the Homeless, the United Way of Colorado and independent cultural studies agree that women make up the largest-growing segment of homeless populations. As the homeless population of women grows, Albuquerque’s services are not as prepared to house, assist or support a larger population of homeless women.
But even with the many services it offers, the mission cannot provide everything the homeless of Albuquerque may need on any given day. Most of the homeless services are within a mile of each other, including St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, the Salvation Army, the Good Shepherd Center, the Albuquerque Rescue Mission, Noon Day Ministry and Health Care for the Homeless. When the services are moved further apart, access becomes a key issue. “The homeless get into their own routine and go to those locations that can help them at a certain time or with a certain thing,” says Pastor Hill, adding that if the services are moved, they should re-congregate within walking distance of one another. Additionally, he says there should be well-designed transportation in place to take homeless people from Downtown to the new hub. Such a venture would require significant resources, as, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, Albuquerque holds close to 4,000 homeless people.
“There has been talk about busing homeless to an outlying area,” says Gerard Sullivan, executive director of the Good Shepherd Center, “but this doesn’t solve the problem. They are not going to stay in an isolated area, without parks or people. They will find their way back to Downtown.”
Funding for such initiatives would be difficult to get off the ground. According to Barry Bitzer, the mayor's chief of staff, there already isn't enough funding for all the programs the state wants or needs to fund. “We take two steps forward” (in developing a new program to help the homeless), he says, "and then the state turns around and cuts our funding, knocking us back. There is never enough funding for these programs.”
Another concern expressed by directors of both ARM and the Good Shepherd Center was ownership of any future property for relocation. "If we are moving into a property that we don't own," says Pastor Hill, "how do we know if we will always be welcome there by the owner?"
The approval process for the Barelas Sector Plan will require several hearings by the Land Use and Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) Committee of the City Council. If the plan passes the LUPZ Committee, it would then go before the full City Council, who will decide whether to adopt it. In the meantime, the future of Albuquerque's homeless services remains uncertain.
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