Feeling the Pinch
A depressed economy makes homeless care providers sweat
By Simon McCormack
All around Albuquerque, those who take care of the city's homeless are being asked to make due with less.
As gas and food prices rise, the funding for many homeless care organizations has stayed the same or decreased. At the same time, organizations see more homeless coming through their doors during these tough economic times. They haven't pushed the panic button yet, but homeless aid providers see their resources stretched thin.
"We can't squeeze any more juice out of the turnip," says Lee Pattison, executive director of St. Martin's Hospitality Center, a day shelter and behavioral health services provider. "Up until the last few years, we've just tried to do more with less, but we've hit limits."
The past 12 months have been especially tough for many homeless organizations. Roadrunner Food Bank Executive Director Melody Wattenbarger says she's seen a drop of about 30 percent in donations since June of last year. "There's an increased need, and at the same time, we're having a hard time keeping up with it because of costs," Wattenbarger says.
Pattison says it makes sense for homeless providers like Roadrunner and St. Martin’s to see fewer donations dropped off during a period of economic uncertainty. "People give donations out of their expendable income, and that's becoming less and less as food, gasoline and the cost of living goes up," Pattison says. "People have less money to give."
Barbara Lemaire, director of development and communications at the Barrett Foundation, works to get homeless and near-homeless women on their feet. She says it's simple to understand how the need for homeless services has increased. "People everywhere are hurting, but it hurts people living on subsistence wages and people without jobs the most," Lemaire says. "They're having a tough time making it through."
All the homeless providers the Alibi contacted say they have not had to cut any of their services or programs. Michele Fuller, the executive director of the domestic violence shelter S.A.F.E. House, says she won't think about the prospect of having to choose which programs to keep. "I'm not willing to entertain that thought at this point," Fuller says. "We're not at that bridge yet."
Fuller says instead of cutting services, her organization and others like it have to look at ways to cut costs and be more efficient. "Our staff is passionate about what they do, and we don't even have to ask them to work harder because they're so committed," she says. "We have to think 10 steps ahead now instead of just one."
Lemaire says one way of easing the heavy burden on homeless providers is through frequent communication between a tight-knit group of organizations. "If we have too much of one thing, we'll call around and distribute it to the places that need it," she says. "We try to work as closely as we can together. It's the only way we're going to get things taken care of."
Pattison says he fears for his clients if the economy doesn't turn around or if more funds aren't allocated to those most in need. "We're worried about what happens if we do have to cut services," he says. "Some individuals that we work with are just hanging in there."
Providing more funding for organizations like St. Martin's makes good fiscal sense, Pattison asserts. He says a hospital stay costs around $250 a night, and a night in jail will cost taxpayers about $100. Instead of waiting until the homeless are in such bad shape that they need emergency medical attention or end up in the slammer, Pattison says, it's a better idea to give them treatment. "It costs about $25 a day to care for someone at St. Martin's," Pattison says. "Prevention is actually cheaper."
For Lemaire, solving the problem of homelessness takes everyone doing whatever is possible. "You can't ask people to give more than they can," Lemaire says. "But even if it's a small amount, every bit does help."
To find out more about homeless organizations in Albuquerque, or to donate, visit the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness' website at nmceh.org.
For more information on the organizations mentioned in this article, go to:
smhc-nm.org (St. Martin's Hospitality Center)
rrfb.org (Roadrunner Food Bank)
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