Alibi V.29 No.30 • July 23-29, 2020 

Community News

Curb for a Pillow, Street for a Bed

Pandemic exacerbates homeless problem in New Mexico

A man stands off the freeway, hoping for kindness from a stranger.
A man stands off the freeway, hoping for kindness from a stranger.
Clarke Condé

Long term shelter, at an affordable cost, is getting harder and harder to come by in Albuquerque. From 2013 to 2019, street homelessness nearly quadrupled in the city from 144 to 567 people. Pre-COVID-19, households in Albuquerque with low incomes were already struggling to find affordable housing. If they did find a roof to cover their heads, rent could consume over half of their income.

The main causes of homelessness are unemployment, poverty, lack of needed services for mental illness and substance abuse. In 2017 nearly one in five New Mexicans (19.7 percent, or about 401,755 persons) lived below the poverty level. With COVID-19 business closures, the number of low-income renters in New Mexico is on the rise, and affordable rental units are quickly disappearing.

From 2018 to 2019, New Mexico had the nation’s largest percentage increase in homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Report. The state also saw chronic homelessness increase by 57.6 percent, the highest in the nation. A recent needs assessment report for the city by the Urban Institute estimated that Albuquerque needs an additional 15,500 affordable rental units for households with extremely low incomes. The report recommended the city preserve existing affordable units, produce more units, expand rental assistance and renter protections and work to improve service systems for the homeless.

This lack of affordable housing is feeding homelessness, and in the middle of a pandemic, this creates an even bigger problem. Alex Tibble, program coordinator for the City of Albuquerque’s Homeless Assistance Line (HAL), said, “We have experienced an increase in our call volume. Where we were averaging 100 calls, that has increased to about 130 calls.” Tibble said many callers to the helpline are people who are either about to experience homelessness, or concerned community members seeking a place for someone they are trying to connect into community resources.

In November 2019 voters gave a mandate to the City of Albuquerque to address homelessness with a 24/7 Gateway Center. At a recent COVID-19 press conference, Mayor Tim Keller said the city is continuing to work on the concept of the Gateway Center, or possibly more than one center. He said the city has created a working group, made up of city councilors, county commissioners and representatives from UNM Hospital, to come up with a plan for the Gateway Center. Also being looked at, as part of services offered by the Gateway Center, is providing assistance to help find individuals permanent affordable housing.

“There's limited resources in Albuquerque, and in New Mexico as a whole, being such a poor state. People really struggle with the vicious cycle of poverty. We often get really desperate callers.” Tibble said all of the helpline staff are trained in emotional support and crisis intervention. The helpline also offers referrals for transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, childcare, employment services, health care, eviction prevention, meals and motel vouchers.

Helpline callers are also a reflection of New Mexico’s unemployment rate of 9.0 percent in June 2020. “We've definitely been getting an increase of people wanting to get connected into employment services. They are trying to find a new job so they can maintain the apartment that they're living in.” Tibble said many callers have been on waiting lists for housing vouchers for a long time. Albuquerque Housing Authority only awards about 1000 housing vouchers every year. This, she said, “is not enough to cover the demand.”

Housing remains the number one concern for the under - and unemployed, and its absence can cause a chain reaction of problems. “Most of our callers are seeking some sort of shelter system. Whether that is finding a bed, or they are looking to get more affordable and permanent housing.” Tibble said many callers have been unable to access their stimulus checks because they do not have a permanent address. “I have a lot of our callers who are homeless, and those checks would have been able to secure a home for them.”

Agora Crisis Center operates the Helpline through a grant from The Department of Family and Community Services. The Helpline is funded by a grant from The Department of Family and Community Services. Tipple said she hopes that they can continue this Helpline, because they've had a really successful launch pilot year despite COVID. “We really feel as though we're making a difference in Albuquerque and in the community, and we hope that the city will budget us in for the next fiscal year.”

The Albuquerque Homeless Assistance Helpline is 505-768-4357 (HELP). They are available Monday through Friday from 8am to 8pm. Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 6pm. https://www.cabq.gov/family/services/homeless-services