“It’s Time to Come Together and Break Ground”: Chamber Opinion Column Calls For Addressing Homelessness Head On

In a guest column in Sunday’s Albuquerque Journal’s opinion section, Chamber President and CEO Terri Cole and Downtown Transformation Bold Issue Group Chair and New Mexico Mutual CEO Norm Becker forcefully made the case for Albuquerque to prioritize a single-site, low-barrier homeless shelter to address one of the city’s most pressing concerns.

The opinion piece describes the primary gaps in services for the homeless, and zeroes in on the group more often left out of services by those gaps: single adults, especially those with behavioral health and/or substance abuse issues. Moving ahead with the Gateway Center is the key to closing these gaps and addressing the city’s rising levels of homelessness and the associated costs borne by the city, local law enforcement and medical services, and businesses and residents.

“Too often, this is the intractable story of homelessness in Albuquerque,” said Ms. Cole. “The problem is not overstated, and it demands not only decisive action and resource investment from all levels of government, but commitment and collaboration from partners across our community as well.”

The Chamber’s article is reproduced in full below:

Gateway Center crucial to helping homeless

By Terri Cole / President And CEO, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Norm Becker / Chairman, Chamber’s Downtown Transformation Policy Committee

Homelessness continues to be one of Albuquerque’s most serious and pressing economic development challenges, impacting feelings of safety among residents and businesses alike. Key gaps persist in how we respond to homelessness – and especially homeless single adults – that must be directly addressed to make progress.

For example, our community has very limited overnight sheltering – particularly within the core of Albuquerque and specifically for individuals facing substance abuse or behavioral health challenges. And, while important services are available to the homeless during the day, these services are spread across the city.

It should be little surprise, then, to see homeless people wandering throughout Albuquerque during the day – especially Downtown – and sleeping in and around parks, businesses, alleyways and various encampments at night. It’s the logical byproduct of our current system.

Amid the wandering and outside sleeping, it’s also no surprise that people feel unsafe and frequently call first responders to handle situations involving the homeless, including nuisance violations, trespassing, down-and-out persons or direct confrontations. When first responders arrive, they usually have no place to transport homeless individuals – many of whom struggle with addiction and mental health disorders – other than to jail or an emergency room. These are costly, inefficient, revolving-door responses that aren’t helpful to the homeless long-term and take law enforcement personnel off our streets. …

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce fully supports the construction of a new around-the-clock shelter and service facility for the homeless, known as the Gateway Center. Why? We feel the Gateway Center will close the important gaps we’ve just described and meet head-on our foundational homelessness challenges. Mayor Tim Keller deserves tremendous credit for his leadership and focus on this issue, and voters should be commended for green-lighting the project.

The Gateway Center will create several hundred much-needed overnight shelter beds, providing the homeless a safe place to sleep and reducing the visibility and intrusion of homelessness across our community. It will be a drop-off point for first responders, allowing officers to place the homeless in the care of professionals who can evaluate and transport them for medical or behavioral health treatment. The Gateway Center will also serve as an entry point and coordination center for services. Ideally, existing service providers could be present on site to screen and connect people to the help they most need and, eventually, to suitable permanent housing. Such a centralized clearinghouse would also be helpful with triage, testing and transition to treatment in pandemic situations like the one we currently face.

Lately, much has been said about where to locate the Gateway Center. Careful study and community input have narrowed the list of potential sites down to two locations – the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson and Coronado Park area near Second Street and I-40. While each has its benefits and drawbacks, either could be made to work well. In our opinion, this decision and others – including how large the center should be and who it should serve – must be driven by a clear understanding of the nature of our homelessness problem.

Make no mistake: though homelessness takes many forms, the serious acute challenge we’re facing in Albuquerque relates primarily to homelessness among single adults, both men and women, who need access to low-barrier overnight sheltering that we simply do not have. …

According to a city-commissioned report by outside homeless experts, single adults account for about three-fourths of our overall homeless population, and “virtually all” of the unsheltered homeless in Albuquerque are single adults. Virtually all!

We appreciate every effort being made to address homelessness among minors, families, domestic violence victims, veterans and other subsets of our homeless population. This is important work that must continue. But, Albuquerque’s success or failure on the homelessness issue rests squarely on our ability to better shelter and serve single adults. Period….

And this is precisely the problem Keller, the business community and other partners are working to solve through the construction of the Gateway Center. With voter approval and a solid $14 million start, it’s time to come together and break ground.

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