Let’s Take a Look at What the Officials Say
Last year’s homeless data reported that New Mexico had the highest increase in homelessness nationally. But did this data illustrate a clear and realistic portrait of homelessness? There are some differing opinions within the state.
“We believe these numbers are accurate,” Lisa Huval, deputy director for Housing and Homelessness for the Albuquerque Family and Community Services Department, told Invisible People.
According to a New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness report, the number of residents struggling with homelessness in the state is between 15,000 and 20,000 people annually.
“One of the driving factors in the increase in chronically homeless people in New Mexico is what happened to our behavioral health system under the previous governor, with the dismantling of the behavioral health infrastructure as we knew it amid accusations of Medicaid fraud,” Huval said. “This forced a number of providers to close their doors and caused lots of people to lose access to services. In many ways, we’re still recovering from that.”
Much of the information indicating New Mexico’s increase in homelessness was based on the 2019 Point-in-Time (PIT) count. The count is conducted by the Continuum of Care (CoC) Program and enumerates the sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January. The 2020 PIT count should be released soon.
Not everyone agrees on the veracity of the data.
Point-in-Time numbers have accuracy issues said Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
“The point in time count numbers, especially for New Mexico are not very accurate,” he said. “I think the data is valuable to show trends over several years but not on a one time basis. Part of the reason we are seeing an increase is that more people have been helping with the count in recent years. New Mexico probably did not actually have the largest increase in the country.”
Whether the Albuquerque’s homelessness rates increased or not depends on who you speak to said Josh Leopold, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.
Leopold was part of a team that authored a 2020 report on homelessness and affordable housing in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. In early 2020, before COVID-19 ravaged the land, they traveled to New Mexico.
“The people in the mayor’s office, city agencies, felt like, yes … homelessness had increased,” he said. “And then I think that some of the people in that Continuum of Care and some of the service providers were saying, ‘Well, it hasn’t necessarily increased, it’s just gotten more visible.’”
Albuquerque Public Schools approximated that between 3,000 and 4,000 students experience homelessness, according to the New Mexico News Port.
However, there does seem to be some consensus on homelessness in the city. Both Huval and Hughes agree that it has increased.
“Homelessness has increased in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and has been increasing since 2017,” Hughes said. “This is partly due to the increasing cost of housing and the diminishing supply of affordable housing in both cities.”
Huval was a bit more detailed. “Homelessness is increasing in Albuquerque for the same reasons it is increasing across the country, including increasing rental costs without corresponding wage increases, limited access to and unaffordable medical care, and limited access to behavioral health services.”
She said it isn’t clear if the pandemic has impacted the upsurge in homelessness there.
“We do not yet have data on whether homelessness has increased due to the pandemic. The next point in time count will be conducted in January 2021 and will provide a current picture.”
Leopold said poverty seemed to be the primary factor in Albuquerque’s homelessness, as opposed to non-affordable housing. But housing is still an issue.
Albuquerque has strong service providers and a tradition of a scattered-site housing first model as well as various successful pilot programs, he said. Yet, the trend there seems to be an attraction of higher-income Millennials to the city. The result is converting available housing stock into fashionable apartment buildings, he added.
But Hughes said the elements that have given rise to Albuquerque’s homelessness are not all known.
“We don’t really know what other factors are causing the increase,” Hughes said. “Before 2017, homelessness was on more of a downward trend and had been since 2011.”