County Steps Up to Provide Much Needed Homelessness Resources

On any given night there here in Albuquerque/Bernalillo County there are more than 1,500 of us homeless, scrabbling to find a place on the streets to survive. More than half of us, whether we are on the streets or in homes, are in need of mental health support. This is scary stuff in normal times, even scarier in a pandemic.

Tax Us Please

Back in 2014 a whole bunch of us Bernalillo County residents helped the helpers when we passed a tax on ourselves to fund behavioral health initiatives. And those helpers, paid and unpaid, are our unsung heroes and heroines, doing the work to bring services to those living on the streets.

In the months following the mandate from the voters, the city added a one-eighth of one percent tax to our gross receipts to improve access to mental and substance abuse services in Bernalillo County. This generates about $20 million a year in revenue to address behavioral health issues. A task force was formed that included stakeholders such as elected representatives, state, city and county folks, health care providers, business and neighborhood folks. This task force identified the gaps in the area’s behavioral healthcare needs and priorities. That punch list said we need a regional mental health care center, intensive case management, supportive housing, reforms to the criminal justice system, better utilization of Medicaid, community engagement teams and mobile crisis units. A Behavioral Health Initiative was formed. The BHI collaboration was led by Bernalillo County and includes the city of Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico. 

Let’s Do This

In order to tackle this monumental task, five subcommittees were formed to address crisis intervention, addiction and treatment, housing, community support and prevention, intervention and harm reduction. The people on these committees meet on a regular basis to make recommendations to the BHI steering committee that assures services meet the focus and get connected. The County Commission has the final say over how the money is spent. Over the last three years alone, nearly $24 million has gone toward community-based programs that have reached 80,000 people, according to county numbers. The county has more than $21 million in annual projects appropriations and has appropriated $62 million in one-time grants. According to county representatives, due to the pandemic and tax revenues being down, some of the projects that were set to launch are paused so existing programs don’t get cut. So anyone that thinks their mental health tax money has been misused or just sitting around is wrong.

What Have We Done

Some of the programs up and running, funded with our helper tax money, include:

• Crisis stabilization unit located near the UNM Psychiatric Hospital is for those of us who are in the midst of a crisis and would otherwise end up in the emergency room.

• CARES Campus expansion to the tune of $5 million at the former Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services center. This will increase capacity to 14,000 clients a year for addictions and mental health issues, detox, outpatient health clinic, 24-hour intake and a peer-run living room program and other services.

• Mobile crisis teams to respond quickly to crisis situations to defuse and provide mental health resources instead of law enforcement just shooting someone.

• Community engagement teams who help people cope with mental health and substance abuse disorders and avoid the emergency room and criminal justice system by integrating wellness, self-
management skills, personal recovery, natural supports and coping skills. Sounds like something we all may need, especially in these times.

• Law enforcement-assisted diversion programs where, instead of arresting someone for doing something, they funnel people into a program to address the underlying issues.

• Re-entry programs that help those just released from jail and/or prison so they can find the resources needed to not become part of the revolving door syndrome.

• Youth transitional services that focus on our at-risk youth who are homeless or precariously housed with a mental health or addiction diagnosis.

• Reducing adverse childhood experiences by paying for services and support that is not currently reimbursed by insurance or Medicaid.

• Peer-to-peer services, support and drop-in center for 16- to 22-year-olds who are homeless or disconnected from school or their community to provide connection. No one likes to be told what to do by authority figures, especially young folks, so peer-to-peer is the way to go with youth.

Where To Now?

We talked with Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca and Margarita Chavez Sanchez, Bernalillo County behavioral health director, about the county’s work to help our vulnerable populations and about what we, as citizens, can do to help. We chatted about where the money goes and the dedication of those working to help all of us. They would like folks to know that the services are available to all county residents, not just the homeless sitting at the bus stops. Morgas Baca said residents, including the media, can help by spreading the word about the programs available so more people can take advantage of the help offered.

“We had a lot of foundation to build,” Morgas Baca said. She said now that a solid foundation is being laid, they are most excited right now about the crisis stabilization unit which will help many people.  She went on to say that the subcommittees, which are made up of community members and subject matter experts, have worked diligently to come up with services and projects that will actually work. Like medically and mentally treating people without sending them to emergency rooms or jail. Both dynamic leaders said the programs are intended to be accessible to all—because mental health is something that we all can struggle with at any point in our lives. And there is no typical profile for those who need mental or substance abuse help.

“My grandmother who lived with depression for many years and our children who have been exposed to adverse conditions are the profiles of mental health.” said Chavez Sanchez. “Behavioral health can touch everyone along the continuum, age spans, socio-economic status. We want to meet them where they are.”Yup, look for the helpers and you will find them. [ ]