During his first year as mayor, Tim Keller promised to tackle the homelessness issue in Albuquerque through the use of housing vouchers and the development of new shelters. But the homeless problem has only grown over the last two years, and the pandemic is only partly to blame.
In 2018 Keller criticized former Mayor Richard Berry’s initiative to use signs that suggested people call 311 to find homeless outreach programs that would accept donations instead of giving handouts to panhandlers. “Well, with respect to the signs, I hesitate to say anything positive about them,” he told KUNM. “I think they were just kind of feel-good signs that didn’t really do anything.”
Ironically, Keller has since announced the installment of signs that ask residents to donate to the One Albuquerque Housing Fund instead of giving money to panhandlers. The fund is meant to economically bolster critical programs initiated to address the “core challenges” facing the city, including homelessness.
The housing fund was supposed to provide housing vouchers to homeless people to help get roofs over their heads, but much of the money has gone unspent, and countless homeless citizens continue to suffer from lack of housing. Many are asking why the city squandered its resources and if this has contributed to the current problems.
Last year city officials failed to spend $700,000 in federal aid meant for housing vouchers in 2019 and 2020. The city retained some of that money, but $235,000 was returned unspent. Officials said the funds went untouched due to lack of oversight and an inability to find enough contractors during the pandemic to provide outreach for the vouchers.
In 2019 the mayor’s office also requested $2 million from the City Council to fund housing vouchers. But when the city asked for vendors to apply for the funding, it was reportedly unable to get enough proposals to spend the entire amount. The city extended the program to spread out over three years, but only around $100,000 of the total was reportedly spent by the end of 2020. The mayor’s office blamed much of the delay on COVID-19 health restrictions. In November the Family and Community Services Department made a plan to spend that money this year.
Good news could be on the horizon for the city’s homeless population, however. The city says it has received $3.4 million in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding and $412,388 in HUD Emergency Solutions Grant funding. These grants are to specifically fund programs and services for people experiencing homelessness. In addition, the city received $8 million in Emergency Services funding under the CARES Act to prepare, prevent and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic for people experiencing homelessness.
The city has also finally settled on an agreement to buy the former Lovelace Hospital—known now as the Gibson Medical Center—and convert it into a “Gateway Center” that will be able to house and treat hundreds of homeless citizens. The Mayor has not yet disclosed his plans for the property.
The proposed Gateway Center was thought to have been taken off the table last year when the current owners of the hospital sued the former owner for violating a previous agreement and selling the property over their objections and at too low a price. The city and the previous owner had agreed on $13 million price tag. That price was raised to $15 million as part of the settlement.