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New City Plan to “Help the Homeless” or Promote Downtown Tourism by Removing Homeless from the Streets?

In just a few days, the City of Albuquerque will launch what it claims is one of its most comprehensive plans ever to help the homeless. While specific details of the program are sketchy at this point, what is known is there will be at least an initial focus on identifying the chronic homeless from the downtown area. They will then be relocated to housing in different parts of the city.

My initial concern is that with substance abuse only being an option and not a requirement, this program is just a way to push the homeless out of downtown and into other low-income areas of the city. If that’s the case, city officials haven’t helped the problem. They’ve just moved it from one spot to another.

It also sounds suspiciously like a roundup to me, although that was vehemently denied by City of Albuquerque Director of Family and Community Services Robin Dozier-Otten, who told KOAT in a recent story, “This certainly isn’t a roundup of people. This is an attempt to get people housed.”

Despite a very difficult economy resulting in increased need for services and decreased funding for Joy Junction and other similar organizations, a proverbial “perfect storm,” Dozier-Otten is convinced that this plan is good for taxpayers, and will save them money.

While Dozier-Otten didn’t explain to KOAT exactly what she meant, presumably she was referring to the theory that once the chronically homeless are housed, they will no longer be making expensive trips to the emergency rooms and local jail and other services, thus saving taxpayers a lot of money.

But is that true? The theory upon which Albuquerque’s imminent controversial program is based embraces a housing philosophy known as “Housing First”. It claims that if homeless people have their basic needs met, they will be more likely to seek treatment. I would argue that in many, if not most cases, this just doesn’t happen for the chronically addicted.

One mission executive in a neighboring state told me recently that Housing First is “just a clever way to place people in housing and then say homelessness doesn’t exist anymore.”

He added, “There are still those homeless who do not want to live with others and prefer isolation on the streets. They won’t trust moving in with others in a housing project.”

A similar program to the one proposed by Albuquerque city government is in the works for Los Angeles under the rosy name “Home for Good.”

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich called the approach “warehousing without healing.”

A New York Times article said “Home for Good,” which aims to end homelessness in five years, “was embraced by political and civic leaders even as it served as a reminder of how many of these plans have failed over the years.”

Here’s what Los Angeles Times writer Adam Nagourney wrote in a recent article titled, “Los Angeles Confronts Homeless Reputation.”

He said the issue of homelessness “has become an acute embarrassment to some civic leaders” … and there is “concern in the business and political communities that the epidemic is threatening to tarnish Los Angeles’ national image and undercut a campaign to promote tourism, particularly in downtown …”

So why would Albuquerque city leaders embrace what could be called a cosmetically attractive, but in my opinion a structurally defective, approach to tackle the growing issue of homelessness? Could their motivation be to rid the streets of downtown Albuquerque of the homeless and pretend they don’t exist?

There’s hasn’t been a whole lot of compassion offered by political officials when it comes to dealing with the homeless in downtown Albuquerque. For example. Remember that we are a city with an almost total lack of downtown restroom facilities for the homeless. When asked the reason for this, excuses offered ranged from “they encourage prostitution and drug dealing” to they would be an issue for tourists.

Both as a long-time Albuquerque resident and founder and CEO of Joy Junction, New Mexico’s largest emergency homeless shelter, I will do anything I can to ensure the success of this proposed program for the good of the homeless. But don’t be fooled about its motivation. It’s an effort to make city leaders look good by revitalizing our bar-ridden downtown, not an attempt to help our most vulnerable citizens get back on their feet and reintegrated into mainstream community life. If you believe otherwise, think again.

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