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Leading in homelessness means it’s time to act

December 20, 2018

New Mexico, apparently, now tops the nation in the percentage of chronically homeless people.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics, about 12 of every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness, up 2.8 percent from 2017. Some 42 percent had been homeless for a year or more, the report revealed Monday stated. In human terms, we’re talking about 2,551 people in New Mexico, including 290 veterans, 182 unaccompanied youth and more than 600 people in families with children.

The count showed 552,800 people without homes across the U.S., marking the second consecutive increase after seven straight years of declines.

To anyone who wanders the streets of Santa Fe, these are statistics that fit what we see going on around us. Residents of south-side Santa Fe report people sleeping in parks and arroyos, even in the cold. People walk along Cerrillos Road, pushing carts with their belongings. We don’t know if the people asking for money at street corners and in medians are homeless or simply need help, but there are plenty of them around town. (Seeing people in Santa hats asking for handouts adds poignancy at this time of year.)

As the Associated Press story on the report put it so well: “The problem has long vexed the state’s largest metro area, Albuquerque, as well as other communities around New Mexico.”

Recognizing the problem is always the first step toward solving it.

And that makes 2019 the right year for Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber’s approach to homelessness. Webber invited nationally known expert Rosanne Haggerty to Santa Fe. Haggerty, president and CEO of the New York-based organization Community Solutions, has worked in solving homelessness for a number of years. She helped end chronic homelessness in New York’s Times Square and was selected as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow for her work.

Her approach is about ending homelessness. It’s about creating collaborations among the different groups that help homeless people so that, eventually, there are no more chronically homeless people to help. The key is that homeless people are individuals, not a vague group in need of assistance. The approach relieves both the symptoms and gets to the root of what causes people to be without shelter.

Intervention is not just about finding homes for people before they lose their homes in the first place.

While in Santa Fe last month, Haggerty met with the different players in our city’s fight against homelessness, whether city leaders, volunteers and folks from Pete’s Pets Place (the Interfaith Community Shelter), St. Elizabeth Shelter and LifeLink.

Eventually, Santa Fe as a community can decide to join this national effort to end homelessness, using proven solutions, real-time data, existing resources and adapting all of that to what we need here.

Called Built for Zero, the initiative is present in dozens of cities across the United States with three cities proud of ending chronic homelessness and eight successful in ending veteran homelessness.

We like these wise words from the Community Solutions website: “Homelessness is a solvable problem that has lost its sense of urgency. Built for Zero is a rigorous national change effort designed to help a core group of committed U.S. communities end chronic and veteran homelessness.”

We’ll hear more about this in the coming months and look forward to a vigorous debate about the best way forward. The newest statistics, however, show that the need is great.

The moment to act is now. By joining our insider community knowledge with national expertise, Santa Fe could become another place that ends chronic homelessness. A worthy goal indeed for 2019.

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