How Albuquerque figured out how to really help its homeless population. And save money in the process.
ALBUQUERQUE—Under a cloudless desert sky, David Kelhoyoma, a Marine veteran who help liberate Kuwait City during the first Gulf War, roamed the top of a city landfill, stuffing stray bits of plastic into a garbage bag. He felt really good about where he was.
An hour earlier he had been panhandling on a corner in downtown Albuquerque, something he’s done off and on during years of intermittent homelessness, when a van came by asking if he’d like a job for the day. Now he and eight other homeless people are walking along an artificial hillside at the city’s 980-acre Cerro Colorado landfill, picking up bits of trash that somehow avoided being bulldozed under the dirt. In fluorescent orange vests they fill garbage bags with bits of plastic sheeting, broken toys and a surprising number of discarded hospital breathing tubes, anything that might be carried off by the wind. It’s part of an innovative city program for helping the homeless that has attracted national attention. Six hours from now—after a lunch of sandwiches, chips and oranges—the van that collected Kelhoyoma and the others will return them downtown, where they’ll be paid $9 an hour for their work and they can connect with social service providers if they choose.
“We’ve got our own problems. I’m an alcoholic, they’ve all got whatever they’ve got, but they’re all making an effort,” says Kelhoyoma, a tall Hopi man with bad knees and a felony conviction that has made getting full-time work difficult. “Being outside here, away from the city, it makes you human again,” he adds, gesturing out at the desert and mountains surrounding the landfill. “That’s what work does too.”
Since the program began 14 months ago, more than 400 different panhandlers have taken the offer, and many have used it as a stepping stone to get permanent work, housing or treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems. It’s the brainchild of the city’s two-term Republican mayor, Richard J. Berry, who came up with the idea in the summer of 2015 after rolling down his window to talk to a man standing on a corner with a sign saying “Want a Job. Anything Helps.” Instead of ticketing panhandlers, Berry thought, why not try to bring literally bring jobs to them, right at the curb where they’re standing, and offer them services too while they’re at it? “I’m from Nebraska and my grandparents taught me about the dignity of work, and if you give that to them, they may be more likely to invest in themselves,” says Berry. “They’re much more likely to say ‘Somebody believed in me today’ and so much more likely to accept the services.”
The van program has earned national media attention, and dozens of cities are looking into duplicating it, but it’s just one part of an array of interlocking initiatives that in just five years has turned the largest city in one of the nation’s poorest states into a national leader in the effort to address homelessness—a counterpoint to San Francisco, a wealthy city that’s spent large amounts to deal with a homelessness crisis with little to show for it . What makes Albuquerque’s holistic approach so attractive to other urban executives is how it marries liberal and conservative principles—no questions-asked charity and an old-fashioned work ethic. The city is putting the people most at risk of dying on the streets into homes straightaway, which has saved dozens of lives and has realized net savings to the taxpayer of more than $2 million a year. Forward-thinking social service agencies have built successful day labor and job placement programs for homeless people who had little hope of getting work on their own. Activists have convinced city and county officials to fund the creation of a sturdy village of tiny homes (rather than tents) for people currently living on the street. And, perhaps most important, a series of excessive force cases by the Albuquerque Police Department prompted voters to tax themselves to beef up mental health and substance abuse programs weakened by budget cuts.
“We’re thinking about how to address homelessness from a systemic level and that’s getting us a lot farther than we thought possible,” says Lisa Huval, associate director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “Yes, it’s important to fund really strong programs, but it’s also making sure they work together as a system and fill in the gaps.”
When it comes to homelessness, Albuquerque—with a metropolitan population of 900,000—isn’t markedly worse than other medium-sized cities. In a 2011 National Alliance to End Homelessness survey of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, it came in 28th in per capita homelessness, and its rate has gone down since then. Its 2016 report only crunches the numbers by state, but New Mexico is well below the national average, and has a tenth the rate of the District of Columbia.
The city is a regional center for homelessness, however, in large part because it’s one of the few places with services for hundreds of miles and the only two Interstates in New Mexico converge in the middle of the city. “We’re centrally located in a state with a lot of poverty, so everyone comes here looking for a better situation because they won’t find it in Las Cruces or Gallup or Farmington,” says Danny Whatley, executive director of Noon Day, the city’s largest emergency shelter, which serves 400 to 600 breakfasts and lunches a day.
Albuquerque poet and architecture critic Vincent Barrett Price calls it “a city at the end of the world,” a state of mind that’s shaped it since the Spanish established the high desert settlement on the banks of the Rio Grande in 1706. For the next 140 years it was an isolated farming community on Spanish America’s remote northern frontier, and a small U.S. military outpost in the annexed New Mexico Territory for three decades after that. The coming of the railroad in 1880 turned the place into a boom town—its population quintupled to over 11,000 by statehood in 1912—with a Midwestern-looking cityscape clustered in the “New Town” next to the railway station. There was another boom after 1945, the year the federal government established the Sandia Base, turning Albuquerque into the capital of America’s nuclear weapons industry and fostering an explosion of unregulated, 1950s-style suburban sprawl. “Its citizens and leaders don’t know if they want it to be an American city, virtually interchangeable with other Sunbelt boomtowns, or a New Mexico city true to its climate, landscape and local culture,” Price wrote in the early 1990s, resulting in a place that to newcomers “can seem depressingly like a third-world resort town overrun by developers.”
By the time Price was writing, visible homelessness was on the rise across the country, driven by a 30-year experiment in the deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill that failed to deliver viable treatment alternatives. Studies in the late 1980s showed a quarter to a third of these former patients were living on the streets. Reagan administration cuts in federal grants to cities meant there were fewer resources to build affordable housing, pricing low-income workers out of the market. In San Francisco, where 40 percent of the homeless were estimated to be mentally ill, a newspaper poll found homelessness to be city residents’ number one concern.
In Albuquerque, the estimated number of homeless more than doubled between 1987 and 1995 to 3,000, and city boosters began fretting that they had become a major barrier to efforts to revitalize the fast-growing city’s morbid downtown. Homelessness advocates began holding annual memorial services outside a downtown church for the 30 to 50 who had died on the city’s streets that year. The profile of the homeless was changing, too, with 35 percent of respondents in a 2007 survey reporting they became homeless because they didn’t make enough money to pay rent. There were families on the streets—many shelters are gender-specific and don’t let parents stay together—and one in 10 homeless people reported they had a full-time job. “When gas prices go up, you and I eat out less,” Lee Pattison, the then-executive director of one of the city’s largest social service providers, the St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, told the Albuquerque Journal that December. “People making minimum wage have to make more difficult choices. Unfortunately, that often means they give up their home.”
Homelessness had by then become a political issue, the topic of candidate forums and regular news coverage. Ironically, it took the surprise victory of a fiscally-conservative, pro-business Republican in the 2009 mayoral race to put it on the top tier of the city’s political agenda.
Richard J. Berry, an Iowa-born, Nebraska-raised Eagle Scout who had come to Albuquerque on a University of New Mexico track and field scholarship, was a two-term legislator who’d built a construction business with his wife. Albuquerque was a deep blue city with a three-term Democratic incumbent that hadn’t elected a Republican for mayor since 1981. But it was a three-way race and Democrats split their votes. Berry took 44 percent, enough to avoid an expected run-off against mayor Martin Sanchez, a prominent political figure in New Mexico figure who’d already run for governor and the U.S. Senate. Berry’s campaign emphasized fiscal responsibility and a tougher stance on illegal immigrants, not homelessness.
Nine months after taking office, Berry was flying back from meetings in California when an article in the Los Angeles Times caught his attention. It described “Project 50,” an effort to find the 50 people most likely to die in L.A.’s infamous skid row and house them immediately, with no demands that they first quit drink or drugs or accept mental health treatment. “Rather than allow the homeless to grind endlessly through the machinery of missions, lockups and hospitals, why not just give them an apartment key?” was how the article summarized the approach, called “Housing First”. “Why not settle them in a room and offer all the help they’d take?” Two years later, 52 of the 68 people who’d participated in the program remained housed by one means or another, and all of the 39 still in the project’s single occupancy apartments were receiving medical treatment, 37 of them for mental health issues. The kicker: The program actually saved the city money because the people it helped required fewer emergency room and police services.
“I was looking for some way to make a real difference in homelessness and not just sweep it under the rug or make it punitive,” Berry recalls. “I read that the highest 50 users cost $10 million in services, and one guy was costing $900,000. The light bulb went off that if you do it right, you could save money.”
Berry had tapped into a major shift in professional thinking about homelessness intervention with roots going back New York City in the early 1990s. Sam Tsemberis, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University, had decided to act on what the chronically homeless people he worked with where telling him: They wanted places to live like everyone else, but not in intrusive facilities where they felt coerced to stay off drugs or attend religious services or accept mental health treatment. His radically simple conclusion: Just give the chronically homeless housing. “Addiction treatment specialists thought we were nuts,” Tsemberis recalls. “They said many strange and unnerving things; most comments took the form of ‘This will never work.’” But it did. Numerous random controlled trials have found that 85 to 90 percent of the participants in such programs are still housed two years later. This upended the old system. “There was this continuum that you took someone from the streets to a shelter to a transitional home to an almost permanent one and if you got clean and sober and healthy, then you got housing.
That was the prize and then we were done with you,” says Jennifer Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, which provides 4,200 homeless people with free medical, dental and substance abuse treatment each year. “Housing First says you don’t wait until they were ‘deserving’ or whatever it was that said they were ready for housing. You just give them housing and then offer them services…. It took a long time for people to get their heads around this.” By 2010, it was rapidly taking root, having been adopted as part of George W. Bush’s campaign to end chronic homelessness and slated for expansion to veterans and families with children by the Obama administration.
Some of Albuquerque’s social assistance organizations had adopted the approach, but the mayor’s initiative had ambitious targets: find and house the 75 most vulnerable people immediately and reach 146 by the second year. “The kick off stakes were pretty high because not only did we need to house those 75 people under the scrutiny of the mayor and the public, but we had people from all across the country coming to observe the launch,” recalls Dennis Plummer, CEO of Heading Home, the social services non-profit where the program was embedded. Starting at the end of January 2011, some 100 volunteers and police officers—plus the mayor and his wife—fanned out across the city in the predawn cold each day for a week, looking for and interviewing people who had bedded down in underpasses, parks, doorways and parking garages to build a census that would let them identify the 75 worst-off.
“We had the biggest snowstorm in 100 years hit on one of those mornings and it turned from an outreach effort to a crisis intervention and emergency response,” says Plummer, who helped get homeless people to improvised shelter in the convention center. “No one died that entire week and it helped us connect with people in a deeper way.”
It took three months to get the first person housed under the program, where the overhead—now $770,000 a year—is covered by the city and the housing vouchers via HUD. By the end of the year, they’d placed 76. As of the end of November they’d placed 665, 153 percent of the original goal. The annual retention rate to date is an impressive 92 percent. “These are people who on average have been homeless for many years,” Plummer says. “That’s really kind of amazing.”
Not only has it worked, it’s saving the city a lot of money: $1.78 for every $1 in costs. When researchers at the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Social Research analyzed the first year’s results they found program participants’ emergency room visit costs had declined 36.2 percent, jail expenses 64.2 percent, and hospital inpatient bills 83.6 percent. Those numbers in hand, Berry began proselytizing for the approach at meetings of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, prompting visits from city officials from Anaheim, California and Lexington, Kentucky who sought to replicate the program. “I’m lucky I live in a community that allows me to try things,” Berry says. “You can’t do this if you don’t have the community behind you.”
But while the Housing First initiative was getting the most desperate off the streets, a homeless-related crisis was building at the Albuquerque Police Department, one that would blow the city apart.
Police officers were killing people, in quantities and ways they would later find difficult to justify. The problems, former deputy city attorney and public safety department head Pete Dinelli says, stemmed from to a horrific 2005 incident when two officers were shot to death by a man they were taking into custody for a mental health evaluation. “There was a major shift in attitude at the department, and I saw training change from an emphasis on community based policing and crisis intervention to police safety being the number one priority,” says Dinelli, who ran against Berry when he came up for reelection in 2013. “The APD started recruiting more aggressive police officers, with a preference given to individuals who were in the military, retired Marines.” At the SWAT Team, one former officer told a writer for Rolling Stone, the ethos shifted to being “more about shooting people—as much as you could do so legally.”
And shoot they did. Officers killed nine people in 2010 and five more the following year, and would kill another 14 in the three years after that, running up a per capita kill rate double that of Chicago’s and eight times that of New York City. Many of the victims of the shootings and other questionable police violence were mentally ill, homeless or both, meaning there was little initial outcry. The department’s attitude toward the homeless was illustrated in the summer of 2010 when they started arresting people who for years had spent part of their Sundays giving food to the homeless. A police sergeant had emailed the staff, celebrating an alleged directive from Mayor Berry’s public safety director to “take the gloves off” against the Samaritans with an all-caps “WOOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOO!!!!!!!” Three of those arrested later sued the city, which settled the cases for $98,000. The mayor has never said how much he knew publicly about the directive, and he and his office did not provide a response to an inquiry on the matter.
But in November 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was investigating allegations of unconstitutional use of excessive force by APD officers. Two years later, investigators issued scathing findings. Officers “too frequently use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat” used Tasers and other less lethal force “on people who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders, or pose only a minimal threat” to the officers; and in encounters with the mentally ill too frequently used “a higher level of force than necessary.
Then in March 2014—just three weeks before the DOJ released their findings—two APD officers shot to death a mentally ill homeless man, James Boyd, at his makeshift campsite. The incident, caught on another officer’s camera, came at the end of a three-hour standoff when Boyd agreed to surrender and began packing his stuff. One officer tossed a flash-bang grenade at him, another fired a Taser and a third turned a police dog on him. Boyd drew his previously wielded knives, then turned away, at which point an officer shot him three times. As he lay on the ground saying “Please don’t hurt me” another officer fired three beanbag rounds at him and still another officer ordered his German shepherd to tear into his legs. Boyd died in hospital that night. The officers were later charged with second-degree murder. (In October of this year, a jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case; prosecutors may seek a new trial.)
The shooting shocked the city. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, shutting down traffic and clashing with police in riot gear, who dispersed the crowds with tear gas. Tens of thousands more began looking at the homeless more sympathetically, especially after the Justice Department negotiated a consent decree with the city under which they agreed to extensive reforms and the retraining of officers.
“We’re one of 14 cities in the country that’s under a consent decree, but in the other cities the common factor is racial profiling,” says Dinelli, the former deputy city attorney. “Albuquerque is totally different. Its biggest problem is the APD’s interaction with the mentally ill, who are quite often homeless.” That, he says, pushed homeless initiatives even higher up the city’s political agenda.
“When Mr. Boyd was shot and killed it generated a lot of community goodwill and really provided an unprecedented opportunity to really get serious about the problem,” says Metzler of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless. “People were literally seeking comfort together on the streets and felt we had to do something.”
The first to mobilize were the homeless themselves, the hard core who weren’t so vulnerable as to merit a Heading Home apartment, but who were ineligible to sleep in shelters (because they were disruptive or high or unpredictable) or preferred not to (because they couldn’t keep their pets, or stay with their spouse, or they were tired of having their stuff stolen, or just didn’t like the rules or people hassling them about being drunk or high.) Within months of the Boyd slaying, some 30 of them had set up a tent camp on the sidewalk directly across from the Rescue Mission. They felt safe there until the driver of a pickup veered into the camp, killing a 53-year-old woman and injuring several others before driving off into the night.
The campers, now calling themselves the Tent City, moved a block east to a strip of land along the railroad corridor where vehicles would have a more difficult time running them down. There they were backed up by a group of former Occupy activists who in 2011 had formed an alliance with the homeless people who came to their protest camp on the University of New Mexico campus. “Many of us had started organizing around police brutality after the murder of James Boyd,” says Ilse Biel, a graduate student who helped start a grassroots organization at the camp. “We wanted to get the authorities to realize that there are … all these people living on the streets and there should be a sanctioned place where they could congregate safely.”
Thus commenced a months-long struggle between the 30 to 40 Tent City residents and city authorities concerned about reports of violence, prostitution, drug use and the piles of human feces in a nearby alley. Police dispersed the camp in February, while sanitation workers tossed their tents into garbage trucks. Within hours they’d reconstituted the camp in a vacant lot with the unanimous permission of the local neighborhood association, one of several locations, including a canyon near Mayor Berry’s East Side home. All the while they agitated for a permanent camp, something the mayor opposed. “Housing First is a really good principle, but the reality is that there are still people being left out in the cold,” says Biel. “We can’t wait for government to fill in the gaps.”
Their persistence paid off. County commissioner Debbie O’Malley helped devise a more politically-palatable solution: two villages of tiny homes. Secured by fencing and clustered around shared toilets, common spaces and social services, each village would house 35 people who otherwise would be sleeping under bridges. “I don’t want to sound so calculating about it,” said O’Malley, who secured $2 million in funding via a county bond, “but it’s really important to have a village that looks good, well designed and with high standards around it.”
O’Malley also campaigned for a county-wide eighth-of-a-cent sales tax increase to fund more behavioral health services, filling in gaps in the existing network. County commissioners approved the tax after 69 percent of voters endorsed it at the polls two years ago. “The Boyd shooting really shocked people that normally would not have been engaged,” she says. “Folks who represent more affluent areas far from downtown for the first time said this situation just is not okay.” The tax is already generating $17 to $20 million a year, but the county is still vetting ideas on how to spend it through its slow-moving committee structure, everything from adding social workers and counselors to law enforcement crisis teams to new housing programs to get more homeless people off the streets. “This is a big deal because we have a really underfunded behavioral health system here,” says Huval of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “They’re trying to do a methodical process that will fill in the gaps in our system.”
The program that would draw the most attention was one of the last adopted in the city. While driving to work one day, Mayor Berry found himself contemplating what to do about the growing population of panhandlers, many of whom were homeless. His September 2015 conversation with one of them inspired the idea of having a van pick up willing panhandlers and provide them with paid work. “It happened because I actually took the time to stop and talk to people,” Berry says. “If you want to know what the homeless guy needs, go ask the homeless guy or woman and you’ll get an idea.”
Within days, Berry’s chief of staff, Gilbert Montaño, was on the phone with Vicky Palmer, associate director of the St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, proposing a partnership. “He said ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ and we started going back and forth: ‘Well, how about this or let’s try it this way, what would it cost?” she recalls. “I put together a program, submitted a budget, and within two weeks we had it up and running and a press conference.” The city would donate an old van and the $110,000 needed to pay for the driver, gas, and day wages; the sanitation department would identify public properties in need of weeding or litter removal; and St. Martin’s would offer services to anyone who’d take them. Nobody was sure if it would work.
But it did. The van filled up quickly each morning with people approached by driver Will Coles, a 6-foot security guard from Chicago with a kind-but-don’t-give-me-any-trouble demeanor. “I found a way of gauging people’s moods by just saying good morning; you can kind of get it right from the start,” says Coles. “You have to just kind of scan people as they come through to see what your getting, to make sure nobody is drunk or high or hung-over, because that’s not what we’re looking for.” More than one year on, he reports no trouble at all: 1,240 jobs, 401 individuals and not a single fight, injury or theft. “All we ask them to do is their own fair share of work.”
Media accounts often depict the van program as an effort to end panhandling, but it’s really a way to reach a segment of the homeless population that for whatever reason wasn’t accepting help at shelters. “You can criminalize the homeless and give them a ticket for asking for money or you an offer them a job and connect them to resources,” says Greg Morris, executive director of St. Martin’s, whose staff join the panhandlers at their lunch break each day to let them know about the behavioral health, housing, medical and job placement programs available to them. “It’s a front door, and the back door is getting them a home.”
At the landfill, Joe Morales, who has been homeless for four years, says the program has been a godsend. “It’s a big stress reliever knowing that you will have something in your pocket, that you don’t have to worry about where am I going to eat and who I have to face and what I have to do and who I have to please to get a meal,” he said. Morales went to prison for shoplifting and has been stabbed by thugs and egged by passing motorists while living on the streets. Now he tries to catch the van once or twice a week. With his days’ earnings he can get a motel room with a shower and television for $45 and still have $9 left over for food or cigarettes. “This is one day I’ve got to be free.”
A desire for freedom has kept many of them away from the formal shelters, most of which have rules against drinking and drug use, and they have difficulty getting hired for more stable jobs because they have felony convictions, a drug habit or drinking problem. “I just get thrown out on the street a lot,” says Diane Sanchez, who sleeps in a downtown parking garage.
Her friend Janell Andrade, who also slept in the garage the previous night, has a college degree, diagnoses of depression, PTSD and borderline personality disorder, a felony conviction and a drug addiction. “I don’t know where I’m going to be at 7 in the morning tomorrow. I hope I’ll be ready to work, that’s my tentative plan, but I don’t know,” she says, after describing how she’s found herself begging for money from former professors, classmates, and work subordinates in front of her alma mater, the University of New Mexico. “You can find places that will place you when you are a felon, but I’m a college-educated professional and had never done manual labor before, and that’s where they’re usually trying to place you. I kind of fell through the cracks.” On her second time with the van she feels herself gaining confidence—and maybe even a reference—to get work. “They meet you right where you’re at. All they ask is that you’re not sick now, while you’re working,” referring to drug use.
St. Martin’s had a job placement program where clients could build resumes, participate in mock interviews and get clothing to help them land permanent jobs. There’s even a social enterprise, the Coffee Shop, that provides four- to six-month internships to fill the work history gap so many homeless people have. “The whole time they’re in the program our job developer is in the background, searching for a permanent placement for them so that they can graduate to a full-time job, and they’re hooking up with services, using the day shelter, getting their mail here, storing things in our lockers,” says Morris.
But the demand for the van—Morris says they could easily fill 10 of them each day if they had the funding to expand—showed a gap existed. So earlier this year they raised $50,000 via the United Way to start a day labor program where felons, recovering addicts and other people with problematic job histories can get placed with individuals and businesses that need a yard cleaned, a house painted or other work. Eventually, with recommendations from program staff, they can graduate to permanent jobs. “It’s like anything in life: if you demonstrate the drive and desire, the barriers can be overcome,” says Palmer. “But it’s got to start with the person.”
Photo: Felicia Sanford waits on a street in Albuquerque. She has been homeless for a year. Source: Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for Politico Magazine.