New Mexico’s homeless rate rose the last two years

Numbers from federal HUD don't tell the full story in Santa Fe

recent report from the federal government released Tuesday shows homelessness rising in New Mexico since 2016. The last two years, including 2018, were out of step with an overall decline in the state's homeless population since 2010.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took headcounts of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people across the country, there was a 2.8 percent climb in New Mexico's homeless population in 2018. It counted 1,949 homeless people last year, based on a count from a single night during the last ten days in January.

The jump was higher for veterans: A 16.9 increase meant an overall population of 42 homeless vets, one of the largest rises among surveyed states.

SFR wanted to know how the numbers played out more locally. We looked at the numbers as tabulated by New Mexico's two "Continuums of Care," which are geographic areas identified by HUD and organized by state. There are 398 CoCs across the country, and they generally consist of state, municipal, and nonprofit programs in a defined region that work to put people into transitional and permanent housing.

The two CoCs in New Mexico consist of the Albuquerque CoC and everything else: The "New Mexico Balance of State CoC" includes Santa Fe, Farmington, Las Cruces, and the rural areas "in between and all around," according to Hank Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. Even though it includes cities, HUD considers this a rural CoC, while Albuquerque is New Mexico's urban CoC.

HUD's numbers put the total number of sheltered homeless people in New Mexico's rural CoC at 799 and its unsheltered population at 412; the state's urban CoC (which, again, just includes Albuquerque) had comparatively more people who were sheltered and fewer people who were unsheltered.

Hughes explains that when people become homeless in rural parts of the state, it doesn't take long before they migrate to Albuquerque, Las Cruces, or Santa Fe, because those cities have higher concentrations of services for the homeless.

“People turn up as homeless in cities, they’re not really homeless in the middle of nowhere,” Hughes says.

Homelessness in both New Mexico CoCs rose in both 2017 and 2018, after years of general decline; HUD says the state's homeless population dropped 26.6 percent since 2010.

"We have, in this state, made a real effort to build housing specifically for the needs of homeless people, and that's what drove the drop from 2011 to 2016," Hughes says. "What's happening now is we're seeing it spike up, maybe in part because of an affordable housing crisis that [has] hit the whole country at once."

Specifically in Santa Fe, Hughes says there are about 80 people who remain chronically homeless throughout the year, even as the overall population falls during the winter months when some folks migrate to warmer climates in places like Las Cruces or southern Arizona.

An extremely tight rental market in Santa Fe, where short term rentals are in very low supply, is another challenge for housing people with particularly severe mental health or addiction issues. Landlords can be choosier with who they rent to, and may be quick to throw out tenants at the first sign of trouble.

Such circumstances precipitated the death of Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by Santa Fe Police last year. Benavidez was evicted after missing one month's rent payment; he was living at an apartment complex with assistance from The LifeLink.

Hughes describes Santa Fe's approach to housing for the city's most vulnerable as a "scattered sites situation," where people with serious needs are housed in regular mixed income apartments without easy access to services.

"That works for a lot of people," Hughes says, "but also there are some people who would really benefit by having supportive housing with services right on sight, like if you're having a mental health crisis and there are professional case managers on sight to check in and see how you're doing."

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