Albuquerque Homelessness Rises During Pandemic

Tent pitched in Coronado park. (photo by Tyler Braunhardt)

By Tyler Braunhardt / NM News Port

Homelessness in Albuquerque was on a sharp rise just as the pandemic hit and economic hardships related to the pandemic increased pressure on low-income and unhoused people in the city. Now Mayor Tim Keller is asking for $4.7 million to start operations at the Gateway Center homeless shelter and service center.

“The pandemic revealed our deep resilience more than ever,” Keller said in a release. “While other cities are celebrating just making it through, we are investing in a recovery that leaves no one behind.”

Homelessness hit a seven-year high in 2019, after dropping during the early 2010s, according to the 2019 Albuquerque Point In Time Report, which tracks homelessness numbers throughout the city. New Mexico’s increase in homelessness was among the highest in the nation between 2018 and 2019, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At the same time, unemployment spiked when the pandemic hit. In the spring of 2020 unemployment insurance claims shot up 2,272% and 134,513 New Mexicans applied for benefits. 

Albuquerque unemployment numbers over the last three years (Graphic courtesy of YCharts. Statistics via Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The city of Albuquerque is committed to improving the situation, said Carol Pierce, director of the Department of Family and Community Services. “We are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep homeless individuals safe, warm and healthy,” she said.

More than 900 homeless individuals and families are getting housing from a city-funded program this year and the city is spending $1 million on upgrades at the Westside Emergency Housing Center (WEHC), including improved ventilation systems. “These improvements will foster a healthier and more hospitable situation for our guests as they utilize the WEHC,” Pierce said in a release. The center served an average of 4,764 people every month in 2020.

Homeless shelters throughout the city have been forced to significantly change how they operate in efforts to follow the State of New Mexico COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

Tent pitched in Coronado park. (photo by Tyler Braunhardt)

COVID-19 guidelines such as social distancing and sanitizing have led to frequently used spaces such as bathrooms and showers to be unavailable currently and for the near future, said Danny Whatley, executive director of the Rock at NoonDay Homeless Center. 

“We tried sanitizing these areas and enforcing that, but it was something we couldn’t do, we didn’t have the resources nor staff for it,” he said. 

Available space in these shelters and centers has also become an issue. The Albuquerque Journal reported in mid-January 2021 that the city’s COVID-19 emergency shelter system had run out of space for homeless families at both the WEHC and within the city’s network of wellness hotels.

In January the city’s shelter-hotel system was accommodating 768 people. Among that total were 87 families that included 186 children.

“I know motels around the city are completely full with families, with children. Everybody sends you to Albuquerque, that’s where the services are,” Whatley said. 

More capacity may be on the way, as the city moves forward on the Gateway Center Network of Services. The site will serve as a shelter and a center for connecting those experiencing homelessness with housing, mental health, substance abuse and case management services. 

If you or anyone you know is homeless or are in danger of becoming homeless and need resources, please reach out to CABQ Family & Community Services.

Phone Number: (505) 768-2860 or Webpage: https://www.cabq.gov/family

Tyler Braunhardt is a reporter for New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter @TBraunhardt.