Albuquerque’s nine-member city council is weighing a tax hike of one-eighth of a percent on gross receipts, with the revenue earmarked for helping people struggling with homelessness, mental illness or addiction.
The tax, which would add 12.5 cents to a $100 purchase, could generate as much as $16 million per year, and advocates for Albuquerque’s vast homeless population hope it’s one of many steps toward a solution. The tax, which city councilors have been debating since May, comes at least partly in response to reports of violence against the city’s indigent population, the majority of which is Native.
In March, police shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man who was camping in the Sandia foothills. The incident sparked outrage among residents and a federal investigation into police brutally.
On July 19, three teenagers bludgeoned two homeless Navajo men to death in their sleep, using cinder blocks, wooden sticks and a metal fence post. Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson were beaten so badly they were unrecognizable.
In the days following the murders, citizens united in memorials and peaceful protests that have called attention to a homeless population that could top 17,000 by some estimates – 70 percent of which is Native – but one that is often invisible.
“When we see people that seem to be homeless, we often don’t acknowledge them in any way,” said Lisa Huval, policy and advocacy director for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “That has the impact of making people feel invisible.”
Other homeless people fly under the radar, Huval said. They’re working minimum-wage jobs, riding the city’s buses and sleeping in shelters or motels while they struggle to make ends meet.
“They’re working, going to school, taking care of their kids,” she said. “They don’t have enough money to put a roof over their heads, but we don’t see them because they blend in.”
When it comes to homelessness, there are as many stories about how it started as there are people, said David Correia, associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Albuquerque’s Native population – about 55,000 people – is especially at risk, he said.
Natives often leave pueblos or reservations and travel to Albuquerque in search of education, jobs or other opportunities, Correia said. Others flee domestic violence or other unsafe circumstances. Yet when they arrive in Albuquerque, they find high rent, sparse jobs and resources that can be difficult to find.
“It has to do with lack of opportunities,” Correia said. “When we’re talking about Native homeless in Albuquerque, they’re separated from family and it’s difficult to get home. They experience a lack of resources, lack of community, lack of money and not a lot of help.”
Once a person becomes homeless, it is almost impossible to reverse without help, Correia said. A big part of the problem is the criminalization of homelessness.
“During the course of homelessness, police will pick you up for trespassing and you could be in jail for months because you can’t pay the $25 bail,” he said. “So starting with a petty misdemeanor, you get a criminal record, which makes it hard to get into low-income housing, and then the charges proliferate. It’s the spiraling down that makes it more and more difficult for people to get out of homelessness.”
Once that spiral starts, it can affect generations, said Linda Stone, CEO of First Nations Community HealthSource. One trend Stone sees is more families and children without permanent homes.
“Once you don’t have housing, you fall into a situation where it’s really hard to get yourself out,” she said. “Homelessness is caused by circumstances, and it’s unacceptable that we have people, especially families and children, who are homeless right here in Albuquerque.”
On the flip side, once a person has a home, other things like food stamps and job opportunities tend to fall into place, Stone said.
Huval said a solution relies on changing the way people view the homeless. Rather than blaming them for being on the streets, lawmakers and judicial officers need to realize that safe, affordable housing is an essential human right, she said.
In Albuquerque, a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent costs $800 per month, Huval said. That’s out of reach for people who rely on federal disability checks or other assistance.
Correia advocates for more low-income housing, coupled with a stronger social services presence. He believes people should have permanent homes and access to support services so they don’t lose that housing. He is also pushing for social workers to be paired with police officers to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable residents are treated with respect.
All of that takes money, he said, pointing at policymakers, elected officials and even the voting public in a city he calls “unequal and unfair.”
“There cannot be poor people unless there are enormously wealthy people,” he said. “We have to show that it’s in everyone’s best interest to solve problems that are caused when a community is divided by the disparity of the wealthy and the poor.”
The city council is expected to vote on the tax increase at its August 18 meeting.