Using collective commitment, statistical data, a screening tool and a database created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Albuquerque Heading Home project is having an unprecedented effect on homelessness in the New Mexico city.
When the program started in February 2011, 900 eligible individuals — chronically homeless and medically vulnerable — were identified on the streets of Albuquerque. By 2016 there had been an 80 percent reduction in this homeless population.
Not only that, the project has had an extraordinary effect on chronic homelessness among veterans. In 2013 HUD estimated there were more than 300 homeless vets on the streets of Albuquerque. Now, by the HUD definition, the city has ended homelessness for that vulnerable group.
“We have made housing veterans a priority of the city,” said Rachael Maestas, public information officer for Albuquerque's Economic Development Department. “Since the inception of the program, 577 vets have been identified as homeless, and 518 were housed.”
The program began as the inspiration of the city’s two-term mayor, Richard J. Berry, who came up with the idea after reading an article on Los Angeles' Project 50. The Southern California project started as a pilot in 2007 to find the 50 most vulnerable on skid row and house them.
The results of the L.A. project were remarkable. Two years after the program began, 52 of the original 68 participants remained in housing, while saving the city money.
Albuquerque’s efforts have had similar results. According to the program’s statistics, approximately 83 percent of homeless individuals in the city suffer from mental health issues, so permanent is about more than just housing — it is also about health.
What's more is that the New Mexico program has found that it is 31.6 percent cheaper to house people than it is to have them living on the streets. After the first year of the program, jail costs associated with the homeless decreased by almost 96 percent — a savings of about $43,000 per person — and emergency room visits fell by 32.2 percent.
Overall, the program has achieved some $5 million in taxpayer savings, according to officials. To accomplish this, the city cobbled together several tools that include a vulnerability survey that plugs the results into HUD-supplied software, identifying local programs that could provide housing and tracking the individuals that have been helped.
With the aim of making the experience of homelessness rare, short-lived and non-recurring, some 10 city agencies and nonprofits make up the provider teams. According to Maestas, anyone on these teams is empowered and committed to identifying those with chronic homelessness due to substance abuse, medical indigence or mental illness.
“These teams include social workers, hospital staff, even the Albuquerque Police Department” and they can administer the Vulnerability Index - Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) to determine eligibility for housing. Community Solutions created the tool to be applied both to individuals and families to assess risk and prioritization when aiding homeless persons.
“We have modified [the survey] for our own uses,” said Heidiliza “Heidi” Shultz, homeless program division manager for Albuquerque's Office of Homeless Programs and Initiatives. The survey is entered by hand into HUD's Homeless Management Information System, which allows the lead agency to look into our network of providers, she said.
The surveyor is also empowered to make a phone call or send an email to make sure those that are eligible get housing as soon as possible.
“We try for housing within 60 days,” Shultz said. “We negotiate with landlords and organizations when there is [poor] credit or criminal history.”
Shultz said keeping track of the homeless that are placed in housing is a HUD requirement, made easier by the agency's Homeless Management Information System. The software is user-friendly and all city agencies and nonprofits have been trained on it. “Every one of our project providers collects data and inputs it into this system,” she said. “The city collects the data and validates it.”
Every three years, the city contracts with the University of New Mexico for about $50,000 to provide the results of their efforts. It gives everyone on the team an idea of how they are doing with their humanitarian service, and provides good insights for the city, the providers and funders, she explained.
Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.