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Mayor Richard J. Berry: Albuquerque Is Dangerous for Homeless Natives

Following the brutal murder of two homeless Navajo men in the city of Albuquerque, Mayor Richard J. Berry answered a few questions from ICTMN.

Natives living on Albuquerque streets experience violence at a higher rate than non-Natives. According to a 2011 study published by the University of New Mexico, 71 percent of homeless Natives in Albuquerque reported experiencing violence. That’s 6 percent higher than non-Natives.

In the aftermath of a brutal attack July 19 that left two homeless Navajos dead and three teenagers facing murder charges, Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry responds to questions from ICTMN.

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What was the city’s reaction to the murders?

We were saddened and angered. We have done so much work with the homeless population in ways we feel are caring and provide positive results. Every time we have an incident involving a community member who is homeless, that really is a tragedy, especially in this case because it was such a brutal crime, such a heinous crime, and it was unwarranted in any way.

How is the city addressing problems of homelessness and violence?

We’ve put some nationally leading programs in place. Albuquerque Heading Home is an initiative I started my first term. We have now housed 350 of the most medically vulnerable people, those who are most likely to die in the streets. We’ve done unprecedented and good things. These senseless murders show that we have a lot of work to do. We want the community to know that we don’t see our work as nearly complete. We want to work with Navajo President Ben Shelly and pueblo governors to start a task force, and we look forward to meaningful reforms.

Are the recent murders being considered hate crimes?

I’ve asked the police department to fully investigate the hate crimes angle on these murders. We have yet to have a definitive answer, but we’re looking into that and it needs to be looked at.

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Are homeless Natives disproportionately targeted for violent crime?

I actually have data from my administration showing that Native Americans who are homeless in Albuquerque have been homeless for several years longer than other homeless people. The Native American population also has a higher propensity of being victims of violent crimes. Sixty-five percent of homeless people report being victims of violence, and 71 percent of the Native American homeless have been victims, or 6 percent more.

How many Natives live in Albuquerque? How many are homeless?

In Albuquerque, we have 55,000 Native Americans, or about 4 percent of the population. According to high-end estimates, about 15 percent of our Native Americans are homeless.

The city of Albuquerque and neighboring tribes and pueblos have formed a task force to work on these issues. What solutions do you anticipate?

My immediate goal is to take those who are homeless and get them out of that situation, whether that’s getting them into housing, offering skills training, employment or working with other providers in Albuquerque to find ways to improve economic mobility. This is not just a task force that’s taking someone who’s homeless and getting them into an emergency shelter. If we just stop there, we’re not impacting the problem long-term. We want to help people out when they’re in crisis, then find long-term solutions.

Do you have personal thoughts you’d like to share?

As mayor, you find yourself in a situation to put programs in place. Then when you have tragedies, it’s evidence that you have a lot more to do. These issues are important to me as a mayor. I have been humbled to meet some of the individuals who are homeless. I’ve learned a lot. I hope that in the coming months we’ll be able to put together some meaningful solutions and make our city a better place. This work never ends.

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