By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ New Mexico’s largest city has made some strides in addressing chronic homelessness, but Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly agreed Friday that much more work needs to be done to tackle the problem among the Native American population.
Berry and a team of city officials traveled to the tribal capital of Window Rock, Arizona, to discuss the framework and goals of a new task force that will be charged with developing sustainable and culturally relevant solutions. The work comes in the wake of the beating deaths of two homeless Navajo men in a vacant lot on Albuquerque’s southwest side.
“We’re going to try to take this tragedy and use it as a launching point for change,” Berry told The Associated Press in an interview.
Berry said he planned to hire someone by the end of the month to lead the task force, which will be made up of city and Navajo representatives. The mayor’s office is also reaching out to pueblo leaders throughout New Mexico to seek their participation.
Next week, Shelly will submit the names of the Navajo representatives who will serve on the task force.
Officials say the goal is for the group to develop a set of recommendations by the end of October. That will give it time to work with state and tribal lawmakers and city councilors on legislation and funding requests.
Berry said the work will build upon a five-year plan the city developed in 2013 to tackle homelessness. Albuquerque has seen success with its Heading Home program and other initiatives aimed at helping those on the street who have substance abuse problems or mental health issues, but the mayor said those programs need to stress a cultural aspect that connects with Native Americans.
There can also be language barriers, he said.
Another challenge is creating opportunities for people to develop skills, continue their education and become gainfully employed, officials said. Economic recovery in New Mexico has been slow, with many people still searching for jobs, and it’s even worse on the Navajo Nation, where officials said the unemployment rate is about 70 percent.
“This will be much broader than a conversation about how to get somebody of the streets tonight,” Berry said.
Officials also said homelessness goes beyond the city and the Navajo Nation and solutions developed by the group could have impacts across New Mexico and Arizona.