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Ground zero for the homeless: Problem is a constant struggle for residents, businesses

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-day series on how the consolidation of homeless services is affecting neighborhoods in and around Downtown Albuquerque from the perspectives of the providers as well as the people who live or do business there.

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

They panhandle along busy streets, push shopping carts with all their worldly possessions, and sleep in parks, under bridges and other places not intended for human habitation.

Albuquerque’s homeless people, whose numbers have been estimated at anywhere from 1,300 to 5,000, can be seen in all parts of the city.

But certain neighborhoods surrounding a cluster of homeless service providers bear a disproportionately larger burden because of the concentrated presence of homeless people, and residents and businesses there are asking for help in dealing with the issues that come with hosting this problematic population.

This is particularly evident along a corridor running across the eastern portion of the Barelas neighborhood, through Downtown and into Wells Park and the Near North Valley Neighborhoods – an area bounded roughly by Avenida César Chávez on the south, Menaul on the north, 1st Street to the east and 12th Street to the west.

Homeless people find safety in numbers as they assemble for the night outside the main gate at HopeWorks on Third Street north of Downtown. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Homeless people find safety in numbers as they assemble for the night outside the main gate at HopeWorks on Third Street north of Downtown. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The issues are many and serious: people sleeping or camping out on private property or living out of their cars parked in front of homes or businesses; altercations, sometimes violent, involving people who are clearly drunk, on drugs or mentally ill; drug trafficking; prostitution; the preying on the homeless by criminal elements; graffiti; panhandling; vandalism; theft; and increased danger as impaired homeless people fall into the street or carelessly walk into traffic.

Then there is the unpleasant matter of the debris left behind by the homeless – everything from garden-variety trash to empty booze bottles, used syringes and malodorous mounds of fecal matter.

Jeremy Reynalds, the late founder of Joy Junction, earlier this year “conservatively” estimated that 80 percent of homeless people in Albuquerque have mental health issues and/or addictions. Joy Junction is the state’s largest homeless shelter, operating remotely in the far South Valley.

The reality, service providers say, is regardless of their mental states homeless people have been drawn to Albuquerque’s warm climate for decades, they’re not going away, and they need social services to survive and to perhaps break the cycle of homelessness.

The owner of Stubblefield Print & Signs wants to leave the neighborhood. Homeless people never seem to leave the area, he says.

The owner of Stubblefield Print & Signs wants to leave the neighborhood. Homeless people never seem to leave the area, he says. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Driven out

The reality for Patrick Segura, owner of Stubblefield Print & Signs, is that, after more than two decades, he’s throwing in the towel.

Located across the street on Prospect Avenue, facing the south side of The Rock at NoonDay, Segura says he no longer wants to deal with the homeless people who have taken up residence near his business, and his business can no longer sustain the financial impact they cause.

“Sometimes, they’re there all day. Some of them live out of their vehicles and park in front of my business. I’ve had customers call me and say they thought I had moved because they went by and all they saw was a bunch of homeless people hanging out,” he says.

Segura, of course, is not alone in having to deal with this population. According to a neighborhood association leader, area residents generally agree that conditions for their Near North Valley neighborhood seemed to get worse in late 2014, with the relocation of the The Rock at NoonDay, which feeds breakfast, lunch and dinner daily to up to 1,000 homeless people and provides other services.

Soon after, Steelbridge Ministries closed its mass feeding program south of Downtown and opened a Resource Center a couple blocks south of NoonDay. It now also feeds homeless people at NoonDay as part of a joint program.

As a result, many homeless people who receive services at NoonDay hang around and never seem to leave, Segura says.

The more brazen among them set up lawn chairs and tents on the sidewalk and “sometimes start a fire in little barbecue grills,” he says.

“I find hypodermic needles all over my property, and I’m always shoveling up feces and pouring bleach on the ground to kill the bacteria from around my Dumpster where they relieve themselves,” he says.

Segura says he became aware, belatedly, that people had also been throwing bags of garbage and other assorted litter on his roof.

“I went up there and found enough trash to fill two 55-gallon receptacles,” he says.

Segura estimates that he has contacted the police more than 50 times in the last couple of years, but even when officers chase off unwanted trespassers, they always return.

At one time, about 40 percent of his business was walk-in clientele. After the homeless population converged in the area, he says, that walk-in business almost entirely evaporated, and his business has continued to fall off.

Segura wants out and his building is now for sale.

Trying to be neighborly

“There’s no denying that our location draws the homeless, who have an impact on the neighborhood,” says NoonDay Executive Director Danny Whatley. “At our place, we have clean bathrooms that are safe and secure, and people still urinate outside behind the building.

“It’s the mental health and addiction issues, and you can’t solve those with toilets. We need more resources for mental health. What you don’t want to do is criminalize the homeless.”

Whatley says NoonDay has tried to be a good neighbor from the get-go.

“We did meet with community groups before we came in and continue to do so,” he says. “We’re in the Near North Valley neighborhood, and we’re a member of the neighborhood association. When we purchased the property, the zoning was never questioned by either the city or the neighbors. There were concerns, of course, because nobody wants a homeless shelter in their backyard. Neighbors were concerned about property values and crime and how it would change the character of the neighborhood.”

Many businesses and neighbors have his private phone number, he says, and call him with problems caused by homeless people, to which he personally responds.

“I actually go myself and look at the situation and try to resolve it,” he says, “and if it’s something that requires law enforcement attention, then I contact the police.”

Management issues

Jodie Stone, chief financial officer and property manager for Commercial Real Estate Management, used to manage a property near Fourth Street and Menaul. Homeless people caused so many problems that her company no longer manages that property and is not particularly excited to manage others in the area, she says.

“We put up fences all around the property, because there was a lot of foot traffic,” Stone says.

Homeless people would get off the Fourth Street bus, she says, some of them going to NoonDay or Steelbridge. Panhandlers were a constant presence in the parking lot, and many of them were “unpleasantly aggressive and used vulgar language,” which chased away shoppers.

“We had to hire full-time security during the day because of loitering and people being inebriated or under the influence of other substances,” she says.

An on-site maintenance man worked Monday through Friday and was responsible for cleaning up piles of human fecal matter, syringes, empty bottles of alcohol and mouthwash and empty cans of hair spray, Stone says.

“And, of course, people would be passed out on the sidewalk, and we’d have to wake them and up and nudge them along,” she says.

Managing the property became more time-consuming and expensive, Stone says, a cost passed on to the property owner, who understandably was not pleased.

The unwanted foot traffic caused by loiterers, panhandlers and people who prey on the homeless, as well as the substance abuse and mental health issues of many of these individuals, creates a situation where “tenants don’t want to lease from you, buildings remain vacant and property values in the neighborhood fall,” she says.

Homeless people find safety in numbers as they assemble for the night outside the main gate at HopeWorks on Third Street north of Downtown. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Homeless people find safety in numbers as they assemble for the night outside the main gate at HopeWorks on Third Street north of Downtown. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Problems in Barelas

The relocation of NoonDay and the cessation of the mass feeding program at Steelbridge’s Barelas campus has resulted in moving a problem from one neighborhood to another, concedes Pastor John Hill, executive director of Steelbridge Ministries.

“Homeless people are not walking the streets in Barelas in the numbers they used to,” he says. “Still, about 10 or 12 people show up at Steelbridge’s Barelas location in the evenings to camp out on the sidewalk in sleeping bags or blankets.

“No tents are allowed, because we don’t want to give them a sense of permanency. We want them to leave in the morning when our security rouses them.”

Neither are portable toilets provided for the sidewalk campers.

“It’s something else they’d tear up, and it’s sad,” he says. “We want to treat them humanely, but they’d use it as a place for shooting up, or having sex, or they’d shut themselves inside and not let anybody else in. They’re in survival mode 24-7.”

Consequently, he says, homeless people relieve themselves “in an alley or wherever.”

With the homeless population migrating to the north, a lot of the problems the Barelas neighborhood experienced have diminished, Hill says, but he acknowledged,”We’re still not problem-free.”

“I have to call the police almost every other day,” he says. “Some of the homeless folks don’t want to leave from the sidewalk, there are people overdosing and staggering into the street, and there are people ready to fight.”

Unhappy homeowner

James Salazar, vice president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, doesn’t buy into Hill’s improved neighborhood assessment.

Salazar, 30, a resident of the neighborhood for eight years, says he has been coming to Barelas since he was a child to visit his grandfather, who lived and grew up there.

“Even now, you can walk down the street and you’re bound to find some pretty disgusting litter – bloody cotton swabs, used women’s sanitary napkins, hypodermic needles,” he says.

Some of the homeless have cars that they park on Barelas side streets and sleep in them.

“Look at the sidewalks near where they park. They’re stained with urine,” Salazar says. “My neighbor across the street found homeless people sleeping in his yard, so he planted cactus to keep them out, but they clipped the cactus and continued to sleep there. When my neighbor asked them to leave, they got pretty aggressive. He was in fear of them.”

Salazar, too, has had encounters with homeless people walking across his yard while he was in it.

“They looked at me and said they’re going to kill me,” he says, “that it was their land.”

In addition to the sidewalk outside of Steelbridge, homeless encampments can be found throughout Barelas – along First Street from Stover north to Coal, under the Coal Avenue bridge and outside the old El Madrid Lounge.

“It’s like they’ve set up residence here, even though we’re the ones who own the homes and pay taxes,” Salazar says. “I think a lot of people love Barelas. They love the history and culture and it’s potentially a great place to live,” but given the current state of things, he says, he’s not committed to remaining in the neighborhood.

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