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Longtime street minister knows challenges, dangers of working with the homeless

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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. Read the first part here.

If there is one city park that is palpably not family-friendly, it is Coronado Park, just south of Interstate 40, between Second and Fourth streets.

On any day of the week, the overwhelming majority of people using the park, located at the northern edge of the Wells Park neighborhood, are homeless. They take over the limited number of picnic tables and benches, sleep on blankets spread beneath trees, or sit inside makeshift tents.

The homeless are a difficult population, plagued with mental illness, alcoholism, drug addictions, certain sanitary challenges and spasms of violence, says Ralph DiPalma, a volunteer minister with Last Chance Ministries, basically a street ministry that works with volunteers from about 50 other congregations and organizations.

DiPalma has worked with homeless people for 48 years and visits Coronado Park nightly as part of a walking route he takes through the park and surrounding neighborhoods to pick up litter.

Street minister Ralph DiPalma takes a moment to check on a row of homeless people who nightly seek refuge outside the main gate of HopeWorks on Third Street. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

On April 30, two homeless men got into a fight at the park and one of them was beaten to death. In 2016, a homeless man at the park shot a woman in the neck, seriously injuring her, because she and her boyfriend refused to drink with him.

Just last Friday, DiPalma himself was beaten by a homeless man he recognized as a methamphetamine addict while picking up litter beneath the I-40 overpass at Fourth Street. DiPalma was taken to a local hospital and received 17 stitches, most on his forehead and face.

Garden-variety fistfights and disturbances are not uncommon, and the police regularly respond to calls at and around Coronado Park. DiPalma says that over the past three years, he and members of his ministry – as well as businesses surrounding Coronado Park – have called police so many times they’ve lost track of the number but are certain it’s well into the hundreds.

District 2 City Councilor Isaac Benton, who represents the neighborhoods where many of the homeless providers are located, said Albuquerque police officers over the past three years “have literally responded to thousands of calls for service at and around Coronado Park,” tying up countless hours of law-enforcement time.

Charles Saiz, right, has coffee and bagel in Coronado Park on Sunday. With him is David Sanchez, who brought the food and helped serve the hundreds of homeless people who gather there every Saturday and Sunday morning for a prayer service and a meal. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

On weekend mornings, several hundred homeless people gather at the park for a church service, hot meals, distribution of clothing and other amenities provided by volunteers from 50 or more congregations. The organizations also provide food during the week in a less structured environment. The effort is coordinated by the Last Chance Ministries, which adopted the park 22 years ago.

But residents of the neighborhood complain that they can no longer use the park.

“It’s completely overrun by the homeless and is extremely dangerous,” says Doreen McKnight, president of the Wells Park Neighborhood Association.

The city, she says, “made matters worse when it began using the park as a pickup and drop-off station for the West Side overnight winter shelter.”

The organizations that feed the homeless at Coronado aren’t helping the situation, McKnight adds. Their generosity only serves to encourage the homeless to remain in the park, rather than go to monitored meal sites such as those at HopeWorks or The Rock at NoonDay.

Though the city provides portable toilets at the park on weekends, there are none available there during the week, DiPalma says, contributing to a sanitation problem for the surrounding neighborhood.

Coronado Park wasn’t always this way.

Longtime residents remember when it was referred to as “train park” and had an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway steam locomotive on display from 1957 until 2000, when the engine was purchased by a railroad historical society that has been restoring it.

Families who frequented the park to see the locomotive now avoid it.

Mean streets

“There’s a lot of trauma and violent victimization that goes along with living in public spaces,” says Jennie Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, which is located in the Wells Park neighborhood.

“Always, there’s a question of who is harming people and who is being harmed, and I think people on the streets experience pretty brutal trauma as a result of sleeping in an alleyway or walking the streets with all their belongings. They are so unfathomably vulnerable.”

According to the Albuquerque police, over the past two years nearly 20 percent of people killed in the city were homeless or lacked a stable living situation.

But Metzler also acknowledges that the neighbors, too, are victims, and “I wouldn’t challenge their personal experiences with the homeless,” noting a number of Health Care for the Homeless staff members live in the neighborhood.

For many of the area residents who have to deal with the people sleeping in alleyways or pushing those shopping carts, “there’s an increase in what I can only describe as a sense of unease,” says Marit Tully, president of the Near North Valley Neighborhood Association. “People can’t walk on the sidewalks unimpeded anymore.”

That unease is mostly caused by “homeless repeat offenders,” who are responsible for much of the violence and criminal conduct among the homeless in the extended Downtown area, DiPalma says.

He contends some homeless people have learned how to work the system and found if they can get a medical diagnosis for mental illness, they can apply for and receive monthly Social Security income or disability checks.

“Some use the money for food and housing and try to make it last, but there are three liquor stores in the area around the park, and there are more alcoholics and drug addicts coming to Albuquerque from other places and fewer leaving. That’s because they found out they can get money if they are diagnosed,” DiPalma says.

Metzler has heard the claims of homeless people gaming the system but says that any thought Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless would participate is unfounded.

“It’s an absurd accusation,” she says. “We have qualified psychiatric and medical professionals in a federally qualified health center who make diagnoses based on people’s health status. We would not fake a diagnosis, and we are regularly audited.”

And while people who get such a mental health diagnosis might be eligible for Social Security income or disability benefits, “that’s a whole other benefits application process and we don’t determine that,” Metzler says.

Ministries divided

DiPalma is a controversial figure. The other service providers praise his intentions and good will, but also believe he is misguided.

Ralph DiPalma, a volunteer street minister with Last Chance Ministries, believes that the bulk of crimes committed among the problem-plagued homeless population are mostly caused by what he calls “repeat homeless offenders.” (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Pastor John Hill, president and CEO of Steelbridge, said he invited DiPalma to join with him and Danny Whatley, executive director of The Rock at NoonDay, to move the park’s meal program to the professional and regulated kitchen at The Rock at NoonDay.

“He felt that feeding folks at the park is a church project and he didn’t want to let it go. The more we collaborate, the better it is for all of us, otherwise it appears that we are divided and competing against one another,” Hill says.

“It’s also wasteful and encourages greed and gluttony, and it’s counterproductive because it gives the homeless another reason to stay at the park, where there are no social services.”

According to Whatley, “there’s an overabundance of these kinds of ministries, and if churches want to participate in feeding the homeless, they should work within the established, health-inspected programs.”

The church groups that participate in feeding the homeless at the park “are not in the 24-7 business of trying to solve the problem of homelessness,” says Councilor Benton. “Food and hunger is not the problem with this population, who have many options for free meals in regulated facilities. What the church groups have done is made a city park unusable for neighborhood residents.”

Anita Cordova, director of development, planning and evaluation at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, says DiPalma’s efforts “to help the homeless meet their basic needs” is admirable. “But he has been critical of our harm reduction philosophy and approach to care with people without homes, and that creates some challenges.”

“To help people reduce the harm in their lives, sometimes it entails things like syringe exchange services and helping people reduce their alcohol intake, instead of mandating it as a prerequisite for care.”

DiPalma says he believes the overwhelming majority of crimes committed among the homeless population are initiated by what he calls “repeat homeless offenders,” who need to be removed from the streets.

He also believes that part of the solution to homelessness in Albuquerque is getting these people into rehabilitation programs with successful track records.

“The city needs a full-time case worker to get on the phone daily and call all the successful drug and alcohol programs around New Mexico and the Southwest to find out if there are openings,” he says. “If so, the ministry will pay for a bus ticket to get people there. We need to get them out of the city for Albuquerque’s survival – and their own.”

Over the years, Last Chance Ministries has referred hundreds of people into rehabilitation programs in Albuquerque and throughout the Southwest, DiPalma says, and the majority of those people remained clean for five years.

“They got their minds back, got jobs or went back to school, left the streets, joined a church, reunited with their families and basically rejoined society,” he says.

In the meantime, DiPalma has taken it upon himself to monitor Coronado Park and the surrounding neighborhood nightly from about midnight to 5:30 a.m. He picks up trash as he walks a route along Third and Fourth streets, across homeless encampments outside HopeWorks, beneath and along the Interstate 40 overpasses, and through side streets and parking lots of a number of area businesses.

Nightly he fills up to a dozen bags with empty liquor containers, broken glass, some syringes, fast food wrappers, even the odd road-kill bird. He deposits the bags in any of eight business dumpsters that he’s been given permission to use.

“The other night I carried a heavy, 12-foot-by-6-foot, sprinkler-soaked piece of carpet from Coronado Park two blocks to a dumpster,” he says. “I had to stop along the way a few times to catch my breath, but I am 69 years old.”

As he walks his route, people wrapped in blankets and hidden in shadowed building corners see DiPalma and hear the rustling of his bags. They call out to him: “Is that you, Ralph?” He walks over to them to see how they’re doing and if they need anything.

He stops to speak with a group sleeping in a row in front of HopeWorks, later explaining that many of them not only use drugs but also sell drugs.

As DiPalma reaches Coronado Park, a homeless man who had been sitting at a picnic table approaches him. They speak for a few moments and then the two of them, standing in the middle of the road in the middle of night, pray together.

Walking away from the man, DiPalma says softly, “It’s easy to offer prayers, but the homeless here need so much, much more.”

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