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Editorial: Keller must reverse course on his shelter bait-and-switch

When Mayor Tim Keller spent months earnestly explaining how Albuquerque needed to do more to address the rising tide of homelessness in the city, people listened.

That was in part because of the very public nature of the issue, especially to those who live and work near places like Coronado Park. But it was also in part because the mayor and his staff made a clear, logical and compelling argument as to why the resources currently available to homeless people were not getting the job done, and why the city-owned Westside Emergency Housing Center past the west edge of Petroglyph National Monument is not a long-term viable option due to its distance from the city center.

In the run-up to the November election – in which voters ultimately approved a bond package that included $14 million for a centralized homeless shelter – some people were nervous that we didn’t know where Keller’s new shelter would be.

But we always knew where the shelter would not be.

At least, we thought we did. Now, voilÃ, in a magical post-election specialty – the New Mexico bait-and-switch dinner hour, your choice of chile on the side – the Westside shelter is back on the table for the forthcoming “Gateway Center.”

According to a Dec. 15 story by Journal reporter Pilar Martinez, city officials revealed the possibility when presenting four other potential sites. City spokeswoman Alicia Manzano said the city already owns the shelter property, and if there is strong support for that location, it would be considered.

Keller ought to be ashamed of himself.

For months, he and his staff have been on a media blitz that in no small part involved a detailed cataloging of the Westside shelter’s shortcomings: It’s not within walking distance from services homeless people need like bus lines, government agencies, the VA Medical Center and more. Taxpayers spend about $1 million each year to pay for shuttles to run to and from the shelter – and it’s a long ride many don’t want to take. It’s also too far for police and/or ambulance drivers to drop people off for a safe place for a night.

The problems were real six months ago, they’re real today, and they are a large part of why the Journal Editorial Board supported and endorsed Keller’s ask of $14 million from taxpayers for what’s described as phase one of the shelter.

It has always been clear the mayor and city staff are in for a NIMBY battle over the shelter’s placement. While many want to help folks get off the street, few want such a shelter next door to their homes and workplaces. But if you truly want to serve the homeless by setting up a shelter near bus lines, near government agencies, near the places they want and need to be – and the mayor says he does – the prospective list of locations gets very short indeed.

In coming weeks, there will be plenty of discussion about the pros and cons of the other potential locations under consideration (the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson, an area near Second and Interstate 40, a parcel of University of New Mexico land near Lomas and Interstate 25, and Montessa Park south of the Sunport). That’s as it should be, and the mayor should expect a lively debate and considerable pushback.

But it’s unacceptable to bait the election hook with the Westside’s inherent flaws, only to flip-flop once the bond approval is in hand.

Keller should quickly and publicly take the Westside center off the table – or risk gaining a reputation that may come back to haunt him next time he comes to taxpayers’ well with his pail in hand.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.