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UNM students mixed on campus homeless shelter

Anders Flagstad, left, and Ivy Duewall talk about where a proposed homeless shelter could be built near the UNM campus. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Some worried that building a homeless shelter on University of New Mexico property would jeopardize campus safety.

One woman feared that moving forward with the proposal would hurt enrollment at a time when the university has been struggling to attract students.

Several other students said they would welcome the shelter on UNM property, although they asked for more information on the services that would be made available to those who would be using the facility.

Student reaction to the Gateway Center, a proposed 24/7, 300-bed city of Albuquerque shelter, south of the Office of the Medical Investigator near Interstate 25, was mixed at the second of four campus forums that will be held on the matter. More than 40 students and university employees attended. UNM is one of several sites around Albuquerque being considered for the shelter.

John Cooke of Sigma Chi Fraternity complains about the homeless problem on UNM’s campus during a forum on proposed shelter sites. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

With the proposed site a mile from Dane Smith Hall, one of the university’s main lecture halls, John Cooke voiced concern with how the shelter would affect the safety of the campus, especially a shelter that will provide refuge for anyone who asks for help regardless of their sobriety, addictions or mental health.

“I don’t think anybody here on campus is against a homeless shelter,” said Cooke, a senior majoring in political science. “It’s a really big issue that we need to solve, but students don’t feel safe.”

Adam Biederwolf, president of the Associated Students of UNM, expressed his concern for the safety of those living on Greek Row. The houses on Greek Row closest to the proposed site are the Pi Beta Phi and the Kappa Kappa Gamma sororities. They’re a little more than half a mile away.

Lisa Huval, Albuquerque’s deputy director of Housing and Homelessness, said a “comprehensive security analysis” would be done to assure surrounding communities of their safety if the Gateway Center is built on UNM land. The shelter would provide resources for permanent housing, finding jobs, and other programs that help people with substance abuse or behavioral health issues.

Mayor Tim Keller also reassured students that they’d be safe.

“I do not anticipate foot traffic through campus – nor do I anticipate a safety impact on campus,” Keller told those at the meeting. He said security for the homeless shelter will be provided by the city.

In previous correspondence with university officials, the city has sought to address security concerns, citing data from the Albuquerque Police Department Real Time Crime Center showing that emergency shelters experience a low number of calls for service. In 2019, the Barrett House, with 30 beds, which houses single women and women with children, had 14 calls for service. The Westside Emergency Housing Center, with 450 beds, serving single adult males and females, and families with children, experienced the most calls for service, at 143, in 2019 – almost three calls per week.

The UNM site being considered is an empty lot near Lomas and University NE. However, a survey conducted by the city found that more people who responded favored a location off Second Street and Interstate 40 over any of the other options presented.

Despite the survey, Keller and other city officials said they like the UNM site because it is “centrally located” for homeless programs and close to the University of New Mexico Hospital.

“The city needs help, and I believe it is a part of the university’s responsibility to help – I believe it’s part of all of our responsibilities to say ‘What can I do?’ even if it’s something small,” Keller said at Tuesday’s forum.

Huval floated the idea of integrating campus learning with the Gateway Center through student learning, research and learning the “impacts and solutions of homelessness.”

“I think there is so much opportunity here for us to do something better and bigger than we have done before in a really meaningful and integrated way,” she said. “The proximity to UNM will certainly help foster that collaborative spirit.”

Cinnamon Blair, UNM’s chief marketing and communications officer, said the Board of Regents would have to approve the project for it to move forward. Albuquerque voters last fall approved $14 million in general obligation bonds to fund construction of a shelter.

Students weren’t the only ones giving public comment. Tony Michael, a homeless person, raised the issue of finding opportunities for employment.

Michael said he is in favor of the UNM location because it’s safer and he is able to read in the libraries. “I feel real comfortable being here instead of going out there, somewhere,” Michael said, gesturing toward Central. “I been fighting a lot out there. It hurts.”

Albuquerque’s 2019 Point-In-Time count, an annual, one-night count of the city’s homeless population, counted 1,524 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people, an increase of 206 from the year before. However, some believe that the number is undercounted by almost 3,000.

The university will hold another forum at noon Wednesday in the Student Union and at 5:15 p.m. Thursday in the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. The university is asking members of the campus community to weigh in on the proposal to build the shelter on UNM land. That online survey will begin Friday.

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