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Disaster warning

Jesús “Bartholomew” Ochoa zips up one of his bags while he sits outside the University of New Mexico Art and Art History building, Friday morning. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some members of the University of New Mexico community have voiced support for a proposal to build a homeless shelter on university property, but, behind closed doors, school leaders are warning that moving forward could be disastrous.

The city of Albuquerque is going to build a new homeless shelter, and UNM land north of Lomas and just east of Interstate 25 is one of the sites being considered for the project. But UNM’s Campus Safety Council overwhelmingly voted last month to recommend the university not allow it anywhere at UNM, saying such a move could create a dangerous situation for students, strain limited police resources and hurt the school’s already sliding enrollment.

The vote was referenced in a memo sent Jan. 22 from the safety council to President Garnett Stokes. The memo said the council – which is comprised of the chief of university police, the dean of students, the UNM emergency manager, the student body president and others – voted 11-1 against the shelter.

“The (council) believes that campus safety and the perceptions of safety have led and will continue to lead to a decline in enrollment and having the Gateway Center located on university property will contribute and increase the safety issues we have experienced on campus and in the surrounding areas where students live,” the council wrote to Stokes. “If the (shelter) were located on university property the (council) wonders if that would impact our (crime) statistics, potentially leading to an even greater perception that the campus is unsafe.”

The memo will be given serious consideration by university officials, Stokes said Friday.

“The campus safety council was created to advise me on issues that affect the well-being and safety of our students,” she said in a statement. “Their recommendation will be seriously considered by university leadership, as well as other community inputs and relative information, as we deliberate whether UNM will support having the Gateway Center site at the proposed location.”

The city late Friday responded to concerns raised in the memo by urging everyone to separate fear from facts.

“As we face these challenges, we should not criminalize homelessness,” said city spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn. “These are people who need services and the proposed site is a considerable distance from campus. With shuttles, proper fencing and smart design solutions, we do not anticipate negative impacts on campus. On the contrary, the center should decrease the impact of vagrancy in our community.

“We have a moral calling to come together as a community and a shared responsibility to create a center that will help people experiencing homelessness connect with housing and services.”

Under consideration

UNM held four recent forums at which a panel of university and city officials answered questions and listened to feedback about the center. And UNM on Friday sent a survey, which is expected to be open for about two weeks, to everyone with an official UNM email address asking for their input on the facility.

The “Gateway Center” would be a 24/7 homeless shelter built to sleep around 300 people and guide them toward permanent housing and available resources. City voters have already approved the sale of $14 million in bonds to help fund the project. The city is vetting several possible sites and plans to announce a location this spring. The city has floated several possible locations in addition to UNM, such as the Second Street/Interstate 40 area, Montessa Park, and the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson.

But a vacant strip of university land south of the Office of the Medical Investigator has emerged as a leading contender for the site. It is located on the university’s North campus, while the main campus is located south of Lomas.

“It is an open question whether the gateway facility will be placed on our campus,” Stokes has said during the forums. “There is much that remains to be considered.”

Stokes said at a forum on Thursday that it “remains to be seen” when the proposal will go before the regents, and it’s not clear if that will coincide with when city officials plan to announce a final location. Stokes said she is waiting on survey results and a campus safety assessment before making a recommendation to regents.

“When it gets brought up to regents will be at the point when I am ready to make a recommendation to them,” Stokes said.

During the forums, feedback about the shelter at UNM was mixed. Some students, UNM employees and neighbors raised concerns about safety, which city officials and others countered by saying that homeless people are statistically more likely to be victims of crime than commit them.

And many people who attended the forums said the university property seemed like a good location, primarily because of its proximity to UNM’s psychiatric and behavioral health services. UNM Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth is among those who have said there are several advantages to having the shelter there.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller attended one of the forums and spoke favorably of using UNM land for the site, even suggesting the university has a responsibility to help the city assist its homeless population.

“I do not anticipate foot traffic through campus – nor do I anticipate a safety impact on campus,” Keller said at a student forum on campus last week.

Deeply concerned

But the safety council’s memo shows many university officials are deeply concerned about campus safety should the shelter be built at the proposed UNM site.

The two-page memo, sent by safety council co-chairs Nasha Torrez, the dean of students, and Tish Young, a UNM police detective, said that transients have tried to break into sorority houses multiple times and that, in one case, sorority members were threatened by a homeless man with a knife. The proposed site for the Gateway Center is about a half mile from UNM’s Greek row, which is located on the main campus.

The safety council said that in recent focus groups students frequently reported feeling threatened by homeless people on campus, and they raised concerns about how the facility would impact university crime stats.

It’s not uncommon to see transients on the campus.

Jesús “Bartholomew” Ochoa, a homeless man who frequently sleeps on campus, said in an interview that transients are attracted to UNM for several reasons. He chooses to sleep at several spots on campus because he feels safe sleeping in a public space. He said others go to campus to beg or steal from students.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea (to build a homeless shelter on campus),” he said. “The homeless at UNM tend to be people who dabble in drugs, and some are severely mentally ill.”

UNM police Lt. Trace Peck said campus police are regularly called around the campus early in the mornings to roust people who slept on campus the night before. He said university police are also stationed at the UNM Hospital emergency department every night, because of the number of homeless people there.

“UNMPD has fielded many calls about disturbances, as well as more severe issues, caused by homeless people on our campus,” the safety council memo states. “If the Gateway Center were located on UNM property, the (council) felt that it would contribute to these issues being even more of a problem.”

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