Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Mayor Tim Keller huddled with local church leaders on Friday morning to showcase the vacant strip of University of New Mexico land that the city has honed in on as a possible site for its forthcoming homeless shelter.
Missing from the huddle was anyone from UNM. Nevertheless, Keller gave the project 50-50 odds of ending up there.
“Out on those hills out there, right on the other side of them, is one of our top three choices. I want to note that this is nowhere near campus. It is on UNM land, but it is very far from campus and so we want to kind of debunk that myth,” Keller said. “It is very different from students and the duck pond.”
Albuquerque plans to build a Gateway Center, a 300-bed emergency shelter that would also attempt to guide people to permanent housing. Voters last year approved the sale of $14 million in bonds to fund the project.
UNM land northwest of Lomas and University and south of the Office of the Medical Investigator has emerged as a top contender on the city’s list of possible sites, though it’s possible the city could break up the project into different locations. Other locations being considered for the shelter are Coronado Park near Interstate 40 and Second Street and the old Lovelace hospital building on Gibson.
Keller said there are many advantages to the UNM site. It’s near medical and behavioral health services and local interstates for transportation. It’s empty land, which would make it easier and cheaper to build on. And it’s not that close to neighborhoods, compared to other options being considered, he said.
“This is not the city’s (land) and if the UNM community is not interested in sharing it then this will be off the table,” Keller said. “We’re working with them. We’re in discussions with them … and we’re essentially in a negotiation phase to see if we can come up with something that works for both of us. It might happen or it might not. Those are both 50% likely.”
UNM President Garnett Stokes has said she’ll keep an open mind about using the university’s land for the shelter before making a recommendation about the project to the university’s Board of Regents, who will take the final vote on the matter. And it’s not clear which way she is leaning.
“Given the preliminary survey data presented by (the city) earlier this month, we expected that UNM would be considered one of the sites that was favored by the city,” Stokes said in a statement Friday. “We are still gathering feedback from the community. There are many inputs that will need to be considered and further conversations to be had before making any final determinations.”
Regent President Doug Brown said the university has held four public forums and conducted a survey to get feedback.
“We’re trying to go through a deliberate process of hearing all sides pro and con, and variations that might emerge,” he said.
But some UNM employees and students are viewing the plan with skepticism. About 15 people have emailed Stokes about the Gateway Center in recent weeks, and the vast majority of them have urged the university to reject the proposal to build the shelter on UNM property. The Journal obtained the emails through a records request.
Daniela Baca, the director of the UNM Children’s Campus, a day care center on university property near the proposed site, said that the campus surveyed parents for several weeks about the proposal, and 72% of them were not in favor of the UNM site.
“We would like to respectfully request that an alternate location be utilized for the Gateway Center,” Baca wrote to Stokes.
Stokes also received emails from university alumni who questioned whether the shelter would align with the university’s mission; a group of “concerned host parents of international students”; and a woman who has lived in the neighborhood surrounding UNM for 57 years who has only recently grown concerned about crime, in part because of homeless people. All were against using UNM land.
A couple of the emails to Stokes appeared neutral. One UNM Hospital employee asked several questions about the idea, and another person sent her a letter of thanks for championing the issue.
Several of the emails were from students.
“While the homeless may or may not be violent, students (and their parents) do not want to attend a university which gives the appearance that it is not safe and welcoming,” one student wrote Stokes.
In addition to the emails, Stokes has also heard from the UNM Campus Safety Council, a group that includes the dean of students, chief of campus police, student body president and others. That group overwhelmingly voted against building the shelter on university property and sent Stokes a letter expressing their concerns.
The university on Friday wrapped up a two-week-long survey of students and employees about the proposal. And Stokes has said she wants to see a safety assessment before deciding whether to recommend using UNM land for the project.
The church leaders who attended the event alongside Keller on Friday spoke of the need to compassionately provide care and shelter to the homeless, though they didn’t lobby for any one site.
The full UNM Board of Regents meets next on March 9. Keller said that if requested, he’d go before the board and discuss the shelter.
“It’s up to them. If it’s helpful and they’d like (a presentation), sounds good,” he said.
What would his pitch be?
“We’re in this together, literally. The university is a public university that is in the center of Albuquerque, and we have shared challenges around public safety, crime and homelessness,” he said. “We need UNM’s help. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in terms of this site. But I think it’s important for the university and the city to understand that the differences between the two doesn’t matter when it comes to public safety.”