City looking for new path to Gateway Center - Albuquerque Journal

City looking for new path to Gateway Center

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Coronado Park, where people who are homeless often congregate, is still an option for Albuquerque’s Gateway Center, but officials say they are not looking to build a 300-bed single-site location. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The city of Albuquerque is for now abandoning the idea of developing a single, 300-bed homeless shelter and has recently begun collaborating with other public agencies on a possible multi-site approach to the city’s homelessness crisis.

Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday that a “Gateway Center” shelter with hundreds of beds is “off the table” but that Albuquerque leaders will pursue other strategies to serve the roughly 5,000 households that experience homelessness each year in New Mexico’s largest city.

A new working group with city, Bernalillo County and University of New Mexico officials has been meeting regularly for the past few months in an attempt to reach a collective decision on how best to tackle the problem.

“We are, I think, in a regrouping phase, but one I think is in many ways better with an eye toward a comprehensive solution and with an eye toward collaboration,” Keller said during a media briefing at City Hall.

While the city had hoped to break ground on the Gateway Center this winter, the mayor said there is no longer a clear timeline, given the shift in strategy and the tumult caused by COVID-19.

But he said the pandemic will not stop the city from developing some Gateway Center plan, noting that the virus has served to highlight the need for an alternative to the city’s existing shelter – a former jail about 20 miles northwest of Downtown.

“The coronavirus has also shown us how important this is,” he said. “The amount of funding and logistics we have to deal with going back and forth to the West Side … is extremely hard.”

Voters signaled approval for the Gateway Center in November by passing a $128.5 million general obligation bond package that included $14 million for the project.

But many – including Bernalillo County officials, homeless service providers and residents of neighborhoods surrounding potential locations – had questioned the city’s effort to develop one 24/7 centralized shelter that would serve all populations. As previously planned, the Gateway Center would have provided nightly accommodations for about 300 while also linking them to resources meant to help them stabilize and find permanent housing.

Critics warned against mixing populations and argued that a large facility would unduly burden any one neighborhood.

But city officials said last fall that they wanted to add something different to the city’s existing network of dispersed shelters by providing a place anyone could go regardless of gender, religious affiliation, sobriety or other factors. They said finding multiple locations could delay a project that the city needed sooner rather than later.

The City Council in December approved Keller’s request to hire an architect to design a 300-bed shelter.

By February – after months of soliciting public feedback – the city revealed its Gateway Center location search had narrowed to three finalists: University of New Mexico land east of Interstate 25 and north of Lomas; the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson; and the city-owned Coronado Park, at Third and Interstate 40.

But UNM’s March announcement that it would not provide the site – which had been the city’s top choice for a 300-bed shelter – triggered what Keller called the “regrouping” phase.

The city convened the current working group and is open to a multi-site model, Keller said.

That could still involve using the old Lovelace or Coronado Park, though not at a 300-bed scale. Other locations may also be considered.

No matter the ultimate strategy, the $14 million approved by city voters is enough to move forward, the mayor said.

“Costs go up the more sites you have, by definition; however, we might be able to utilize some existing sites and existing facilities, which means costs can go down,” he said. “I think we’re all confident we have enough money for a Phase One concept as per what the voters voted on, but what that looks like and how big it is depends on what the working group will be doing this summer.”

City Council President Pat Davis, who is part of the group, said the goal is to have a “joint governance group” so that subject-matter experts and multiple public agencies decide together on the best path forward for the entire community.

“This is exactly what we ought to be doing,” he said. “People want to see the city, the county and UNM and all the government (entities) working together.”

Some Bernalillo County leaders had previously complained that the city was asking them to help pay for the Gateway Center but not considering their input.

County Commissioner Jim Collie said Wednesday that he and his peers are pleased with the current collaboration.

“We’re delighted to be involved in this process and believe that what we come out with is a product that will be amplified by our working together,” he said.

Collie said it is unclear whether the county would contribute financially to Gateway Center construction but that it will assuredly be involved in some way given its mandate to provide behavioral health services.

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