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With mounting homelessness that Albuquerque’s new shelter alone is unlikely to resolve, some local leaders say it is time to follow the lead of other communities by expanding services to include sanctioned encampments.
Such camps, sometimes called “safe outdoor spaces,” are managed sites with tents or low-cost structures where people without homes can sleep and access bathrooms and showers. Unlike unauthorized versions, authorities do not break them up. They have become increasingly common around the U.S.; Seattle, for example, has a series of such villages, while at least one New Mexico community, Las Cruces, has embraced the model with its Camp Hope.
Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson and Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley are interested in pursuing something similar locally, saying it could be a better alternative for those who might now be sleeping on sidewalks, in doorways, arroyos or other places unfit for human habitation.
Albuquerque has seen a sharp rise in such “unsheltered homelessness,” which accounted for 37% of all those identified as homeless in an official 2019 count, up from 14% in 2015.
“I think the big thing is it really addresses the need of folks who don’t want to be in a shelter,” O’Malley said of safe outdoor spaces.
While she acknowledged it is nobody’s ideal living situation, she said the camps would offer a level of safety, consistency and sanitation that can help residents better tap into other resources and achieve stability.
Gibson said she has contemplated the idea since she and O’Malley began working years ago on what is now the community’s first Tiny Home Village – a 30-unit transitional housing development featuring 120-square-foot homes with beds, desks and porches. Sanctioned encampments would provide a somewhat similar environment, she said, but a lower capital investment than the nearly $5 million for Tiny Home Village.
She sees the sites as a nimble complement to places like the Gateway Center – a former hospital in Southeast Albuquerque that the city recently bought for $15 million and will use as an emergency shelter and services hub. The city, Gibson said, needs a range of support options for people who are homeless, including those who fear traditional shelters because of negative past experiences.
“People are not saying ‘no’ to what we’re offering because they want to sleep on the cold or on a hard sidewalk; that’s not true,” Gibson said. “It’s because they don’t like the options being offered to them, and for good reasons.”
The local Homeless Coordinating Council – which includes leaders from the city, Bernalillo County and the University of New Mexico – has identified sanctioned encampments as a “high-impact strategy” for addressing homelessness.
The city of Albuquerque’s Family and Community Services Department is “in the very early stages” of exploring the idea by looking at examples in other cities to see what worked best in terms of safety, security, sanitation and more, according to a spokeswoman. Department Director Carol Pierce said in a recent HCC meeting that there is some local enthusiasm around the model, and conversations are already happening with potential partners in the local faith-based community.
The city’s 2021 bond program – a $140 million infrastructure package going to voters this fall – includes $500,000 for encampments.
Danny Whatley of The Rock at NoonDay, an Albuquerque day shelter for people who are homeless, said he is not a fan of sanctioned encampments as a solution. He did not particularly like the Tiny Home Village concept either because he thought the units’ lack of individual bathrooms made them insufficient. (Residents of the village share restrooms.)
But Whatley said authorized outdoor camps may now be a “necessary evil” given the circumstances. The Rock’s executive director said he fears a new surge of homelessness when current pandemic-related eviction moratoriums and resources expire – and that’s in a city that already has a significant homeless population. An official one-night count in 2019 identified about 1,500 people as homeless in Albuquerque, and the city’s pre-pandemic estimates were that about 5,000 households experience homelessness at some point in a given year.
“Could a sanctioned tent city assist that number and help some folks? Yeah, it probably could,” Whatley said. “Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in now – trying to find a safe, secure place or site for folks to live in a tent.”
Such camps may provide more than tents, O’Malley and Gibson said. They cited options like Pallet-branded shelters, which are enclosed aluminum 64-square-foot structures designed specifically to house people who are homeless. The units have lockable doors and windows and are designed to accommodate electricity, heating and air conditioning. Prices start at $4,900 apiece. They are used in a few dozen communities around the U.S. already, according to the company’s website, largely on the West Coast, though there are projects in development in the Midwest and East Coast as well.
Steve Berg with the National Alliance to End Homelessness said the organization does not have an official stance on sanctioned encampments, only that they are implemented the right way. Organizers, he said, must think through day-to-day issues like who is responsible for emptying the trash cans, while also keeping in mind the bigger picture.
“Success always (depends) on whether there’s a clear and actual plan to get people out of that space and into housing as quickly as possible,” said Berg, the alliance’s vice president of programs and policy. “If you don’t have that, you’re not going to get what you want out of it.”
Gibson said she sees that as the underlying aim of any sanctioned encampment initiative.
“That’s the goal: permanent housing. That’s the one thing we can agree on. … (But) we have to start with where people are,” she said. “And the people who are suffering greatly are the ones who are having to sleep outside in the cold, in the heat, on sidewalks and underpasses.”