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Editorial: Tent cities may cause more problems than homeless solutions

A plan floated by two elected officials to create sanctioned “safe outdoor spaces,” aka tent cities for a growing homeless population, is premature at best and a terrible idea at worst.

The suggestion by County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley and City Councilor Diane Gibson comes as Albuquerque is moving full speed toward opening the long-awaited, scaled-down but still $14 million Gateway Center homeless shelter and services hub in the old Lovelace hospital in Southeast Albuquerque. The city describes this Gateway Center – with 150-175 shelter beds plus 25-50 slots to help people “recover from acute illness and injury” – as “a physically and emotionally safe place that will help connect people to housing” (and) “a compassionate solution to supporting those who are unhoused.”

Meanwhile, the city still runs the Westside Emergency Housing Center, “a safe and welcoming environment to men and women experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque.” It is open year-round, has 250 beds to follow COVID-safe practices, offers three meals a day, free transportation from eight sites and also works to connect people to services.

And the city also offers motel and rent vouchers, Section 8 subsidized housing and the Albuquerque Heading Home project to help people transition into permanent housing. Affordable housing programs provide about 9,500 assisted housing units with about 3,500 of those likely affordable to households with extremely low incomes.

There is no question more is needed.

Albuquerque has seen a sharp increase in homelessness, around 1,500 are homeless any night in the metro area, and that may well jump as eviction moratoriums expire.

But given the investment in resources local government is making to shelter and feed the homeless, working to connect them with services and helping them transition to housing, why would we move to the “safe outdoor spaces” concept before the Gateway Center is even operational?

The experiment in Austin, Texas, with allowing encampments on public property proved very popular with some members of the homeless population, but has been a dismal failure along other lines. It increased the number of folks sleeping outside, saw increased violence in the homeless population (by a sizable 10%) and reduced the commitment to invest tens of millions into homeless services.

O’Malley says encampments address “the need of folks who don’t want to be in a shelter.” She said the camps would offer a level of safety, consistency and sanitation that can help residents better tap into other services and achieve stability. Gibson echoes this, saying some homeless people “don’t like the options being offered to them (now), and for good reasons.” Some have said the shelters are not safe. Others have said they have too many rules – some don’t allow dogs or require sobriety, for example.

Would the safety, security and rules at a tent (or container) city be different? Better? More tolerable?

Another massive challenge, as with any shelter, is where to locate a homeless encampment. What neighborhood will accept it? (Opposition from neighbors and the University of New Mexico nearly killed the Gateway Center, and that was at a highly secure, aesthetically designed campus on empty land next to the interstate.) Say you can find this mythical site, is it close to what the homeless utilize so they will stay there?

Also, who manages it? Who provides security? Who picks up trash? How are drugs and violence dealt with? What is the city/county liability if/when someone is injured or worse? A self-governed encampment in Doña Ana County has good reviews but on a small scale, perhaps 50 people.

Nobody wants to replicate the fetid campsites at Coronado Park or Interstate 40/Second. So far O’Malley and Gibson have not volunteered sites in their districts. And folks who work with the homeless like Danny Whatley of day shelter The Rock at NoonDay say encampments are not a solution.

While it’s premature to move forward with tent cities, the discussion is timely: The fall ballot includes mayoral and council races and a bond package with $500,000 for encampments. Voters should press candidates on the issue because they have the final say and have to live with the outcome.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.





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