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Councilor proposes new limits on shelter beds

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The city of Albuquerque is planning a new homeless shelter and services hub at the old Lovelace hospital at 5400 Gibson SE. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A proposed change to city ordinance would create new limits on the overnight capacity at homeless shelters in Albuquerque, something officials in Mayor Tim Keller’s administration say seems arbitrary and could hamper the planned Gateway Center at the old Lovelace hospital.

But Pat Davis, the city councilor behind the proposal, said it should not stop the city from creating a multi-faceted services center with a shelter component. Davis said it is intended mostly as a fail-safe to prevent the city from “warehousing” a large number of people there, or anywhere else.

“This is kind of the backup,” said Davis, whose district includes the project.

The city recently completed the $15 million purchase of the former hospital on Gibson Boulevard, intending to use it as a shelter for homeless people and a services hub for those clients and, potentially, the larger community. They have not finalized an operational plan, though city officials say their preliminary vision includes 150 to 175 general shelter beds.

Davis’ proposed change to the Integrated Development Ordinance would establish new restrictions for overnight shelter beds based on underlying zoning. It would set a cap of 30 beds in mixed-use zones, such as where the Gibson center is located. The highest limit anywhere in the city would be 100 overnight shelter beds in manufacturing zones and business parks.

The IDO currently imposes no bed limits for shelters.

Davis said the proposed caps come from researching other communities and determining what was manageable for a case worker.

But Carol Pierce, the city’s Family and Community Services director, said this week she was surprised by Davis’ proposal and that 30 beds seems too low – not just for the city’s operations, but also for other service providers. She said there are larger shelters already operating successfully around Albuquerque. She also referenced a 2019 analysis that found Albuquerque was about 500 shelter beds short of meeting its need.

“Homelessness doesn’t have a cap on it,” Pierce said. “We’re trying to build this whole system of care to really address the needs in our community.

“I would be very concerned if this were put into play.”

Davis contends that it would not preclude having more than 30 shelter beds at Gibson. Since the city must already proceed through a “conditional use” approval process for any shelter services on the site, he said it could get a larger bed allotment by demonstrating that it has an array of services beyond shelter beds.

“If they’re just going to operate it as a shelter, they’re stuck with these numbers (if the amendment is approved),” Davis said. “If they want to do conditional use that would raise those numbers, they’d have to come up with a reason or justification to do that.

“I believe one of those considerations would be the number of on-site services and staff to help those people not be long-term shelter residents,” he said.

Shelter size has been an ongoing debate in Albuquerque. When Keller first began promoting the Gateway Center approach – a 24/7, low-barrier shelter intended to funnel people into permanent housing by linking them to resources – the vision included a 300-bed facility. But public pushback prompted the city to change course and Keller a year ago announced the city would heed suggestions to consider a series of smaller centers instead.

But there is no consensus about what constitutes “small.” While some who live near the Gibson facility have espoused support for the project, other neighbors have complained that the idea of 150-175 shelter beds – plus a separate 25-50 to help people without homes recover from illness and injury – is still too large.

Davis said he intends to introduce his proposal as a floor amendment during the council’s vote on the annual IDO update, likely in June.


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