Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
As it takes the next step toward creating an overnight shelter for the homeless inside the old Lovelace hospital, the city of Albuquerque has begun revealing its more specific plans for the site, including transportation, security and intake hours.
But the city’s draft operations plan for what it is calling the “Gateway Center at Gibson Health Hub” does not answer one of the most contentious questions – how many people the shelter will accommodate on a nightly basis.
The city posted the 11-page plan on its website Tuesday, the same day it applied for the permit needed to run an overnight shelter inside the onetime hospital. A zoning hearing examiner will hear the request Sept. 21, and city officials think they have made a good case for permitting a shelter as a “conditional use” on the property at 5400 Gibson SE. They say it will enhance Albuquerque’s larger homeless services landscape at a time of increased need.
On some nights this year, more than 700 people have used a shelter-and-hotel system the city and other partners established to provide emergency shelter.
“We have great providers (already in the city); they do a remarkable job,” Albuquerque Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said Tuesday during a meeting with Journal editors and reporters. “But, like anything else, they are quite frankly being overwhelmed by the number of folks that need service.”
An ‘open’ and ‘inviting’ center for community
The newly released Gateway Center operations plan offers some insight into what the city’s facility could look like.
According to the plan, the city will use contractors to operate the shelter and the accompanying “engagement center,” where staff will help direct clients to services. But the city will have an on-site Gateway Center administrator overseeing operations, plus a community outreach coordinator and systems analyst.
Clients referred by police and hospitals will be allowed to enter around the clock, but those coming from community partner organizations will be accepted from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Gateway Center’s dining room will open for three meals per day, and a facility shuttle system will transport referred clients into the shelter and, eventually, to their “exit destination,” the plan says. Carol Pierce, the city’s director of family and community services, said clients may also need rides to conduct necessary errands, like applying for disability benefits.
“We want to have transportation that helps move them out of the facility and bring them back in, and I think that’s key,” she said.
The facility will accept people who are not sober but will not permit on-site drug use. Weapons are also banned, the plan says.
The Gateway Center will have an “open, safe and inviting floor plan” and the city intends to have separate entrances for men, women and families.
Officials say that proper design can eliminate some barriers that stop people from using shelters.
“Things like accommodating pets (and) providing spaces to safely store personal items are important,” said Lisa Huval, Albuquerque’s deputy director for housing and homelessness. “We also know trauma-informed design is a key element.”
The plan says the city and the shelter’s operators “will establish appropriate security systems,” including metal detection, security cameras, fire and alarm systems, and there will be an “appropriate ratio and balance” of 24/7 on-site security, though the plan does not provide a specific ratio.
Some remain skeptical about traffic, capacity
Rachel Conger Baca, president of the nearby Siesta Hills Neighborhood Association, said the plan appears to have included some of the community’s input but still has “some big gaping holes.” While the document states the city will perform a speed study and “road audit” of Gibson Boulevard to identify potential improvements, Baca said the city should have completed a traffic study and other impact studies prior to any operational planning.
“I still don’t think there’s the level of detail that we want to have,” she said. “I still see a lot of aspirational language and not a lot of nuts and bolts.”
And by not providing the number of beds the shelter will have, she said the city is not being “forthcoming.” The capacity question has swirled around the project for years.
Mayor Tim Keller’s administration had in 2019 proposed a Gateway Center to accommodate around 300 people nightly, but the scope sparked backlash. Members of the community – including some homeless services providers – had criticized the idea of housing that many people in one place, arguing that it was not a good idea for the clientele or surrounding neighborhood. Keller last summer announced a 300-bed shelter was “off the table” and that the city would consider alternatives, such as a series of smaller, scattered shelters.
This spring, the city purchased the 572,000-square-foot former Lovelace hospital for a Gateway Center. Officials have said that tentative plans included 150 to 175 shelter beds, but some neighbors have complained that is still too many and suggested that 30 is more appropriate. Huval said the city should have a number by the end of this month. She said officials are still reviewing a consultant’s report and continuing their own research by visiting some programs in Arizona later this week.
“We know we owe the community an answer on that, (but) we are still in the process of evaluating what the right bed capacity is for the Gateway Center,” she said.
Pierce said the shelter will ultimately be just “a slice” of the overall project. Existing tenants on the property – including some health care providers – currently occupy about a quarter of the square footage, and the city is looking to recruit more.