Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Since Tim Keller entered the Mayor’s Office, the city of Albuquerque has significantly expanded operations at its Westside Emergency Housing Center, boosted rental voucher funding and bought a former hospital with plans to create a new homeless shelter and services hub.
Now wrapping up his first term in office, Keller said his administration is committed to a multifaceted approach to help people living on the streets and in other precarious situations move toward stability. That has included creating a city division focused on homelessness.
“My administration said we’re going to continue working with our partners, but we unfortunately have to own this problem, because we need to do more,” he said.
The city spent more than $20 million last fiscal year on shelter, housing programs and other services for people experiencing homelessness, according to the Family and Community Services Department.
But official data and a look around Albuquerque indicate a worsening crisis.
Keller’s two mayoral challengers say it’s time for a more aggressive stance. Candidates Manuel Gonzales, the current Bernalillo County sheriff, and Eddy Aragon, a conservative radio show host, say the city could make jail at least part of the strategy.
Keller said the worsening homeless issues seen in Albuquerque are partly because homelessness is “exploding” around the country.
Tracking the local numbers can be difficult, although a federally required biennial count offers at least a glimpse.
The count identified 1,567 people as homeless in Albuquerque on one night in January 2021.
That’s 2.8% higher than in 2019 and 18.9% more than in 2017, despite the pandemic limiting the 2021 counting effort’s geographic scope.
However, 73.6% of the homeless population was staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing or using motel vouchers — rather than sleeping in alleys, parks and other “unsheltered” situations — in 2021, the count report shows. That’s a higher share than in 2017 and 2019.
If people are violating “public order” policies by doing things such as sleeping in parks after hours and have refused to use existing services like shelters, Gonzales said, arrests are warranted.
“They’re having sex (in the parks) in the middle of God and everybody there in the public. They’re defecating … on businesses,” Gonzales said. “Then there has to be a point where you have to enforce the law of indecent exposure and those type of things.”
Aragon contends the city has been “coddling” its homeless population. While he favors an individualized approach that includes offering transportation to shelters and treatment centers or even a ticket out of town depending on a person’s needs, he said jail should be an option when there’s “no other remedy.” He advocates arresting for what he calls “quality of life” issues like panhandling and camping.
“We have too many homeless on the streets. It isn’t policed. It isn’t working, and the homeless feel like they can just stay or go or do whatever they like at any time,” he said.
The Albuquerque Police Department generally opts to cite, rather than arrest, for most nonviolent misdemeanors due to settling a federal lawsuit over jail conditions. Per the agreement, APD policy permits misdemeanor arrests when necessary but prohibits officers from choosing arrest over a citation based solely on the fact someone is homeless.
But Gonzales views arrests as a way to protect both the general public and people who are homeless.
“What you’re trying to do is get people off the streets, because it’s already unhealthy for them,” he said.
Keller said it is not that simple.
In addition to believing the city “can do so much better” than jail, he said the city cannot arrest its way out of homelessness, noting both the aforementioned legal settlement and a separate lawsuit over an Albuquerque ordinance that would have severely restricted panhandling. A federal judge in 2019 ruled that ordinance was unconstitutional.
“This is a good example of folks just not doing their homework,” Keller said of his opponents. “… Mayors have to understand they are not the all-powerful kings of the city and they can just do stuff that’s illegal. It’s a good lesson to learn, because their ideas will never fly in court, and it’s just going to end up costing the city a bunch in lawsuits.”
While municipal government has employees who dismantle encampments, there is what Keller called a “line” to walk between respecting individuals’ rights and enforcing ordinances.
“It’s just naive to think that a mayor can come in and (start arresting people who are homeless),” he said.
Keller’s strategy for reducing homelessness has included turning the city’s existing shelter on the far West Side — which used to be open only in the winter — into a year-round, 24/7 operation. It also includes the planned Gateway Center shelter and services center at the old Lovelace hospital in Southeast Albuquerque, which could provide emergency beds for up to 100 individuals and 25 families at a time.
Keller considers the Gateway a much needed addition to the city’s homeless services landscape, but Aragon and Gonzales disagree.
Aragon believes it could encourage long-term homelessness and that it will be detrimental to the area near Kirtland Air Force Base and the planned Orion Center.
“There’s a lot of good things that are happening up here, and I don’t think that bodes well, overall, to have the homeless facility,” he said.
Gonzales said he thinks the Gateway is unnecessary, questioning whether the city-hired consultants who found in 2019 that Albuquerque needed 463-518 new shelter beds to meet demand understood the population. He contends some people are on the streets by choice.
“You have to diagnose what these people are suffering from before you make decisions for them. And you also have to understand that a majority of these people aren’t homeless, they’re choosing to live in the street because they’re addicted to drugs,” he said, saying that people on the streets should be “screened” by professionals and directed to the right resources.
The mayoral candidates are also divided on the idea of sanctioned encampments, also known as “safe outdoor spaces” — organized camp sites where people without homes can sleep and access bathrooms and showers.
Gonzales objects to the idea, but Aragon sees them as a way to better keep track of people and perhaps guide them into programs and services.
“We can use it as a temporary measure where we establish connection with them, give them 30 days, we can figure out where we can transport them, if we can get them back home. If there’s something that’s broken there, we can figure out something else we can do,” Aragon said.
Keller said he would want the authorized camps to be small, scattered and controlled to mitigate issues like substance abuse, but that he’s open to the concept if faith-based organizations or other agencies want to try it.
“I think we need an all-of-the-above approach because homelessness and unsheltered is such a terrible problem for our city,” he said.