That the city has taken another step toward actually opening the Gateway Center homeless shelter at the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson in Southeast Albuquerque is a bit of good news — especially since voters approved a $14 million bond issue two years ago to pay for it.
And especially considering it is a top concern of Albuquerque voters — above the economy, education, COVID-19, housing, etc., and overshadowed only by crime, according to a Journal Poll last month.
A zoning hearing examiner earlier this month granted the “conditional use” required for the scaled-down operation, a planned 24/7 shelter and services hub that would provide beds for up to 100 individuals and 25 families at a time, with important service providers on site to help people transition from living on the streets to a better life. Assuming neighborhood groups don’t successfully appeal and slow or stop the process, it could actually open sometime next year.
So yes, that is good news, and it should help. A proposed “sobering” center in a new projects list is another idea worth considering.
Now, for a dose of reality. The most recent Point-in-Time survey of the homeless done earlier this year found 1,567 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in the city, although officials acknowledge the process ensures an undercount. It’s likely a significant one. And that’s despite the fact the city spends millions of dollars every year on programs like:
• Coordinated street outreach to people living in public spaces.
• The Westside Emergency Housing Center converted to a year-round shelter, doubling the number of beds.
• A 44% increase since fiscal 2018 in the annual investment in supportive housing.
• $10 million invested in the Workforce Housing Trust fund to create new, high-quality housing for lower- and moderate-income Albuquerque residents.
• A new $21.4 million emergency rental assistance program to keep people housed who are in danger of being evicted.
So why, as you drive around the city, does it look like we are losing the battle? Mini encampments with tents and piles of stuff — a generous description — overflowing from shopping carts are a frequent sight. Parks from Coronado at Interstate 40 and Second to Singing Arrow at Central and Tramway have in effect been converted to homeless — Mayor Tim Keller prefers the term “unhoused” — encampments.
And it continues to spread. A front-page story in the Nov. 9 Albuquerque Journal headlined “Midtown Malaise” featured Joani Jones, general manager of the Crown Plaza hotel (formerly the Hilton) located on 14 acres at Menaul and University.
The property, she says, is under siege from panhandlers accosting guests. Homeless people with shopping carts loiter and leave trash in their wake, and cars are broken into and personal property is stolen — despite the hotel spending $20,000 a month on private security.
“I never thought on a daily basis I would have to apologize (to guests) for Albuquerque and the Midtown area,” Jones told city councilors at their Nov. 3 meeting. So what’s going on? Why are we losing in this effort? Why do parts of the city resemble a rolling trash heap?
A proposal from outgoing City Councilor Diane Gibson is notable mostly for the fact it wouldn’t actually do much. Based on a study done by a planning company, she hopes the Council at some point will designate the area as a Metropolitan Development area, which would open up opportunities for additional funding and public-private partnerships.
Good luck getting anyone to invest in the area the way it looks/operates now. Businesses like the Range Cafe packed up and left.
As for concrete proposals, an APD substation might help a little. Then again, we don’t have enough cops and the ones we have are busy — they don’t hang around substations. More street lights and cleaning up the litter at a bus treat the symptoms, not the cause. Yes, security cameras might help, but only if there is follow-through with tough enforcement and prosecution. And even if Gibson’s proposal showed results over time, as unlikely as that is, it just pushes the “malaise” to another location.
At the heart is no one in authority seems willing to step up and address a core question: How do we deal with a population that has simply decided to live on the streets, rights of way or in city parks? Granted, many are dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
It comes down to this: We need one plan for dealing with the homeless, i.e. those who want help. We need another for dealing with “street people,” i.e. those who do not — and that plan has to focus on all issues, ranging from drug dealing to park curfews.
When the mayor and councilors actually discuss this seriously and come up with both, Albuquerque might look more like the beautiful city it used to be — rather than a trash site where people are afraid to take their kids to the park.
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.