Editorial: Sanctioned encampments worth a pilot project — if they lead to the removal of unsanctioned camps - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Sanctioned encampments worth a pilot project — if they lead to the removal of unsanctioned camps

Mayor Tim Keller describes his proposed $1.4 billion budget as “pretty bland.” He says the spending plan that includes a 17.8% hike in general fund expenditures and 2% cost-of-living pay raise for city employees covers the bases without introducing many new elements.

But there’s nothing mundane about a $750,000 allocation in the budget for the first phase of proposed “safe outdoor spaces,” otherwise known as sanctioned encampments or simply as “tent cities.”

A City Council committee has advanced an amendment to the zoning code permitting up to 45 encampments in certain commercial, business park, manufacturing and mixed-use zones.

That’s a big deal, and deserves ample time and opportunity for public debate.

Unsanctioned homeless encampments have become de facto, even though sleeping in city parks, camping on freeway embankments and doing your dirty business on sidewalks are all illegal.

The amendment offered by City Councilor Pat Davis would cap the number of sanctioned encampments citywide at 45, with no more than five in any one of the city’s nine council districts, and limit the size of each to 40 tents, cars or recreational vehicles. Each would be required to have a certain number of water-flush or composting toilets, hand-washing stations and showers, with a surrounding wall or screen at least 6 feet high for sites with tents. Operators, which could include churches and nonprofit organizations, would have to offer some form of social services and support facilities.

Davis notes a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2018 on an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, states cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds available for their homeless populations. He says Albuquerque lacks the number of shelter beds to be able to enforce widespread illegal camping and his amendment would let the city crack down on non-sanctioned camping.

Sanctioned encampments are worth exploring if, in fact, they would replace the non-sanctioned camps that have sprung up along streets, on sidewalks and in vacant lots and parks. That is a big “if.”

The city initiative comes as liberal-run cities across the United States are increasingly changing course and clearing out non-sanctioned homeless camps.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has used emergency powers to ban camping along certain roadways; Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a pilot program last summer to permanently clear several homeless camps; and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell ended a standoff with activists by removing two blocks of tents from nearby City Hall. The Los Angeles City Council has used new laws to ban camping in 54 locations. Voters in left-leaning Austin, Texas, last year reinstated a ban that penalizes those who camp downtown and near the University of Texas, in addition to making it a crime to ask for money in certain areas and times.

Advocates for the homeless have denounced the aggressive measures, and questions remain about those measures’ success. Does clearing one area simply move the group to another? Do those who refuse to budge eventually get arrested and fill our jails?

It’s clear the city needs to do something. And sanctioned encampments may well be part of the solution. Other city councilors are sponsoring similar proposals of sanctioned camps, so the initiative appears to have legs.

But going from no sanctioned encampments to allowing 45 seems a big jump. Why not start with a pilot program with a scaled-back number of camps?

And the public needs more opportunity to weigh in. Davis’ proposal could be considered by the full City Council as early as May 2, yet only two public hearings, both on April 26, are scheduled before then. Both are via Zoom. That’s wholly insufficient for something of this magnitude. City leaders need to hear face to face from their constituents.

Sanctioned camps offer the homeless basic security, much-improved sanitary conditions and a connection to services, unlike the makeshift camps whose neighbors have suffered long enough. If they truly replace the unsanctioned camps, they would be a major step forward. But there is no benefit if they are simply in addition to the current unsanitary and unsafe camps.

And if sanctioned camps are approved, places like Coronado Park should be permanently cleaned up and returned to families, children and skateboarders to enjoy. Downtown and Southeast Heights residents and businesses have shouldered the brunt of the homeless burden long enough.

Whether sanctioned encampments clean the city up, attract more homeless or wind up underutilized like Bernalillo County’s Tiny Homes Village must be studied if the safe outdoor spaces proposal moves forward.

And the biggest unanswered question is still what will the city do with squatters who have no interest in the offers of shelter beds, motel vouchers or tent spaces?

The proposed zoning amendment also includes a provision to make it easier to convert nonresidential properties, such as hotels or offices, to residential use. That proposal, sponsored by City Councilor Isaac Benton, would eliminate a silly requirement that each unit have a full kitchen – namely an oven or cooking stove — if the city is involved in the conversion project. We need housing, and that’s an easy addition. Encampments are not.

We give Albuquerque officials credit for continuing to seek new ways to aid the city’s homeless. The Gateway Center emergency shelter and services hub expected to open late this year, the year-round Westside Emergency Housing Center with shuttle service and temporary hotel vouchers are all positive steps.

But sanctioning people to live outside in tents is a whole different ball game. City leaders should proceed very cautiously — and with plenty of public input — because lives and neighborhoods are at stake.

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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