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Citing the need to make immediate headway on the metro’s homelessness crisis, one Albuquerque city councilor said she sees potential in empty parking lots and other unused space.
Councilor Brook Bassan is proposing the concept of “living lots” – designated places where people are allowed to sleep overnight in tents, cars or RVs. She contends it will be an inexpensive, temporary and easy action the city can take while completing such larger-scale initiatives as the Gateway Center shelter in Southeast Albuquerque. She called the idea a “low-cost, low-barrier compromise” that provides appointed spaces for people who may otherwise already be sleeping in parks, on sidewalks and in arroyos.
“People are currently camping everywhere; people are currently defecating anywhere. People need help throughout our city,” Bassan said during the City Council’s May 2 meeting. “We’re tired of it; we’re frustrated. They’re tired of it, they’re frustrated.”
She describes it as “step one” in a services continuum and an easier-to-access option than even safe outdoor spaces, also known as sanctioned encampments. Safe outdoor spaces – which the City Council is already considering as a new land use – would have more requirements to get started, including on-site showers, 24/7 on-call support services and walls to block views of tents.
Living lots would have to include restrooms and handwashing stations, even if just portable units, but Bassan said they would require little else. She said the city would bear responsibility for cleaning and maintaining them, but they could ultimately require less manpower and resources than the city presently expends breaking up and clearing unsanctioned campsites throughout the city.
Her proposal would allow living lots in certain mixed-use and nonresidential zones, and she said the city could identify some of its own property or work with other public agencies, and even private landowners, to find locations.
Bassan contends that providing low-barrier campsites could make it easier for the city to enforce such laws as trespassing or loitering when people are sleeping at unauthorized sites because the city can offer an alternative.
“We’re finding that middle ground; if you want to live in a tent – some people just want to – you can live in a tent, but you can’t do it just anywhere,” she said in an interview.
Bassan’s proposal garnered some scrutiny from some fellow councilors, such as Trudy Jones. She said she wanted more specific information, including how the city would pick specific sites.
“I like the big picture of it, but the devil is always in the details, so let’s look at it deeper and see what we come up with,” Jones said.
Choices beyond shelter
Councilor Dan Lewis, however, made his opposition clear by suggesting that, when the living lots proposal goes up for a vote, it stipulates that they can be located only within the boundaries of Bassan’s Northeast Heights council district.
Lewis was among a few councilors who also expressed their objection to safe outdoor spaces, a concept before the council as part of the city’s annual Integrated Development Ordinance update. Lewis has since launched a campaign against both ideas, saying in a Friday news release that “radical proposals that sanction tent encampments will not reduce homelessness in our city and will only make the situation worse.”
The IDO legislation now being debated by the council is considering adding safe outdoor spaces as a new land use – something Councilor Louie Sanchez tried unsuccessfully to remove from the bill during the May 2 meeting.
Sanchez argued that the city should not mix zoning and social issues. But his proposal failed on a 3-6 vote as only Lewis – who questioned both the morality of sanctioning such projects and the public’s appetite for them – and Councilor Renee Grout joined him in trying to block safe outdoor spaces.
“I think everybody wants to find solutions, (but) I don’t think anybody wants us to do something if that something is the wrong thing, and I don’t believe this is the right thing,” Lewis said.
Lewis and Sanchez subsequently – but unsuccessfully – tried to pass an amendment ensuring safe outdoor spaces are prohibited in each of their West Side districts. The standing proposal would allow safe outdoor spaces in certain nonresidential zones and some mixed-use zones. It is, however, mostly silent on council districts, except that it bars more than five apiece in each of the city’s nine districts.
A map detailing where zoning would enable the sanctioned encampments under the present proposal shows at least some areas in each council district, though a large concentration of eligible areas lies between San Pedro and the railroad tracks, north of Menaul to the city’s northern boundary. However, the map does not account for religious institutions, which would have more flexibility in location.
When Bassan asked Lewis directly if he had any good ideas for combating homelessness, given his objections to other ideas, he said his answer was the Gateway Center. Located at the old Lovelace Hospital on Gibson, he said it was a “humane” place for people to access services.
City voters in 2019 approved $14 million for the project and officials finally expect to launch multiple services on the property this winter, including a 50-bed women’s shelter, a sobering center and a space designed to deliver “medical respite” care for individuals who would have no place other than a hospital to recover from illnesses and injury.
But Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn defended the morality of providing choices beyond a shelter, too, saying some people living on the streets are still too traumatized to stay inside a shelter.
“The answer for those folks is to find something that works for them that gets them away from parks, away from open space, and away from your alleyways,” she said. “That is the humane answer we keep talking about.”
Support with a caveat
Lewis and Sanchez were not the only ones trying to guard their districts from safe outdoor spaces.
Councilor Klarissa Peña also introduced an unsuccessful amendment that would have precluded the city’s first five such spaces from going in areas with high social vulnerability scores, including large swaths of her own southwest area district. She noted that she already lives near several affordable housing developments.
“I support (safe outdoor spaces), but I just think if we’re going to do it, we should look at areas outside of areas already compounded by services like this,” she said.
Peña’s amendment also would have insulated large portions of Councilor Pat Davis’ district from the first five safe outdoor spaces, but Davis voted against it, saying it “would essentially prohibit the projects in the neighborhoods, frankly, where we’re seeing a higher density of folks needing services.”
The council is scheduled to take up the IDO legislation again on May 16.