We started with unsanctioned, unsanitary and unsafe camping across the metro area.
Then came the city’s expanded Westside Emergency Housing Center and Bernalillo County’s to-date underperforming Tiny Home Village.
But the illegal camping has only gotten worse.
Now on the way is Albuquerque’s much-anticipated Gateway Center with wraparound services. And being considered are sanctioned “safe outdoor spaces” for long-term camping while clients wait for housing, and motel conversions for affordable housing.
But a new offering from Republican City Councilor Brook Bassan and Democratic Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn may be the most controversial idea yet. Their “living lots” proposal would allow immediate, temporary camping without the rules and vetting of the safe outdoor spaces.
Each taxpayer-funded solution has its own potential pitfalls and benefits. And, as City Councilor Trudy Jones notes, “the devil is always in the details.”
The proposed “living lots” amendment to the city’s zoning code would designate empty parking lots and other unused spaces for people to sleep overnight in tents or vehicles. The two councilors say the city will be better able to enforce loitering, trespassing and overnight camping laws if it has other outdoor spaces for the homeless.
But would people be willing to leave the city parks and freeway underpasses where they now live amid trash and filth?
Living lots differ from safe outdoor spaces, otherwise known as sanctioned encampments, in a few ways. Living lots would be low-barrier spaces for immediate, temporary outdoor camping. Sanctioned encampments would require referrals and be more long term, and would require on-site showers and 24/7 on-call support services.
Bassan says the city could identify some of its own property or work with other public agencies, and even private landowners, to find locations for the living lots. Bassan says living lots could require fewer resources than the city expends breaking up and clearing illegal campsites.
On that note, Albuquerque leaders are also considering raising residential trash collection rates by $1 per month to cover the costs of routinely cleaning up homeless camps. How the city arrived at a 5.9% increase in residential trash rates is a mystery that requires explanation.
Meanwhile, Bassan said living lots will help the city clear the unsanitary parks, sidewalks and arroyos in which the homeless are sleeping and camping.
A map provided by the city shows that the “permissive” and “conditional” sites for the long-term sanctioned encampments are congregated in the I-25 corridor, with few areas identified in the city’s northeast quadrant. The original proposal for such “safe outdoor spaces” would cap the number at five per each of the city’s nine City Council districts.
Sanctioned safe outdoor spaces, living lots and motel conversions may be worth exploring if they can somehow replace the squatter camps scattered along streets, on sidewalks, and in vacant lots and parks around the city, and if they offer the homeless basic security, improved sanitary conditions and a connection to services.
But that remains a big “if.”
City Councilor Dan Lewis says safe outdoor spaces and living lots will only make the situation worse. Jones wants more specific information, including how the city would pick specific sites. So do we. The map with potential locations is heavily skewed.
Still, Bassan and Fiebelkorn are correct in that we’ve got to try innovative ideas in tackling the homeless crisis. The more options, the better, though Jones is also right about those details — they need to be adequately vetted and properly implemented.
And the city needs to be willing to switch gears if something doesn’t work.
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.