Editorial: Sanctioned encampments are supposed to clean up city, not sacrifice areas - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Sanctioned encampments are supposed to clean up city, not sacrifice areas

Sometimes the unvarnished truth just seeps out.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon unrelated to the bland topic of the presser, Mayor Tim Keller made a stark acknowledgement when asked about the latest homicide at the city’s troubled Coronado Park.

“It is not lost on me that we created Coronado Park because Wells Park said, ‘We don’t want these folks in our neighborhood,’ and we agree with them,” the mayor said. “And that’s why they were all grouped to one area.”

So, there it was. The mayor said out loud what people who live and work near Third and Interstate 40 have complained about for years: Their neighborhood park was sacrificed to a tent city plagued by violence, drugs and filth to save another neighborhood.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Keller continued. “You want to close Coronado Park, you are going to open all of Wells Park neighborhood to something none of us want to see.”

Um, that’s not what the public was told when the City Council pushed through its “safe outdoor spaces” encampments plan. That proposal was pitched as the only way to be able to clean up cesspools like Coronado Park and get the unhoused off the sidewalks, out of the arroyos and parks and into sanctioned encampments with basic security, improved sanitary conditions and a path to services and more permanent housing.

It was not sold as a way to move the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The deplorable conditions at Coronado Park preceded Keller’s administration, though the pandemic and troubled economy have certainly exacerbated the number of people struggling with homelessness. And it has fallen on this city administration to finally address them.

After a long and contentious meeting on June 6 the Albuquerque City Council paved the way for sanctioned encampments, euphemistically termed “safe outdoor spaces,” in an attempt to get a grip on the homeless situation. The update to the city’s Integrated Development Ordinance, adopted by a 5-4 vote, adds safe outdoor spaces as a new use in certain nonresidential and mixed-use zones.

We’re officially told the safe outdoor spaces will be managed sites, up to two in each of the nine council districts, where people can sleep in tents or automobiles over the long-term while waiting for motel conversions or affordable housing. Each would have on-site restrooms and shower facilities. Some city councilors say the city will be better able to enforce loitering, trespassing and overnight camping laws throughout the city if it has designated spaces for the homeless.

But until Tuesday we were apparently not given all the facts. Keller’s unbridled candor revealed that for years the homeless have essentially been funneled to Coronado Park like cattle through a chute and the city premeditated its surrender of the neighborhood to lawlessness.

So with up to 18 “safe outdoor spaces” now on the table, the public deserves to know: How many more neighborhoods will be sacrificed? And will replicating versions of Coronado Park be allowed?

Just last week a 33-year-old man was fatally shot there. It’s unclear if Andrew Aguilar lived at the unsanctioned encampment, but he was there at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, and it’s where he died.

Aguilar’s slaying was the fourth homicide at or within a block of Coronado Park since 2019. No telling how many beatings, rapes and drug deals have gone down there, but the cleanup costs tell part of the story.

Every other week taxpayers foot the $27,154 bill for a multi-department team to temporarily clear and clean the park — and that’s not even a deep clean. How many discarded needles are buried and missed? It would take rotary tilling and a Hazmat team with metal detectors to make the park safe to use.

The sanctioned camp amendment bans registered sex offenders. But who’s going to enforce that? The same people who don’t enforce widespread illegal camping, that’s who.

Meanwhile Coronado Park’s homeless move a block or two away during the cleanups but immediately return in a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse. Others do drugs on the sidewalk or sleep under tarps along Third. Open fires on sidewalks and in the park are not rare. And while there are homeless folks camping in every quadrant of the city, the Coronado Park neighborhood has become what Keller succinctly describes, the de facto location for everything negative that goes along with the desperate, lawless life of living on the streets:

“Something none of us want to see.”

The mayor says along with the much-hyped Gateway Center shelter, safe outdoor spaces can help address homelessness. Great — but we repeat our qualified support that these are supposed to be clean and safe and in place of sleeping in parks, on sidewalks and in doorways, ditches and alleys; not filthy and dangerous and in addition to.

It’s not OK for anyone to live in squalid conditions on public property with the city’s OK — even if they want to. We need to offer the unhoused safe and sanitary places to live temporarily while they get their lives in order, like the Westside Emergency Housing Center, the Gateway Center and Bernalillo County’s Tiny Home Village.

No one would want anyone they cared about living in or near the danger zone that is Coronado Park. We certainly don’t need 18 more of the same.

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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