Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Amid increasing criticism from the public and some city councilors, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said his administration is now “revisiting” how it addresses homeless encampments that have become increasingly common throughout the city.
The leader of New Mexico’s largest city said his administration is reviewing policy changes through law enforcement and legal lenses and that there should be changes at one of the city’s highest-profile unsanctioned camp sites – Coronado Park – by the end of this month. The city park north of Downtown has become synonymous with Albuquerque’s homelessness crisis, hosting a large group of regular campers and requiring biweekly cleanups.
Keller said the current situation is unacceptable and “it’s not going to stand.”
But the administration has not determined the exact framework it wants to pursue.
“We know we need to get our ducks in a row. It is extremely dangerous for our officers, for our civilians, for the unsheltered and for taxpayer funding because of litigation, to make a rash decision about how we handle Coronado,” the mayor said in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters last week, adding that he has issued “marching orders” to develop a new approach. “But I want to make sure we do the best job we can in terms of getting it right, and not just creating 1,000 other fires all around it.”
Coronado Park’s problems have roared back into the public consciousness due to a June shooting death at the park and because of the City Council’s recent debate over legalizing safe outdoor spaces, often referred to as sanctioned encampments. Some feared the city wanted to replicate Coronado Park elsewhere. But safe-outdoor-space proponents and the city’s Family and Community Services Department leaders stress that the concept in no way resembles Coronado Park because the safe outdoor spaces are managed, organized camp sites with size limitations, standards for entry, rules, toilets and showers.
Coronado Park and the city’s underlying homelessness challenges have sparked recurring discussions during City Council meetings, with one councilor recently accusing the Keller administration of dismissing community concern about encampments.
“The administration is 100% ignoring what we’re talking about here and what is going on and what the citizens of Albuquerque are demanding,” Councilor Louie Sanchez said during a lengthy discussion about encampments during the June 22 meeting. “Why is the administration, (and police) afraid of taking care of business at Coronado Park? It’s a crime-infested, illegal, de facto sanctioned-by-the-city park, and we are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on it.”
Keller administration officials say the city already breaks up dozens of illegal encampments around the city each month, prioritizing the response time based on potential risks.
But they say homelessness is a complex problem with resource and legal considerations and that the encampment quagmire is not unique to Albuquerque.
“We’ve been asked many times ‘Why can’t the city just take homeless individuals or campers to one of (the existing) shelters?'” Family and Community Services Director Carol Pierce said during a recent presentation to the council. “The city can’t legally force anyone to go to a shelter and, even if we could, we don’t have enough beds to accommodate all the people who are unhoused in our community, whether that be in Coronado or any place in our community.”
Officials say housing remains the ultimate answer for homelessness. The city has $19 million in this fiscal year’s budget for housing vouchers, an 18% increase above the previous year.
It also is pursuing intermediate solutions. Work has begun inside the old Lovelace hospital, which the city intends to use for a new homeless shelter – with 30 women’s-only beds to start – and several new services for vulnerable populations. That includes a medical respite center – a place for people without homes to recover from short-term illnesses or injury – and a medical sobering center. There is a combined $11.9 million in the current budget for those facilities.
But unauthorized encampments continue cropping up across Albuquerque, and Keller said the city needs a new approach.
He said developing one will require assessing what alternatives are available, determining what resources the city has for cleaning encampments and perhaps how it can do more within existing legal parameters. Those include the city’s 2015 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice – signed after the federal agency found the city had a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing – and its 2017 settlement in the federal McClendon lawsuit over jail conditions. The mayor said he’s tasked the legal department with further “interpretation” of what the city can and can’t do.
“Historically, we have not (done that). … We have just said, ‘Well, McClendon …'” he said. “Well, now we interpret McClendon.”
Attorney Kevin Morrow of the city’s legal office said there have been lawsuits around the country about encampments, vagrancy, trespassing in public places and similar issues but few definitive answers.
“There hasn’t been clear, clear guidance anywhere (about) the ways in which we can clearly and constitutionally clean up the community while respecting the rights of those experiencing homelessness,” he said during a meeting with Journal staff.
City Councilor Pat Davis said he’s pleased to hear about the new policy review, having complained during the June 22 council meeting that the city lacks a “comprehensive homelessness strategy” and having asked city attorneys to look at how other cities in the region are legally tackling the situation.
In an interview last week, Davis said the administration has often “leaned on” the fear of lawsuits.
“We’ve heard a lot of hand-wringing and ‘I’m worried we’ll get sued,'” Davis said. “But we don’t know how other cities address it.
“I’m excited (the administration is revisiting policies) and they’re taking the lead and trying to answer some of those questions.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico cautioned that any potential policy change that emerges from this review must account for the rights of the unhoused.
“We cannot comment on a policy we have not yet seen, however, any decision the City makes with respect to Coronado Park or other issues regarding our unhoused population must not further criminalize poverty or homelessness and must respect the civil and constitutional rights of those living in encampments,” ACLU of New Mexico legal director Maria Martinez Sanchez said in a statement. “The solutions to these problems are not sweeping people under the rug or throwing them in jail.”