Every other Wednesday, around 50 city employees from seven different departments report to Albuquerque’s Coronado Park at 6 a.m. and get ready for another homeless encampment cleanup day.
This is neither a defense nor an indictment of the sad testament that is Coronado Park. It’s simply the reality that everyone who drives by Second and Interstate 40 sees daily.
Every cleanup costs city taxpayers around $24,700, though Matthew Whelan, director of the city’s Solid Waste Department, explains that over $18,000 of that total would be spent regardless – either cleaning up Coronado or providing services at other sites. Around $6,300 of the cost is specific to Coronado Park, primarily for portable toilets, as well as overtime pay, an extra garbage truck, needle containers, and PPE of white suits and rubber gloves.
Maintaining port-a-potties is more than half the dedicated Coronado cleanup costs – $2,250 from Parks and Rec and $1,525 from Family and Community Services every cleanup day.
Whelan says cleaning one large encampment is much more cost-effective and doable than trying to clean the dozens of smaller ones that would appear if the city shut down camping at the park.
At Coronado Park, “you have some significant resources that are dedicated” to making sure “everything is safe and as sanitary as possible.” Multiple departments (Solid Waste, Parks and Recreation, Municipal Development, Community Safety, Family and Community Services, police and fire) are on-site and respond in force, coordinating their efforts.
“Imagine 50 to 70 to 100 (smaller) camps across the city,” Whelan says. “My four crews could not handle that on a biweekly basis.” Only a few sites could be addressed in a day and, if police presence was required, the crew would have to wait for the Albuquerque Police Department to have an officer free. It “would tie up a larger amount of resources to handle a smaller call,” whereas Coronado Park allows for “a good allocation of joint resources. If those camps were dispersed across the city, we would still get those calls.” (Solid Waste already responds to the many encampment calls outside Coronado Park and has cleaned up 732 just this year.)
Takeaway No. 1: While the park is heartbreaking to look at, it saves time, money and effort cleaning one big encampment compared to dozens of smaller ones scattered across the city. “The city is dedicated to trying to resolve this problem,” Whelan says. “It is very high on our priority list.”
At 7 a.m., crews alert the 50 to 100 individuals who spent the night in the park that it is closed until 4 p.m., and they hand out trash bags so folks can pack up their belongings. Community Safety employees do outreach the day before each cleanup, and join Family and Community Services staff as the cleanups begin, offering services to the dozens who call Coronado Park home.
Whelan says the encampment problem really exploded with the pandemic. The city started the Coronado Park cleanups in spring 2021 and, now, about a third of the park’s regular residents find somewhere else to sleep on the night before cleanup to avoid the early wake-up call. Those in the park on cleanup day disperse into the surrounding area.
Takeaway No. 2: Many in the Coronado Park community do not want/are not ready to accept the city’s help via programs that include shelter beds, motel vouchers and supportive housing.
At 8 a.m., enforcement starts for the stragglers. Whelan says the Albuquerque Police Department has two officers on scene and Albuquerque Fire Rescue has six firefighter/paramedics available, though both respond to priority calls outside the park as needed throughout the day. Community Safety employees provide intervention and de-escalation as needed.
And, for the next six hours or so, crews rake up litter and discarded items – about a garbage truck-and-a-half worth. They load boxes and bags of stuff good Samaritans have dropped off: food, clothes, even mattresses, couches and recliners. While some is eaten or used by folks in the park, much ends up being strewn about and picked up and carted out to the landfill. Crews gather discarded needles and place them in sharps containers. They empty the portable toilets. They repair fencing and the irrigation system.
“One of the first things we start to pick up is discarded food,” Whelan says. “There’s a notion that, if you just take food to Coronado Park and leave it there, it’s a good thing. But one of the things right at seven o’clock as we begin to do the litter sweep, we literally will throw away boxes of bagels that somebody has left there, several boxes. … What you see is a lot of people who think they are doing a very good thing by just dropping off clothes and food at the front of the park, which ends up being turned into refuse throughout the park.”
Whelan says there’s a truck that regularly drops off around 10 boxes of food. “Their intentions are good, but a lot of that (like the bagels) ends up strewn all over the park.” And as homeless individuals can’t haul a sofa or queen-sized mattress down Third Street, those end up in the landfill, as well.
Takeaway No. 3: Items dropped off by well-meaning residents create a lot of work for cleanup crews and often just end up in the dump.
Some readers might get to this point in the column and ask why are we spending $24,686.86 in tax dollars every other week to clean up after the homeless rather than using those resources to improve their neighborhood’s city park, roads and medians, and to police their area?
First, unless and until camping is no longer allowed at Coronado Park, the amount of refuse is mind-numbing – three full garbage trucks every month – and the sanitary concerns are real. Second, Whelan says Coronado Park cleanups and outreach offer bang for your buck, and the reality is, if not there, then somewhere else.
Takeaway No. 4: The cleanups pose a Sisyphean task for crews every other Wednesday, and that’s with Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec doing daily trash pickups and litter sweeps every weekday in between. It’s a reality and challenge Whelan and multiple other departments have simply added to their plates.
“We’re a city as a whole,” Whelan says. “If you have a problem area, if you don’t address that problem area by allocating resources, that problem area will spread everywhere, and so it will get bigger and, if you’re thinking that my area is going to stay the same and just let me be in my area – if we don’t address it where it’s the worst, it’s going to end up seeping into your area.”
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