Editorial: Mayor, City Council need to come together on long-term homeless solutions - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Mayor, City Council need to come together on long-term homeless solutions

It is a flip-flop. But it’s a welcome one.

Earlier this summer, Mayor Tim Keller admitted the city for years surrendered Coronado Park to lawlessness, despair and decay to save other parts of the city.

Just a month ago, the Keller administration argued the lesser evil was to allow the homeless to camp in the park near Third Street and Interstate 40 — it meant a more efficient offering of services to the unhoused and limited the dispersal of violence, drugs and filth.

But a spike in crime helped prompt Keller’s announcement Coronado will be closed next month.

The deplorable, unsanitary and dangerous living conditions at the park have existed for years but certainly grew during the pandemic and under Keller’s watch. It finally became too much to bear. “That situation is absolutely unacceptable, so we’re going to stop it,” the mayor told local business professionals Monday.

It is the right decision. The park, with its unsanctioned homeless encampments, has become, as the mayor said, “the most dangerous place in the state of New Mexico.” There have been four homicides at the park and another nearby since April 2018, plus 16 stabbings in the past two years, including one last week. In the past 30 days, law enforcement has seized 4,500 fentanyl pills, more than 5 pounds of methamphetamine, 24 grams of heroin, 29 grams of cocaine and $10,000 cash from a suspect they say was distributing drugs at the park.

“Safety is our top priority, and Coronado Park has become a location for criminals to prey on our most vulnerable,” said Albuquerque Police Lt. Nick Wheeler.

Brandy Page, 39, says she has lived on and off at the park for six months and last week told a reporter that even though all of her stuff was stolen recently “for the 20th time,” she doesn’t want the park closed. “Yeah, this place is dangerous. There’s drugs, alcohol, there are fights here constantly and something should be done to control all that,” she said.

But the mayor decided enough was enough. While his announcement caught some stakeholders by surprise, city leaders correctly note discussions about the park have gone on for years with key constituencies, and closure has always been on the table. In a moment of refreshingly raw honesty, Keller conceded the city had been “looking the other way at violence, at homicide, at rampant drug use.” Residents and businesses nearby have been voicing that complaint for years, so big picture, the park’s closure should be good news for many.

What’s next is a bit murky. The city has suggested using the park to expand and upgrade the Albuquerque Fire Rescue station next door; turning it into an urban park adults and children can actually use; or piloting a “safe outdoor space” with rules where people can legally camp with access to toilets, showers and more.

We believe area residents and businesses have shouldered the burden of hosting the homeless too long. Take the safe outdoor spaces option off the table for Coronado.

At this point, the closure date is still to be determined, as is what will happen to campers who reject offers of a shelter bed or hotel voucher, where the Westside shelter pickup/dropoff site(s) will be relocated to, and how long the park will be shuttered.

At the human level, Carol Pierce, director of the city’s Family and Community Services Department, told the Editorial Board on Friday there are a total of 165 beds available at the city’s low-barrier 24/7 Westside emergency shelter and the privately run Joy Junction and Good Shepherd homeless centers to accommodate the estimated 75-120 people who camp nightly at Coronado Park. There are also hotel vouchers and dozens of housing vouchers available. Hundreds more housing vouchers are in the new budget, Pierce said, and “we’re going to work intensively with people to get them services.”

That would seem to answer the legal concern you can’t roust illegal campers without a shelter bed available.

However, many campers like Page told the Journal they have zero interest in staying at a shelter. These “chronically homeless” will continue to be the most difficult people to help. A major concern is how many Coronado dwellers will spill into nearby lots and alleys, an unacceptable scenario.

Pierce and City Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael said Friday the city will use both “intensive outreach” and “more assertive” policing to help the unhoused and address crime in the area.

But despite the unanswered questions and looming challenges, it is past time to do something that serves the majority of neighbors, businesses, taxpayers and the unhoused rather than continue to cater to the criminal element that has taken over the park and the campers struggling with mental health and addiction who have become criminals’ prey.

Pierce and Rael also raised the concern park landscaping poses a danger. Rael says the cottonwoods are severely stressed and must be cut down/significantly trimmed, while the grass is gone and the irrigation system has been uprooted and twisted into makeshift tent plumbing.

The City Council worked with the mayoral administration to get $14 million approved by voters for the Gateway Center, which has been mired in zoning fights but is set to open later this year. The city already provides beds at the West Side shelter, hotel and housing vouchers and connections to service providers. Councilors have also explored allowing short- and long-term sanctioned camping. Now it’s incumbent the Council work with the administration on a plan to re-invent Coronado Park and further address needs of the unhoused.

The homeless who are willing need a safe, sanitary place to rest their heads while they get services. Those involved in human and drug trafficking and other criminal activity need a bunk at the jail. And with Coronado Park finally closing, we need our leaders to pull together for a better way to address homelessness that allows us to hold our heads high as One Albuquerque.

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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