City closes Coronado Park - Albuquerque Journal

City closes Coronado Park

Coronado Park at Third and Interstate 40 is fenced off on Wednesday after the city announced the park’s closure. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Coronado Park, home to one of Albuquerque’s largest and most visible unsanctioned homeless encampments, has officially closed.

The dozens still at the park were told to leave Wednesday morning, and many gathered beneath nearby bridges and walked the surrounding sidewalks into the afternoon.

In a news conference at the emptied park near Third Street and Interstate 40, Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday the closure doesn’t represent “any kind of a comprehensive strategy” to resolve homelessness.

“I know that burden is on me as your mayor, I know that, but it’s also on everyone else in this community,” Keller said. “That means the homeless themselves, that means every provider involved, that means everyone complaining about this on social media, we’ve all got a role to play. And it is not just to complain about the problem.”

The move comes about three weeks after Keller publicly revealed that his administration would shut down the park at some point in August, though the city never publicly provided a specific date.

Albuquerque police Cmdr. Nick Wheeler said police will keep people out of the park by increasing patrols in the area, with help from State Police, and respond to trespassing calls from businesses and residents. He said they will first issue citations and, if that doesn’t work, make arrests.

“It’s not illegal to be homeless, but it is illegal to break the law. And my guys are going to hold everybody accountable,” Wheeler said.

At the time of Keller’s announcement, there were up to 120 people camping in the park nightly. By Tuesday morning, after weeks of what the city has called “intensive outreach” and contact with the residents, the number had dwindled to about 30 to 40, officials said, and 15 subsequently accepted transportation to a shelter.

Katie Simon, a spokeswoman for Family and Community Services, said the city has now done more than 110 surveys of those who had been living at the park. She said last week that 24 were either given a motel voucher or transported to a shelter, two were given tickets to travel to housing out of state and two were taken to the hospital.

Closing the park without advance notice of the exact day was part of the city’s strategy.

Wednesday, Keller said, made sense after doing outreach for the better part of a month, closing a homicide case centered at the park, and other factors. He said the city was ready.

“So, rather than actually just ripping the Band-Aid off, we used a little bit of a hybrid approach. We said ‘We’re going to slowly peel it off and, when we’re ready, we’ll rip the rest off,’ ” he said.

Reynaldo Martinez, 55, who was a resident of the unsanctioned homeless encampments of Coronado Park, hangs out underneath the I-40 underpass with his belongings near Downtown Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. The city officially closed Coronado Park on Wednesday morning. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

‘They don’t care’

One of those left behind Wednesday, a woman who went by Marlene, said she felt lost.

She sat in a camping chair on the side of First Street, beneath the Interstate 40 bridge.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, where I’m going to go … because I will not go back to the shelter,” she said, comparing it to a mental hospital, an “awful place” full of screaming and hostility.

The 54-year-old said she had been living at the park for more than two years after moving there with her fiancé, who has since died. She said the park, and her community there, was all she had.

“I’m sleeping out here somewhere, I don’t know where. It’s only a matter of time before the cops come over here and tell us to leave,” Marlene said.

She said, at the very least, she hopes the city reopens the park or opens another park, or some other facility for them. She said she felt forgotten.

“You would think that there’d be a case manager around here walking and setting up appointments,” she said, looking around at all those gathered with their belongings beneath Interstate 40.

“… But they’re not, so I feel right now that they don’t care. They have their roof over their head, so why should they care about the homeless out here.”

Officials have not determined exactly what to do with the park property long term. Keller said the city may use the site to expand the nearby fire station or for affordable housing development. He said one option is to make it a park again, but pointed out the city is planning a park on the Walker property blocks away.

“That’s where a park should be, in the heart of the neighborhood, not next to a highway,” Keller said. He said figuring out what to do with the park will take time, something the city has.

‘Every day they were victimized’

Keller had previously maintained that closing Coronado Park would create more problems by scattering the park population throughout the community, but he and other top officials said in July that crime and overall property condition had warranted a change in philosophy.

The mayor on Wednesday said the yearslong “status quo” and public safety risk – including drug and human trafficking – to those who lived at the park and those who provided them services had become “no longer acceptable.”

Wheeler, the APD commander, said many of the people who lived at the park were “afraid to get services.”

“When I asked about what they were afraid of, they explained to me that they were afraid of the self-proclaimed ‘mayor,’ ” he said, alluding to Joseph Garcia, who called himself “the Mayor of Coronado Park.”

Police arrested Garcia Monday in the shooting death of Andrew Aguilar, who was killed inside the park. Wheeler said Aguilar was shot because he didn’t want to pay rent to live in the park.

Heriberto Perez, 34, pulls his belongings along the sidewalk underneath the I-40 underpass near Downtown Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. The city officially closed Coronado Park on Wednesday morning. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

“The most vulnerable folks, the unhoused, that were living in Coronado Park, every day they were victimized,” he said. He added that those living at the park felt safer after Garcia’s arrest.

While Keller’s decision had support from many, including some city councilors and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, critics complained that he made it without a plan for what to do next and without first consulting neighbors, local homeless service providers or even the park residents.

A petition presented to the City Council Monday by a New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness employee asked the city to pause closure plans. It criticized the city for leaving people who are homeless out of the closure decision.

And leadership of the city’s Mental Health Advisory Committee remains troubled by the city’s process. The committee – mandated by Albuquerque’s settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice – is charged with advising the city on issues related to chronic homelessness.

But city officials did not notify the committee or seek its guidance about closing the park before Keller publicly announced that was his plan.

And while city representatives finally gave the committee a Coronado Park presentation on Tuesday night, co-chair Rachel Biggs said they did not solicit the group’s feedback or mention that the park would close the next day.

“We raised concerns (Tuesday) that the lack of involvement in plans for something such as closing down Coronado Park could put the city at risk of being non-compliant” with the settlement agreement, Biggs said.

Ladella Williams, 41, said park residents were in a controlled environment at the park, not hurting “anyone but themselves.” She said now they will be scattered about the city and she believes crime will go up as a result.

Williams said she believes the decision to close the park was made on popularity votes and a stigma that the homeless have chosen their situation.

“We didn’t ask for mental illness, we’re dealing with it the best we can, it’s not a choice. We don’t wake up on a Tuesday and be like ‘oh (expletive) it, we like being homeless and crazy.’ It doesn’t happen like that,” she said.

Williams said it’s frustrating when “everywhere we go we have to pack up our lives” and called another move a “cat and mouse game.” She said those at the park are family and will take the news in stride.

“I feel like ‘challenge accepted,’ we’ve overcome every single thing they’ve thrown at us because we’re still standing,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, look at us right now, we could go anywhere we wanted and we chose to be with each other.”

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