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Safe outdoor spaces have been saved in Albuquerque.
The City Council on Wednesday failed to muster the numbers needed to uphold a previously passed safe outdoor space moratorium after Mayor Tim Keller vetoed it.
Six councilors are required to override a mayoral veto, but only five did.
Trudy Jones cast the pivotal vote; while she supported the moratorium when the council passed it last month on a 6-3 vote, Jones changed course Wednesday. She helped kill the moratorium by voting with Isaac Benton, Pat Davis and Tammy Fiebelkorn to uphold Keller’s veto and ensure safe outdoor spaces remain legal in Albuquerque.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Jones said in an interview after the vote. “Sometimes, along the line, you have to stick your neck out and do what’s right, not what is politically expected.”
Safe outdoor spaces are organized, size-limited campsites with rules where people who are homeless can sleep in tents or cars while accessing such basic amenities as toilets and showers. The city Planning Department has approved two safe outdoor space applications so far — 1250 Menaul NE and 715 Candelaria NE — though neighbors have appealed the Menaul site. Six more applications are under or awaiting review, according to the city’s website.
City leaders have spent months debating them, and that continued Wednesday.
Fiebelkorn spoke passionately for allowing them by detailing her own experience as a homeless teenager. She described living in her car, relying on the showers and sinks at school or at her workplace to clean up, but often worrying about where she could safely park at night to escape notice.
“You lock all your doors, you cover yourself with a blanket because you don’t want people to see you, and the next morning that starts all over again,” she said. “I would not be here today as an Albuquerque city councilor if someone hadn’t helped me, and I really want the city of Albuquerque to help people in our community right now who are experiencing this exact same thing.”
Councilor Brook Bassan — who initially proposed the safe outdoor space moratorium — said Albuquerque residents don’t want them. She attributed the opposition to the community’s other problems, saying so many people feel unsafe now that “we’re losing our compassion as a city.”
“Instead of adding salt to the wounds and not seeing improvement, and ignoring the public and what they’re asking for, let’s listen to them,” Bassan said before voting with Dan Lewis, Renee Grout, Klarissa Peña and Louie Sanchez to override the veto.
But residents who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period were actually split.
Sara Fitzgerald, representing the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, urged the council to move forward with the moratorium.
“We don’t believe so-called safe outdoor spaces will remain safe or small for long and we believe the proliferation of homeless camps — however they are constituted — will not make our streets safe and will hurt efforts to attract visitors, residents and employers alike,” she said.
Rev. Bob LaVallee, associate minister of the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, presented the issue in a different way. He said he already has submitted an application for a safe outdoor space on the church’s property on Carlisle. He said it would provide spots for people to sleep overnight in vehicles, operate only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and have restrooms, security and a screening procedure for residents. He compared that plan to what he described as an unsanctioned encampment that emerged earlier this year on land just off the church property. He said it had generated human feces, trash and other problems.
“Which kind of encampment do you want in this city? You have to choose, and the choice of no encampment is not an answer — we cannot live in the fantasy that making camps illegal will make them go away,” LaVallee said. “I ask you, give safe outdoor spaces a chance.”
The City Council initially approved safe outdoor spaces in June as part of zoning code update that passed only narrowly. The law allows safe outdoor spaces in certain nonresidential and mixed-use areas, though religious institutions have more flexibility.
The code limits the camps to 40 spots and a total of 50 residents each, and makes them a temporary use — operators can run them for two years at a selected site with the possibility of a single two-year extension.
But Bassan’s backtracking on safe outdoor spaces put the concept in jeopardy. Bassan — who initially voted for safe outdoor spaces — subsequently proposed striking them from the zoning code. As a stopgap, she also proposed a one-year moratorium to stop the city Planning Department from accepting or approving any applications for safe outdoor spaces.
The council passed the moratorium at its Aug. 15 meeting. Keller then vetoed it, arguing that the city needs every possible option to combat homelessness and suggesting that the moratorium — which would apply even to applications already pending with the city — could be legally problematic.
A Keller spokeswoman said Wednesday in a statement that the council’s Wednesday vote was good news.
“Albuquerque, as with nearly all major cities and towns across the United States, needs more tools, not less, to address the homelessness crisis while keeping our neighborhoods, parks and businesses safe,” Ava Montoya said.