Eight people — most of whom camped at Coronado Park before Albuquerque officials closed it four months ago — have filed a lawsuit alleging that the city is violating the civil rights of people who are homeless.
The plaintiffs — some of them still living on the streets — accuse the city of “cruel and unusual punishment” against people who are homeless and prosecuting them “for simply existing on public property with their personal belongings.” They also accuse the city of unlawfully seizing their property, denying them due process and more.
The group, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and other attorneys, also is asking a judge to certify the case as a class action suit so the plaintiffs can represent themselves and other people who are homeless in Albuquerque.
The plaintiffs — also represented by Ives & Flores, Nick Davis and the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty — filed their suit in State District Court in Albuquerque Monday. They are asking a judge to declare the city has violated the New Mexico Constitution and order the city to stop such actions. They are also seeking unspecified damages for former Coronado Park residents.
The city declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit, as Mayor Tim Keller said Monday the city had not yet been served.
The lawsuit describes the events surrounding the city’s Aug. 17 shutdown of Coronado Park, a public venue near Third Street and Interstate 40 where up to 120 people were sleeping on a nightly basis. Plaintiffs claim the city did not provide sufficient notice that its employees were kicking residents out for good rather than temporarily closing the park for what had been, until then, routine cleanings. Many residents lost their belongings as a result. For example, the city “misled” plaintiff Lance Wilson into believing residents would be allowed back into the park later that day and, the suit alleges, city workers threw his tent, cellphone, medications and more into a trash truck.
“The City workers were hostile toward those (who) were staying there, openly laughing at those whose belongings they were destroying and saying derogatory things to them,” according to the court documents.
But the 46-page lawsuit also claims the city is illegally punishing people for sleeping in other public spaces when they have nowhere else to go and details a litany of alleged problems with the existing public shelter, the Westside Emergency Housing Center. The suit describes the plaintiffs’ individual experiences at the WEHC, calling it “unsafe, unhealthy and unfit for human habitation” and alleging that the environment can trigger clients’ mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder. The suit alleges that the facility — a former jail on the far West Side with capacity for 450 people — is infested with black mold and bed bugs and that it lacks functional doors in the women’s showers, working fire hydrants and secure places for residents to store their belongings.
The suit alleges the plaintiffs felt safer at Coronado Park, but its closure left them nowhere viable to go. While officials at the time said there was sufficient space at the WEHC for all park residents, the suit notes that the city overall lacks enough shelter beds for its entire homeless population.
“With temperatures dropping, people are at risk of death from exposure to the elements. It is morally unacceptable for the city to punish people with no housing or shelter for engaging in life-sustaining activities,” Laura Schauer Ives of Ives & Flores said in a written statement. “Instead of offering services like affordable housing, employment opportunities, and treatment for disabilities, the city is kicking them out of their homes.”
People are now in alleys and under bridges where they run the risk of being cited by police, the suit claims.
“The City’s enforcement of City ordinances and state laws that prevent unhoused people from residing on public property punishes unhoused people for their involuntary status of being unhoused — effectively making it a crime for unhoused people to exist anywhere with the possessions they need in order to survive,” the suit says.
While the city did not comment specifically on the suit Monday, a spokeswoman did address questions about the WEHC, saying the facility meets the fire code and has monthly bed bug monitoring and quarterly pest-control treatments.
“We are continually working on ways to improve the WEHC and made it an accommodating space for anyone who needs emergency shelter,” spokeswoman Katie Simon said in an emailed statement.
Keller, meanwhile, said the city tried to take a thoughtful approach to Coronado Park.
“I think at a high level we did this the best that we could, which is we took action but we took it in a way that was appropriate, effective and compassionate,” he said Monday in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters.
When announcing in July that Coronado Park would close, Keller and others in his administration cited crime and the property’s deteriorating condition. The city intentionally did not give advance warning about the exact date of the closure, but representatives said the closure was preceded by weeks of intensive outreach to people camping on-site.
While some moved into housing programs, more than half of the 94 Coronado Park residents who took a city-funded survey before the closure said they planned to move to another park or street location.