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When his RV broke down near Albuquerque in November, Mitch had no idea what he was going to do next.
Having set out in 2021 to lead what he calls the “van life,” the vehicle represented his home. Now immobilized by a failed transmission, he needed somewhere to legally park it and stay indefinitely while he figured out how to get it repaired.
Mitch soon discovered such a place, towing the motorhome to the new safe outdoor space at the city of Albuquerque’s Westside Emergency Housing Center.
“I’m grateful that they’re here,” he said during a recent interview at the West Side site, where he’s been living for more than a month. “I was very worried.”
While the debate over safe outdoor spaces continues raging in Albuquerque – deeply dividing elected officials and inspiring multiple failed attempts to outlaw them – one has been operating somewhat quietly outside the city’s West Side homeless shelter for several weeks.
Safe outdoor spaces are managed sites where people who are homeless can sleep overnight, with access to toilets, showers and more. While the tent-based models have generated the most discussion, some are exclusively for people sleeping in vehicles. That includes the Westside Emergency Housing Center version, which can accommodate up to 20 vehicles and 30 total people.
Getting it started required little more than installing some brightly colored parking curbs in a lightly used lot between the shelter building and its back fence. That’s because many of the required safe outdoor space elements – such as toilets and showers – already exist inside the shelter building, which has for years provided emergency accommodations for as many as 450 people per night.
The nonprofit Heading Home – which operates the city shelter – is running the safe outdoor space under a separate, one-year, $60,160 contract. A city spokeswoman said the contract requires Heading Home to provide an “individual service plan” for each client as a way to get people to more stable situations.
Mitch, 29, has used the safe outdoor space as his home base since just after it opened in mid-November, sometimes sleeping inside his camper, but also occasionally moving indoors to a shelter bed when the bitter cold warrants.
His 1994 E350 was one of just two client vehicles parked in the lot on a recent afternoon; the other also appeared inoperable, with flat tires and numerous belongings stacked up behind the windshield.
The site is remote – the shelter is an old jail located along a heavily pitted road beyond the volcanoes on the city’s western horizon. It is a gasoline-guzzling 37-mile round trip from the Interstate 40/Interstate 25 exchange.
But there are others planned at more central locations; in fact, the city and Heading Home have partnered on another vehicle-o
nly safe outdoor space outside the Albuquerque Opportunity Center shelter on Candelaria near I-25. Opened just before Christmas, the site has not yet attracted any clients, although the city and Heading Home are boosting outreach, a city spokeswoman said Friday.
Joseph Morrison, who works at the Westside Emergency Housing Center as a program director for Heading Home, said he has long heard from individuals who wanted a place such as a safe outdoor space so they could camp in their vehicles without running afoul of the law. Though only a few people have used the city’s first safe outdoor space so far, Morrison said they have given positive reviews.
“I think that it’s a good place to let people be safe, where they (don’t have to worry) about getting robbed or anything happening to them,” Morrison said. “They have a safe place to park their vehicle overnight.”
Mitch said he does not consider himself homeless, but said his camper’s breakdown left him in a stressful, even “sad,” situation. While he was used to camping in such places as Walmart parking lots, he said he is relieved that Albuquerque had a place for him to stay while he picks up the pieces.
Asked what he would have done without the option, he said things could have been more dire.
“I’d be on the side of the road still,” he said.