The city of Albuquerque’s hastily developed homeless shelter in a former hospital has seen usage quickly grow during its first week, and operators expect it to completely fill soon.
City contractor Heading Home launched the shelter Tuesday at the former Lovelace hospital, which the city bought in 2021 and has rebranded the Gibson Health Hub.
The current operation has 60 beds — 35 for women and 25 for men — in separate buildings on the sprawling property in Southeast Albuquerque.
The first night brought only four guests, but the number had jumped to 26 by the third night, according to a city spokeswoman.
“We’ll be full by the end of this month,” Heading Home CEO Steve Decker said during a media tour of the site Friday.
The city bought the old hospital with plans to use it for the long-awaited Gateway Center homeless shelter and services hub. The formal “Gateway” shelter should open this spring with beds for 50 women. Other on-site services — like a sobering center and a “medical respite” unit for unhoused people recovering from illness and injury — will also debut this year.
While work continues on those primary elements, officials decided about six weeks ago to use other parts of the site for a basic emergency shelter.
“This was thrown together at lightning speed,” said Decker, noting that he had about two weeks to hire the 25 people needed to run it.
Clients with referrals from service providers are arriving at the shelter in the late afternoon and get bused out each morning.
The city sees it as a warm alternative for people who currently reside outdoors in unsanctioned encampments, saying it will run only until April.
“Next week outside it’s going to be 21 degrees at nighttime,” city Gateway administrator Cristina Parajón said. “We want to ensure we’re doing our best with every facility we have in the city to keep people alive.”
The new shelter opened amid high use — and ongoing criticism — of the city’s existing homeless shelter on the far West Side.
That shelter — formally known as the Westside Emergency Housing Center, or WEHC — can accommodate up to 450 people per night and has come close to capacity. It has been serving 432 people per night, a city spokeswoman said Friday.
The shelter, also operated by Heading Home, has come under fire lately.
A lawsuit filed against the city last month by eight people who are homeless alleged numerous problems at the facility — which is a former jail — and a hotline complaint recently prompted the city’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the conditions.
In a report released publicly on Friday, the inspector general confirmed that a June 2022 fire marshal inspection found 11 violations at the WEHC, that “mice and bed bugs were an issue” and that some of the showers do not work.
“The cleanliness of this facility could use much improvement and it is well worn beyond its time,” according to a city Planning Department inspection report cited by the inspector general.
However, the inspector general found that the facility does have working showers in the areas where residents stay and that a more recent fire inspection found only one remaining violation involving inspection/testing of the on-site fire hydrants. The report also noted that the city provides monthly pest control services at the shelter but recommended that it do so more frequently.
In its response to the inspector general report, the city’s Family and Community Services Department said it had the shelter’s fire hydrants inspected by an outside contractor earlier this week — and they all passed — and that it is following a pest control schedule recommended by its pest control vendor, including special bed bug treatments every three months.
Mayor Tim Keller addressed the WEHC situation Friday, saying the city has put $500,000 toward repairs but acknowledging it is not ideal.
“No one likes the West Side shelter — we never would’ve put a shelter there (but) that was literally the only facility Albuquerque had when we came into office,” Keller said during a Friday news conference at the Gibson Health Hub. “… We’ve been trying to do the best we can with that facility until we have things like the Gateway.”