Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Opposing views on homelessness

Copyright © 2021

Since Tim Keller stepped into mayor’s office, the City of Albuquerque has significantly expanded the operations of its Westside Emergency Housing Center, increased rental voucher funding, and purchased a former hospital to build a new homeless shelter and service center.

Upon completing his first term, Keller said his government had taken a multi-faceted approach to helping people who live on the streets and stabilize people in other precarious situations. This also included creating a city department focused on homelessness.

“My government said we will continue to work with our partners, but unfortunately we have to face this problem because we have to do more,” he said.

According to the Family and Community Services Department, the city spent more than $ 20 million on housing, housing programs, and other services for people affected by homelessness in the past fiscal year.

A person and their belongings surrounded a tree in Coronado Park north of downtown last week. Official data and a look at Albuquerque point to a worsening homeless crisis. (Roberto E. Rosales / Journal)

But official data and a look at Albuquerque point to a worsening crisis.

Keller’s two mayor’s challengers say it is time for a more aggressive stance. Candidates Manuel Gonzales, the current sheriff of Bernalillo County, and Eddy Aragon, a conservative radio host, say the city could make prison at least part of the strategy.

Keller said the worsening homelessness problem in Albuquerque is partly due to the fact that homelessness is “exploding” across the country.

Keeping track of local numbers can be difficult, although a federally mandated biennial census provides at least some insight.

The census identified 1,567 people in Albuquerque as homeless on one night in January 2021.

That is 2.8% more than 2019 and 18.9% more than 2017, although the pandemic limits the geographic scope of the 2021 census.

In 2021, however, 73.6% of the homeless population lived in emergency shelters, temporary apartments or used motel vouchers – instead of sleeping in alleys, parks and other “unprotected” situations – as the count report shows. That is a higher proportion than in 2017 and 2019.

Thorough approach

If people violate “public order” guidelines by doing things like sleeping in parks after hours and refusing to use existing services like shelter, Gonzales said, arrests are warranted.

“They have sex (in the parks) in the midst of God and everyone there in public. They defecate … on business, “Gonzales said. “Then there has to be a point where you have to enforce the law of indecent exposure and things like that.”

Aragon claims the city “pampered” its homeless population. While he prefers an individualized approach that offers transportation to shelters and treatment centers or even a ticket out of town depending on a person’s needs, jail should be an option when “no other cure” is available. He advocates arrests because of what he calls “quality of life issues” such as panhandling and camping.

“We have too many homeless people on the street. It is not monitored. It doesn’t work and the homeless feel like they can stay or go or do whatever they want anytime, ”he said.

Albuquerque police generally choose to cite most of the nonviolent offenses rather than arrest them for settling a federal complaint about the conditions of detention. Under the agreement, the APD policy allows arrests for misdemeanors if necessary, but prohibits officers from preferring arrest to a charge based solely on the fact that someone is homeless.

Coronado Park, off Third and Interstate 40, is littered with tents. Albuquerque’s mayoral candidates have different views on how to deal with homelessness. (Roberto E. Rosales / Journal)

But Gonzales sees arrests as a way to protect both the public and the homeless.

“What you’re trying to do is get people off the street because it’s unhealthy for them anyway,” he said.

Keller said it wasn’t that easy.

Not only did he believe that the city can do “so much better” than a prison, and he said the city couldn’t stop its way out of homelessness. A federal judge ruled in 2019 that the ordinance was unconstitutional.

“This is a good example of people just not doing their homework,” Keller said of his opponents. “… Mayors need to understand that they are not the almighty kings of the city and can just do illegal things. It’s a good lesson to learn because your ideas will never go to court and it will only end up costing the city a lot of legal proceedings. “

While the local government has workers who dismantle stocks, there is a “boundary” that Keller called between respecting individual rights and enforcing regulations.

“It’s just naive to think that a mayor can come in and start (arresting the homeless),” he said.

Gateway center

Keller’s strategy to reduce homelessness is to convert the city’s existing emergency shelter on the outermost West Side – which was previously only open in winter – into year-round 24/7 operation. This also includes the planned Gateway Center protection and service center in the old Lovelace Hospital in southeast Albuquerque, which could provide emergency beds for up to 100 people and 25 families at the same time.

Keller believes the gateway is a much-needed addition to the city’s homeless services landscape, but Aragon and Gonzales disagree.

Makeshift shelters appear in Second and Iron SW near downtown. A census identified 1,567 people in Albuquerque as homeless on one night in January 2021.

Aragon believes this could encourage long-term homelessness and will adversely affect the area near Kirtland Air Force Base and the proposed Orion Center.

“A lot of good things happen up here, and I think overall that is not a good sign that there is a homeless facility,” he said.

Gonzales said he found the gateway unnecessary and questioned whether the city-hired advisors who found in 2019 that Albuquerque needed 463-518 new accommodations to meet demand understood the population. He claims that some people take to the streets voluntarily.

“You have to diagnose what these people are suffering from before making decisions for them. And one also needs to understand that most of these people are not homeless but live on the street because they are addicted to drugs, ”he said, saying that people on the street should be“ screened ”by professionals and directed to the right resources .

Sanctioned camps

The mayoral candidates are also divided over the idea of ​​sanctioned camps, also known as “safe outdoor areas” – organized campsites where people without a home sleep and have access to toilets and showers.

Gonzales disagrees with the idea, but Aragon sees it as a way to keep a better eye on people and maybe lead them to programs and services.

“We can use it as a temporary measure to connect to them, give them 30 days, we can figure out where to transport them when we can get them back home. If something is broken there, we can think of something else, ”said Aragon.

Keller said he would want the authorized camps to be small, dispersed, and controlled to mitigate issues like substance abuse, but he is open to the concept if religious organizations or other organizations want to try.

“I think we need a holistic approach because homelessness and the vulnerable are such a terrible problem for our city,” he said.

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