Albuquerque City Councilors Diane Gibson and Trudy Jones are suggesting that the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the Big I interchange be acquired and be converted to the new Gateway Center for the homeless. The property has 450 guest rooms spanning the 12-story Crowne Plaza-branded tower and the neighboring three-story Fairfield Inn. The two hotel/motels are located at Menaul and University boulevards and are currently packaged together for sale. The asking price is $16 million. City Councilor Diane Gibson never disappoints being an embarrassment to her constituents. This is the same City Councilor who wanted the city to buy vacant or foreclosed upon homes in her District 7 district to convert to homeless shelters.
Making a high-rise hotel into a homeless shelter, complete with pool and spa type facilities, now that’s the ticket to disaster with so many balconies available for the mentally ill to be talked down from by authorities. The Gateway Homeless shelter is supposed to be transitional housing that will also provide medical care and psychiatric care and not provide a vacation from living on the streets. Nothing like a 12-story homeless shelter tower adjacent to the Big-Eye for thousands to see each day who take the freeway to remind us all just how serious the city is struggling with with some of the highest homeless rates in the country.
This blog article is a deep dive discussion of the many locations that are being considered for the Gateway Homeless shelter.
On November 5, voters approved general obligation bonds of $14 million for a city operated 24-7 homeless shelter that will house upwards of 300. The actual cost will be $30 million and the City asked the 2020 New Mexico Legislature for the additional $14 million to complete phase two of the project, but the funding request failed.
City Hall has deemed that a 24-hour, 7 day a week temporarily shelter for the homeless as critical toward reducing the number of homeless in the city. The city owned shelter is projected to assist an estimated 300 homeless residents and connect them to other services intended to help secure permanent housing. The new facility would serve all populations, men, women, and families.
The city facility would have on-site case managers that will guide residents toward addiction treatment, housing vouchers and other available resources. According city officials, the new homeless shelter will replace the existing West Side Emergency Housing Center, the former jail on the far West Side.
The goal is for the new homeless shelter to provide first responders an alternative destination for the people they encounter on so-called “down-and-out” calls. Many “down and outs” today wind up in the emergency room even when they are not seriously injured or ill. According to city officials, in a recent one-year period, only 110 of 6,952 “down and out” people were taken by first responders to the Emergency Room with life-threatening conditions.
THE NEED EXISTS FOR SHELTER
Each year the “Point in Time” (PIT) survey is conducted to determine how many people experience homelessness on a given night in Albuquerque, and to learn more about their specific needs. The PIT count is done in communities across the country. The PIT count is the official number of homeless reported by communities to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help understand the extent of homelessness at the city, state, regional and national levels. The PIT count represents the number of homeless people who are counted on one particular night.
This year, the count in Albuquerque was made on January 28, 2020. According to the 2020 Point-In-Time count, there are 1,524 sheltered and un-sheltered homeless people counted in Albuquerque. Government agencies and nonprofits report that the city’s homeless numbers are greater than the 1,524 found by “a point in time survey” and the number of homeless in Albuquerque approaches 4,500 in any given year.
The Keller Administration estimates that 5,000 households will experience homelessness over the course of any given year.
According to some reports, approximately 80% of the cities chronic homeless are suffering from mental illness. The city does provide extensive services to the homeless that include social services, mental or behavioral health care services, substance abuse treatment and prevention, winter shelter housing, rent assistance and affordable housing development, just to mention a few.
CITY SURVEY LOCATIONS
Initially, the City revealed 5 potential locations for the centralized emergency shelter for the homeless:
1.The old Lovelace hospital on Gibson
2.University of New Mexico property near Lomas and Interstate 25
3.Montessa Park, south of the Sunport
4.An area near Second and Interstate 40
5.Continue to use the old West Side Jail 20 miles outside the city limits and build new facilities at that location.
Early in December, 2019 The Keller Administration set up an online survey that people were able to give input on where the 24-7 city homeless shelter should be built. There were only two specific places on the survey where the $30 million homeless shelter was being suggested to go. Those two areas were the area of 2nd Street at I-40 near downtown and a large empty lot that borders the UNM Health Sciences Center.
The city’s other options for the shelter in the survey were very broad. Those locations included the northeast heights, the south valley area, and the north valley area. There were only 5 questions on the survey. The first question on the survey was as follows:
“1.What is your location preference for the new Homeless Shelter?
I-40 and Second Street Area
Other location in Downtown Area
UNM Health Sciences Center south of the State Laboratory
Northeast Heights Area
North Valley Area
Southeast Heights Area
South Valley Area
Current Location (Westside Center/Former Bernalillo County Jail)
Other location in the Westside Area
Other – Please provide suggestions for a location in box below.”
The city survey was posted for 7 weeks on the city web site and ceased on January 15. The survey had more than 3,200 people who participated in it. The survey is only part of an ongoing process to get community input and the city has held meetings open to the public and has included focus groups.
SURVEY RESULTS ANNOUNCED
On February 4, 2020, the City released the results of the survey. You can read news coverage here:
The survey results showed the community overwhelmingly wants the shelter to prioritize and have on-site mental health and substance abuse counseling. Further, survey respondents felt that the city needs to consider how to minimize the shelter’s impact on neighborhoods with 81% of respondents checking “appropriate public safety presence” and 67% saying on-site security needs to be included at the shelter.
Despite the survey results, city officials are continuing to evaluate multiple locations. Mayor Keller has not made it known where he wants the shelter to be built, but has said he wants to start building it next winter. The Keller Administration is planning on discussing locations with the City Council at a meeting in March.
The overwhelming number of those who completed the city survey chose the Interstate 40 and 2nd street location as the best area for the shelter with ppwards of 31% of the respondents saying the area was the best location. The area is in the same general vicinity as Coronado Park, a city park that has attracted for years many homeless people and those that feed the homeless. The city uses the park as a pickup location for those needing rides to the West Side shelter. No other location site received even half of the number of votes.
For decades, Coronado Park has become an “encampment” or one of the most popular places for the homeless to congregate during the day and sleep at night. Many times, over the years, charitable organizations or “good Samaritans” have set up “food lines” for the homeless at Coronado Park. City and zoning health inspectors have been dispatched repeatedly to the park to try and curb the serving of hot food in the area in order to curtail potential health risk to the homeless and feeding them tainted food. At one time the American Civil Liberties Union even threatened to take action against the city over its efforts to curtail serving food to the homeless at Coronado Park.
Police over the years have been dispatched over and over to take action against the homeless at Coronado Park. The truth is, the use of Coronado Park by the general public is scant or significantly curtailed. Given the fact that Coronado Park is South of I-40 and Second Street Area, one of the top tier sites being considered for the shelter, the city is probably seriously considering re-dedicating Coronado Park as the final location for the shelter.
To succeed at the location and to have the lowest impact to the area would require sufficient safety precautions including security fencing and law enforcement or security surveillance of the area. The advantage is that the City owns the land and the location is far enough from the down town area to reduce impact to downtown and residential areas. The freeway would act as a buffer to businesses north of it.
UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO HEALTH SCIENCES CENTER
The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center laboratory area and the city’s existing West Side emergency shelter tied for second place with both receiving 15% of the vote. The “Other location in Downtown Area” received 9% of those surveyed.
There is a vacant owned by UNM Health Services and it confirmed in a statement released that said they’re talking with city officials so they can be part of the solution. Following is the statement released:
“The University of New Mexico has been in discussions with the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County on the best ways to address the needs of the homeless population in our community. In those discussions, the possibility of utilizing currently vacant land near the office of the medical investigator/state lab has been mentioned. Nothing has been decided and you will see from the survey that other locations are being considered.
Our mission at UNM Health Sciences is to treat every New Mexican with the highest level of care possible. Being part of the solution to address the mental health, substance use disorder and housing needs of residents goes to the heart of that mission. It is not enough to just treat those who enter our emergency department, we must invest in comprehensive, compassionate care. Partnering with local governments ensures we continue to deliver more to those in need.”
LOVELACE HOSPITAL COMPLEX ON GIBSON
Although the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson was not listed on the survey, 42 people who took the survey wrote it in as an option. It was not listed on the survey because the city did not have permission from the building’s owners to list it, but it remains under consideration. It was in 2007 Lovelace Medical Center closed down and was later purchased by local private investors. According to one news report, the investors spent an estimated $10 million on upgrades, including remodeling for specific tenants, improving common areas and the parking lot and installing a 540-ton cooling unit out back. The facility is a 529,000-square-foot building and upwards of 50% of it is said to be vacant. Parts of the building date back to 1950 and what was then known as the Lovelace Clinic, and as a result the need for any asbestos remediation is subject to speculation and has not been reported on by the news media.
WESTSIDE CENTER (FORMER BERNALILLO COUNTY JAIL)
The inclusion in the survey of the current Westside Center, which is the former Bernalillo County Jail 20 miles outside of the city, resulted in severe criticism by the public and the media.
On December 23, the Albuquerque Journal published an editorial entitled “Keller must reverse course on his shelter bait and switch”. The Journal excoriated Keller in no uncertain terms for including the Westside jail on the list of shelter locations being considered.
The Journal pointed out that Keller campaigned aggressively to get the $14 million in bonds past for a new location saying the west side jail was not sustainable and there was a need for a centralized location in the city for the homeless to be able to easily get services they need. The Journal went so far as to say “Keller ought to be ashamed of himself”.
You can read the Albuquerque Journal editorial published on December 23, entitled “Keller must reverse course on his shelter bait-and-switch” at this link:
OBJECTIONS TO LOCATING IN DOWNTOWN AND NEAR UNM CANCER CENTER
On December 20, a KRQE News 13 investigative report uncovered emails that show the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the University of New Mexico Cancer Center are at odds over where the City of Albuquerque’s homeless shelter should be built. The emails obtained show groups representing both do not want the shelter to be built near them. In an email, chamber leaders make it clear they want the homeless shelter to go near the UNM Health Sciences center and ask people to vote for that location on the city survey.
There are proposed locations near downtown, but having the homeless shelter there does not fit with the Chamber’s vision of what downtown should be. The Chamber has said through a spokesperson that the homeless dissuades people from going downtown.
Norm Becker, who works for the Chamber of Commerce and leads a team trying to make downtown more appealing, was interviewed and said he thought the homeless downtown is the biggest problem in making downtown more attractive. He also said the University of New Mexico Health science location is the best location and not downtown and said:
“If it was downtown, the access to services, the behavioral health services, and the mental health services don’t exist downtown. They exist at the UNMH health sciences center. … I think if [UNMH] saw what I saw they would say this is not only good but it’s better than what we have today, even if it is in my backyard. … I didn’t say I didn’t want it downtown. There’s no place to put it downtown.”
Another email uncovered was written by the head of the UNM Cancer Center, Dr. Cheryl Willman. She says many of the 400 doctors and staff are concerned about the homeless shelter bordering their offices. According to Willman, they don’t know the homeless shelter design or what access to it will be like and it could cause safety issues to the hospital employees.
OBJECTIONS VOICED TO THE USE OF UNM LAND NORTH OF LOMAS, EAST OF INTERSTATE 25
Although some of the University of New Mexico (UNM) community have voiced support to build a homeless shelter on university property, opposition to the use of UNM land north of Lomas, east of Interstate 25 have now been revealed. On January 22, in a memo to UNM President Garnet Stokes from UNM’s Campus Safety Council, it was revealed that the Campus Safety council overwhelmingly voted v 11-1 against the shelter and to recommend that UNM not allow the shelter anywhere at UNM. According to the council, such a move could create a dangerous situation for students, strain limited police resources and hurt the school’s already sliding enrollment. The UNM Security Council is comprised of the Chief of University Police, the Dean of Students, the UNM Emergency Manager, the ASUNM Student Body President and others.
UNM’s Campus Safety Council wrote to President Stokes as follows:
“The [council] believes that campus safety and the perceptions of safety have led and will continue to lead to a decline in enrollment and having the Gateway Center located on university property will contribute and increase the safety issues we have experienced on campus and in the surrounding areas where students live. … If the [shelter] were located on university property the (council) wonders if that would impact our [crime] statistics, potentially leading to an even greater perception that the campus is unsafe.”
CITY RESPONDS TO SURVEY RESULTS
Carol Pierce, the Director of the Family and Community Services Department, said the West Side shelter was included in the survey because it is property and a building already owned by the city. The city’s West Side shelter is 20 miles from Downtown and the is paying upwards of $1 million a year to transport people back and forth to the shelter, a cost the city says is unsustainable, especially for a 24-7 facility.
Pierce said the West-side shelter makes little sense as a long-term location given what was learned in the survey and what the community wants in a 24-7 shelter. Survey participants overwhelmingly chose “easy access to support,” such as medical and mental health care, and “easy access to transportation” as major requirements as to where the shelter should be built. While the city has not completely ruled it out for the shelter, Pierce said its limitations will be very problematic given lack of access services that are needed and that are located withing the city limits.
The Keller Administration has said that the city’s site selection is ongoing, site wide-ranging, and new locations continue to emerge. Included in the process is identifying more sites, doing a fiscal analysis and determine the financial limitations to complete the project. Each site under serious consideration will require a financial analysis, including land acquisition cost, before the Keller Administration makes any final recommendations to the City Council.
SOCCER STADIUM VERSUS HOMELESS SHELTER
During the 2020 legislative session that ended on February 20, Lawmakers voted to approve a $528 million spending package for public works projects. Each state senator and state representative was given $3.047 million for projects they deem were necessary in their districts.
The public works bill approved by legislators included $4.1 million to plan for a new professional soccer complex in Albuquerque. The $4.1 million will go toward the design, planning and construction of a sports and cultural center, including art exhibits, playing fields and dining and retail space. The $4.1 in funding is intended to be applied to the effort to build a soccer stadium for New Mexico United, a professional team in Albuquerque. The team now plays at Isotopes Park and within a year must have a permanent dedicated stadium.
It is estimated that it will cost $75 million to build a 15,000-seat stadium. United owner Peter Trevisani said the team is prepared to put $1 million or more funding into the planning and design phase for the stadium, which would include a site and project funding analysis. Other potential funding sources include naming rights and borrowing money backed by future stadium revenues commonly referred to as revenue bonds.
The $528 Million capital spending package contains no large infusion of funding set aside to help Albuquerque build the “Gateway Center” homeless shelter that would be open around the clock seven days a week. The capital outlay bill includes a mere $50,000 for the Gateway Center construction, fall short of what is needed to complete the project. The bill does contain $4 million for supportive housing for homeless, but that money cannot be used for construction costs of the shelter. With only $14 million in place, the city only has enough to complete the first phase of the project. The city will now have to find funding elsewhere within the city budget or wait another year to ask for funding in the 2021 legislative session. During last year’s 2019 legislative session, the city sought $28 million for the project. The legislature funded only $985,000 last year for construction costs.
No real reasons have been reported why the New Mexico legislature declined to help with the “Gateway Center” funding that is needed to complete it. Speculation from Santa Fe legislative observers have said that the New Mexico legislature does not believe. According to State Representative Moe Maestas, the lack of concrete plans and the city is still evaluating shelter probably affected legislative funding for the shelter.
Legislator’s feelings that the homeless is a City of Albuquerque problem is plain wrong and wishful thinking on their part. Each year, the “Point in Time” (PIT) survey is conducted to determine how many people experience homelessness on a given night, and to learn more about their specific needs. According to the PIT, New Mexico had the nation’s largest percentage increase in homelessness from 2018 to 2019 in the nation with an increase of 27%. New Mexico also had a 57.6% increase in chronic homelessness last year, also the highest in the nation. The percentage increase in Albuquerque’s homeless population alone rose by 15%. In New Mexico there were 2,464 homeless people in 2019 and of that total, 1,283 persons, or about 52%, were chronically homeless.
ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY
Many business organizations, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Albuquerque Business Association (GABA) and neighborhood associations, believe that there is too big of a concentration of homeless providers in the downtown area. They believe that if the city builds yet another facility in or near downtown, it will only exasperate the problems, create even more problems and attract more homeless to locate in Albuquerque.
KELLER’S DIMINISHED INFLUENCE IN SANTA FE
Mayor Tim Keller is a former State Senator and former State Auditor who resigned each time in the middle of his terms to run for another office. Since assuming office as mayor on December 1, 2017, Tim Keller has deemed that a 24-hour, 7 day a week facility to temporarily shelter the homeless within the city as critical toward reducing the number of homeless in the city. Mayor Keller actively campaigned for voters to approve general obligation bonds of $14 million for the homeless shelter that has an actual cost will of $30 million.
Mayor Keller sought $14 million in state funding for the “Gateway Center” homeless project to match $14 million that city voters approved in the last bond election. With only $14 million in place, the city only has enough to complete the first phase of the project. The city will now have to find funding elsewhere within the city budget or wait another year to ask for funding in the 2021 legislative session.
During last year’s 2019 legislative session, the city sought $28 million for the project. The legislature funded only $985,000 last year for construction costs.
Although included in his 2020 legislative package request for the City, Mayor Keller suffered a major setback to his efforts to address what he considers a major priority of his administration indicating his influence in Santa Fe is diminished. Mayor Keller ostensibly attempted to get the city’s New Mexico House and Senate delegations to at least consider contributing portions of each of their $3.047 million for capital projects out of the $528 million spending package approved for public works projects, but no one made a contribution of funds. Instead the legislature decided to fund a new soccer stadium. Mayor Keller has been advocating for the construction of a new soccer stadium for United New Mexico with the city identifying 3 potential sites which reveals his own priorities for funding between a soccer stadium and a homelessness shelter saying the city needs both with the soccer stadium getting the funding.
2021 MUNICIPAL ELECTION ISSUE
Major issues that will no doubt be up front and center as Mayor Tim Keller seeks a second term in 2021 include the city’s murder rate, violent crime rates and property crime rates, the DOJ consent decree reforms not fully implemented, the failed disastrous ART Bus project that Keller embraced and completed that has now destroyed historical Route 66 and Mayor Keller signing off on a $55 million dollar tax increase without a public vote as he promised.
There is no doubt as the debate rages on where to put the Keller 24-7 City Homeless Shelter, there is a likelihood a large segment of the voting public will get upset, no matter how necessary the shelter is needed. Keller wants to break ground for the new shelter in the winter of 2021 which is when the race for Mayor begins to heat up, which is what happened with the ART Bus construction project.
Many will be watching exactly what is Mayor Tim Keller’s preferred location for the shelter which is the location likely the City Council will adopt. If not handled properly by building a consensus, Mayor Tim Keller will be adding the location of the 24-7 city homeless shelter location he has advocated since being elected to the list of issues that could conceivably divide large segments of the city and deprive him of a second term.