The City of Albuquerque municipal election is scheduled for Tuesday, November 2. On the ballot for the office for Mayor are incumbent Democrat Mayor Tim Keller, Democrat Sheriff Manny Gonzales and Republican Trump Talk Show Host Eddy Aragon. A major issue emerging in the Mayor’s race is how they will deal with the city’s ever increasing homeless crisis. Mayor Keller has a 4 year record on the issue, while Sheriff Manny Gonzales pledges to do all he can to end homelessness and Eddy Aragon has a number of competing suggestions and potions.
This blog article outlines the candidates’ positions on what they will do if elected Mayor, discusses the nature of the homeless crisis in the city, what the city has been doing for the last 4 years.
CANDIDATES IN THEIR OWN WORDS
All 3 candidates for Mayor have outlined 3 very different views on how to deal with the City’s homeless crisis.
MAYOR TIM KELLER
Mayor Tim Keller has said if he is elected to a second term, he will continue with his commitment to the “multifaceted approach” he adopted after abandoning the one centralized location. In addition to acquiring the Lovelace Hospital Gibson facility and making into a “Gateway Homeless Shelter”, the Keller Administration has done the following:
1. Created a city division focused on the homelessness
2. Expanded operations at the Westside Emergency Housing Center from just a winter facility to a year around facility operating 24/7.
3. Boosted rental voucher funding for the homeless to help get them off the streets into temporary housing and help them move toward stability.
According to the Family and Community Services Department, the city spent more than $20 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year on shelter, housing programs and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Notwithstanding all the efforts made during the last 4 years under Mayor Keller, the number of homeless in Albuquerque continues to increase.
Keller claims the worsening homeless crisis in Albuquerque is partly because homelessness, just like violent crime, is “exploding” around the country. Responding to the arguments made by Sheriff Gonzales and Eddy Aragon that more arrests need to be made, Keller had this to say:
“This is a good example of folks just not doing their homework. … It’s just naive to think that a mayor can come in and [just start arresting people who are homeless]. … Mayors have to understand they are not the all-powerful kings of the city and they can just do stuff that’s illegal. It’s a good lesson to learn, because their ideas will never fly in court, and it’s just going to end up costing the city a bunch in lawsuits. … My administration … [is] going to continue working with our partners, but we unfortunately have to own this problem, because we need to do more.”
Keller acknowledged that the city has laws and ordinances that allow it to dismantle homeless encampments, he said there is a “line” to walk between respecting individuals’ rights and enforcing ordinances. When it comes to government sanction and operated outdoor, public place encampments, Keller said he’s open to the concept if faith-based organizations or other agencies want to try it. However, he would want the authorized camps to be small, scattered and controlled to mitigate issues like substance abuse. Keller said:
“I think we need an all-of-the-above approach because homelessness and unsheltered is such a terrible problem for our city.”
SHERIFF MANNY GONZALES
Mayor Gonzales has said that addressing the city’s homeless crisis will be a top priority of his once he becomes Mayor. The Gonzales for Mayor campaign in his first TV ad says:
“Now Manny Gonzalez is running for Mayor with a plan to turn our city around and starts with fighting crime and ending the homeless epidemic.”
Use of the word “epidemic” by Gonzales is very unfortunate and very callous to the plight of the homeless. An “epidemic” is the rapid spread of an infectious disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time. Being homeless is not an “infectious disease”. The homeless are human beings not a disease to be cured but a crisis that needs to be dealt with and solved.
Not at all surprising, Sheriff Gonzales’ plan to end the homeless crisis has a strong law enforcement component. Gonzales takes the position that if the homeless are violating “public order”, such as disorderly conduct laws and public nuisance laws by doing things such as sleeping in parks after hours and have refused to use existing services like shelters, arrests are warranted. Gonzales views arrests as a way to protect both the general public and the homeless population . Gonzales says:
“[Arrests are warranted if] they’re having sex [in the parks] in the middle of God and everybody there in the public. They’re defecating … on businesses. … Then there has to be a point where you have to enforce the law of indecent exposure and those type of things. … What you’re trying to do is get people off the streets, because it’s already unhealthy for them.”
Sheriff Gonzales opposes the new “Gateway Homeless Shelter” saying he thinks it’s unnecessary. Gonzales challenge whether the city-hired consultants understood the homeless population who found in 2019 that Albuquerque needed 463-518 new shelter beds to meet demand. Gonzales believes there are people who choose to live on the streets and people on the streets need to be “screened” by professionals and directed to the right resources. Gonzales had this to say:
“You have to diagnose what these people are suffering from before you make decisions for them. And you also have to understand that a majority of these people aren’t homeless, they’re choosing to live in the street because they’re addicted to drugs.”
Sherriff Gonzales objects to the idea of government sanctioned encampments believing it will make the homeless crisis worse and encourages the lifestyle.
RADIO TALK SHOW HOST EDDY ARGON
On August 24, Eddy Aragon held a press conference and officially announced he was running for Mayor. In his press conference announcement, Aragon questioned the “wisdom” of opening the Gateway Center homeless shelter at the former Lovelace Hospital complex on Gibson and purchased by the city. He also questioned the city’s investment in other government homeless services.
In his announcement, Aragon went out of his way to note that his grandmother experienced homelessness ostensibly as a showing he understands the homeless crisis but nonetheless said:
“I think the solutions that we’ve proposed thus far have not reduced the level of homelessness.”
Aragon to said he wants to “recriminalize” homelessness so that the city’s approach includes “penalties in addition to helping” people who live on the streets.
Aragon agrees with Sheriff Gonzales that arrests and jail need to be part of the solution to the homeless crisis. Aragon contends the city has been “coddling” the homeless population and he had this to say:
“We have too many homeless on the streets. It isn’t policed. It isn’t working, and the homeless feel like they can just stay or go or do whatever they like at any time.”
Aragon claims he favors an individualized approach. The individualized approach would include offering transportation to shelters and treatment centers and even a “tickets out of town”. Aragon believes jail should be an option when there’s “no other remedy.” He advocates arresting the homeless for panhandling and camping.
Eddy Aragon is opposed to the Gateway Homeless Shelter being located at the Lovelace Gibson location and believes it could encourage long-term homelessness. He also thinks the location of a homeless shelter there will be detrimental to the area near Kirtland Air Force Base and the planned Orion Center and had this to say:
“There’s a lot of good things that are happening up here, and I don’t think that bodes well, overall, to have the homeless facility.”
Aragon does not object to city sanctioned homeless encampments. Aragon sees government sanctioned encampments as a way to better keep track of people and guide them into programs and services they need to get them off the streets. Aragon put it this way:
“We can use it as a temporary measure where we establish connection with them, give them 30 days, we can figure out where we can transport them, if we can get them back home. If there’s something that’s broken there, we can figure out something else we can do.”
THE CITY’S HOMELESS CRISIS
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.
2021 POINT-IN-TIME (PIT) REPORT
On June 22, Albuquerque’s 2021 Point-In-Time (PIT) report was released that surveyed both sheltered and unsheltered homeless. This year, the survey asked where people stayed the night of January 25.
Major highlights of the 2021 PIT report are as follows:
There were 1,567 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people living in Albuquerque, a slight increase over the 2019 count of 1,524 homeless. The 2020 homeless count is 2.8% higher than in 2019 and 18.9% more than in 2017, despite the pandemic limiting the 2021 counting effort’s.
The 2021 PIT count found the good news that 73.6% of the homeless population was staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing or using motel vouchers rather than sleeping in alleys, parks and other “unsheltered” situations. The 73.6% in the 2021 count is much a higher than the 2019 and 2017 PIT counts.
Albuquerque’s unsheltered homeless decreased from 567 people in 2019 to 413 in the 2021 count.
42% of Albuquerque’s unsheltered were defined as chronically homeless, meaning they had been continuously homeless for at least a year and had a disabling condition
21% said they were homeless due to COVID
37% were experiencing homelessness for the first time
12% were homeless due to domestic violence.
30.19% of the homeless in Albuquerque self-reported as having a serious mental illness,
25.5% self reported as substance abusers.
In the rest of the state, 37.92% of the homeless self-reported a serious mental illness, while 63.3% self reported as substance abusers.
The combined PIT numbers for the areas outside of Albuquerque is defined in the report as “Balance of State” (BOS). The 2021 BOS PIT count reports that 1,180 sheltered and unsheltered homeless, a 31% decrease from the 1,717 counted in 2019.
Operators of programs that provide services to Albuquerque’s homeless say the actual number of homeless is far greater than indicated in the PIT count. The Albuquerque Public Schools says the number of homeless children enrolled in district schools, meaning kids from families that have no permanent address, has consistently been more than 3,000.
The link to quoted statistics is here:
ACTUAL NUMBER OF HOMELESS MUCH BIGGER
Government agencies and nonprofits report that the city’s homeless numbers are greater than those found in the PIT reports and that the number of homeless in Albuquerque approaches 4,500 to 5,000 in any given year.
The nonprofit Rock At Noon Day offers meals and other services to the homeless. Noon Day Executive Director Danny Whatley reported that there are 4,000 to 4,500 homeless people in the Albuquerque area. What is alarming is that according to Whatley, the fastest-growing segments are senior citizens and millennials (ages 23 to 38 in 2019).
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) is New Mexico’s largest school district, serving more than a fourth of the state’s students and nearly 84,000 students. APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta stated the number of homeless children enrolled in district schools, meaning kids from families that have no permanent address, has consistently ranged from 3,200 to 3,500. APS serves many students in need with nearly two-thirds qualifying for the federal school meals program. The APS school district serves 29,000 breakfast per school day and 41,000 lunches per school day.
The centralized citywide system known as the Coordinated Entry System that the city uses to track the homeless and fill supportive housing openings reports that approximately 5,000 households experienced homelessness last year.
APPROVED FUNDING FOR CITY SERVICES AND CONTRACTS TO DEAL WITH HOMELESS
It is the city’s Family and Community Services Department that manages and deals with city services, programs and federal grants for the homeless and assist with affordable housing programs to help low income people in need of financial assistance to avoid becoming homeless. The Family and Community Services Department has a total budget of $54,868,986 and has 313 full time employees. According to the 2021-2022 fiscal year approved city budget for the Department of Community Services, the city is spending upwards of $35,145,851 a year to help the homeless and those in need of housing assistance. A breakdown of the amounts spent includes:
$18,191,960 for affordable housing and community contracts (Budget page 175.)
$6,421,898 for emergency shelter contracts (Budget page 176.)
$4,378,104 for mental health contracts (Budget page178.)
$3,624,213 homeless support services(Budget page 178.)
$2,529,676 substance abuse contracts for counseling (Budget page 179.)
You can review the detailed line item funding of programs, contract and grants administered by the Family and Community Services Department in the 2021-2022 approved city budget on the pages provided above with the link here:
EVOLUTION OF SHELTERING THE HOMELESS
During his 2017 campaign for Mayor and since the day he was sworn in on December 1, 2017, Mayor Tim Keller has made it a priority to address the city’s every increasing homeless population and crisis. Initially, Keller made it a top priority to build a 300-person, 24-7 centralized homeless shelter to replace the existing West Side Emergency Housing Center, the former jail on the far West Side. In 2019, voters approved $14 million in general obligation bonds for a city operated homeless shelter.
Three preferred sites quickly emerged for the centralized emergency shelter:
1. University of New Mexico property near Lomas and Interstate 25
2. The old Lovelace hospital facility on Gibson
3. The Wells Park area near Second and Interstate 40
Strong and organized opposition emerged for a 300-bed centralized facility for all 3 locations. The University of New Mexico Hospital employees, UNM faculty and students made it clear they did not want its land north of Lomas Boulevard to be used for the shelter and the UNM regents agreed. Neighborhood Associations and businesses in the vicinity around Wells Park were particularly vocal given the high number of homeless that congregate daily at Wells Park. Criticism for all 3 locations included that a 300 bed centralized facility would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood and businesses.
On Wednesday, May 7, 2020, Mayor Keller announced that the city was abandoning the development concept of a single, 300-bed homeless shelter and that the city would be proceeding with a “multi-site approach” to the city’s homelessness crisis. Mayor Tim Keller went so far as to state that the 300 bed Gateway Center was “off the table”.
The city officials said the new multi-site approach could mean a series of “smaller facilities” throughout the community. Ostensibly, there would be no single resource hub in one large facility as was originally proposed with the 300 bed Gateway Center. City Family and Community Services Director Carol Pierce offered insight into what the city means when it refers to small shelters and had this to say:
“We’re often talking 100 to 150 beds of emergency shelter that could be defined as a smaller shelter.”
On Tuesday, April 6, 2021, the city officially announced it had bought the massive 572,000-square-foot complex for $15 million and will transform it into a Gateway Center for the homeless. It was announced that the complex would be only 1 of the multisite homeless shelters and not the 300-bed shelter originally planned. The complex has a 201-bed capacity, but remodeling could likely increase capacity significantly.
The zoning for the Gibson Medical Center facility allows for an “overnight shelter” but only as a “conditional use” that must be applied for by the city. The city is now applying for the conditional use arguing there is a strong need for it to enhance Albuquerque’s demand for homeless services to an ever-expanding homeless population. The city has prepared an operations plan for the Gibson site and is proposing that it accommodate 100 individuals and 25 families at the Gibson Gateway homeless shelter. A zoning hearing was held on September 21, 2021 and the decision has yet to be announced.
ENCAMPMENTS, PANDHANDLING AND THE HOMELESS
Simply put, it is not illegal to be homeless, the homeless have constitutional rights like all citizens in this country, and that includes camping outdoors and even panhandling.
“[The Federal] Courts have found that depriving homeless people of the rights to perform survival activities in public spaces when no alternatives are available violates the 1st, 4th, 5th, 8th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. In Martin v. City of Boise, the court held that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property.” Some legal challenges have resulted in settlements, which generally call for minimum notice before clearance of encampments, requirements for storage of personal belongings, and compensation for people who are swept from encampments and attorney fees.”
It was in November, 2017 that the city council enacted the “Pedestrian Safety Ordinance”. The intent of the ordinance was to eliminate or restrict panhandling on the streets of Albuquerque. The ordinance was sponsored by Republican City Councilor Trudy Jones, a former real estate agent who lives in an affluent area of the city who argued that the homeless were bringing her constituent’s property values down.
The Pedestrian Safety Ordinance essentially made acts of charity by private citizens a crime. The language of the ordinance prohibited anyone from standing inside travel lanes, along interstate ramps on medians and prohibits “any physical altercation or exchange” between “pedestrians and occupants of vehicles in traffic lanes.” It was a prohibition not only against individual panhandlers but prevented drivers of vehicles in traffic from giving anything to panhandlers.
Despite repeated warnings by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the ordinance was a violation of constitutional rights, the council enacted the ordinance. Once enacted, the ACLU sued the city and the ordinance was quickly declared unconstitutional and stricken down.
CITATIONS VERUS ARRESTS
It is the policy of the Albuquerque Police Department(APD) to issue citations, rather than make arrests, for most nonviolent misdemeanors due to what is referred to as “McClendon Lawsuit” that was settled by a federal judge. That lawsuit, filed against the city and Bernalillo County by an inmate arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor, primarily focused on the conditions within the county lockup. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the then Bernalillo County detention center had a maximum capacity of 800, but the jail was repeatedly overcrowded with as much as twice that capacity. The misdemeanor offenses affected by the special order include many misdemeanor violations involving the homeless such as criminal trespass, criminal damage to property, vagrancy, loitering, disorderly conduct, and camping on public property, all misdemeanors. The policy remains in place to this day.
It was on May 10, 2018 that Special Order 17-53 was then made SOP 2-80 that deals with arrests on misdemeanor cases. The memo provides that officers may make an arrest if it is necessary, but will have to include the reasons why in an incident report. The special-order states that officers have the opportunity to take offenders wanted for non-violent misdemeanor offenses to Metropolitan Court to resolve warrants or fines instead of hauling them off to jail. However, the arrested individual must have the full amount of the fine or bond in cash. Those arrested also cannot go through a bonding agency.
SANCTIONED HOMELESS ENCAMPMENTS
Homeless encampments refer to two or more people experiencing homelessness who are living outside, rather than in an emergency shelter. Most homeless encampments are prohibited by local ordinances that do not allow camping and sleeping in public places and zoning laws that bar camping and accessory dwellings. Both the city and the county have policies in place that allow the dismantling encampments.
On May 5, 2021, it was reported that Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson and Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley want the city and the county to establish “homeless encampments”. They argue the encampments would be a better alternative for those who might now be sleeping on sidewalks, in doorways, arroyos or other places unfit for human habitation. Such camps, also called “safe outdoor spaces” would be managed sites with tents or low-cost structures where people without homes can sleep and access bathrooms and showers. City and County law enforcement and code enforcement would not have any authority to cite or break up the camping on the designate areas.
O’Malley and Gibson said the homeless encampments could provide more than just tents. There are other options such as 64-square-foot aluminum structures designed specifically to house people who are homeless. The units have lockable doors and windows and are designed to accommodate electricity, heating and air conditioning. Prices start at $4,900 apiece.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYIS
What is very disappointing is the reliance on law enforcement, arrest and confinement by both Sheriff Manny Gonzales and Eddy Aragon to deal with the homeless. When Keller said “This is a good example of folks just not doing their homework”, he was being polite. Political bloggers do not have to be polite. Sheriff Manny Gonzales and Der Führer Trump Republican Eddy Aragon are hopelessly ignorant on the subject trying to pretend they understand the homeless crisis and pretend they have a solution and have nothing. Twice during debates, Aragon mentioned how his grandmother and another family member had been homeless at some point in their lives as if he understood the homeless crisis by some sort of “family osmosis” or perhaps DNA. Aragon is the same candidate for Mayor that said if elected, he could be considered as the first black mayor of Albuquerque because according to his DNA profile he is 4.5% African American which is twice the percentage of African Americans living in Albuquerque.
THE GREATNESS OF A CITY IS REFLECTED BY HOW IT TREATS ITS HOMELESS
The greatness of a city is reflected by the commitment it makes to help its homeless who suffer from mental illness. NIMBY stands for “Not in my backyard” relating to proposed projects opposed by homeowners, property owners and business owners, such as the Gateway Homeless shelter project, the tiny homes 35-unit transitional housing project and the 42-unit HopeWorks Project for mental health services and housing.
Albuquerque has between 1,500 and 2,000 chronic homeless, with approximately 80% 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.
Charitable organizations such as Joy Junction, St. Martins HopeWorks project, Steelbridge, The Rock at Noon Day and Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless provide services to the homeless, and do so by being where the homeless can be found and where the homeless can seek out, reach and have easy access to services.
All too often, we tend to forget our humanity, our political philosophy and our religious faith and beliefs of hope and charity, and condemn the homeless for what we think they represent or who we think they are.
We condemn the homeless whenever they interfere with our lives at whatever level – such as pandering for money, begging for food, acting emotionally unstable, sleeping in doorways and defecating in public, and, yes, when we stand downwind from them and smell what living on the streets results in personal hygiene.
The sight of homeless camps, homeless squatters in parks and living under bridges usually generates disgust. People condemn the families of the mentally ill for not making sure their loved one has been institutionalized or is taking their medications. All too often, the families of the homeless mentally ill are totally incapable of caring for or dealing with their loved one’s conduct.
Calling law enforcement in Albuquerque to deal with the mentally ill has a history of ending tragically, as was the case with mentally ill homeless camper James Boyd who was shot and killed by the Albuquerque Police Department SWAT in the Sandia foothills.
We easily forget the homeless are human beings who usually have lost all hope, all respect for themselves and are imprisoned for life in their own minds, condemned to fight their demons every hour, minute and second of their life until the very day they die.
One thing that must never be forgotten is the homeless have human rights to live as they choose, not as anyone says they should live. The homeless cannot be forced to do anything against their free will or change their life unless they want to do it themselves.
The homeless should not and cannot be arrested and housed like criminals or animals. Many homeless do not want to be reintroduced into society, and many have committed no crimes and they want to simply be left alone. The homeless who suffer from mental illness cannot be forced or required to do anything for their own benefit without due process of law.
Too often, the homeless are the victims of crimes, even being bludgeoned to death for fun as Albuquerque saw a few years ago when three teenagers killed two Native Americans sleeping in a vacant lot on a discarded mattress.
We as a city have a moral obligation to make every effort and make available to the homeless services they desperately need. Both Gonzales and Aragon do not understand this fact.