This falls squarely into the category of “What the hell are they thinking?”
On Wednesday, April 13, the City Council’s Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee (LUPZ) met to consider amendments updating the city’s 2017 enacted Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) that regulates zoning development throughout the city. One amendment is for zoning changes that will allow city sanctioned “safe outdoor spaces”, also called “government sanctioned homeless campsites” where the homeless will be able to sleep and tend to personal hygiene. The amendment is being offered as a solution to assist the city to deal with the city’s homeless numbers. The amendment is now part of the IDO update legislation. The full City Council could vote on the amendment as early as May 2.
The zoning change that will allow for homeless encampments is expected to generate severe opposition from neighborhood associations as well business organizations. Democrat City Councilors Isaac Benton, Brook Bassan, Pat Davis, Tammy Fiebelkorn and Republican Trudy Jones have all sponsored or co-sponsored amendments to the city’s zoning code to allow for homeless campsites. The LUPZ committee voted to advance Councilor Pat Davis’ amendment that will restrict the number of homeless campsites citywide.
The proposed zoning changes to allow for homeless campsites can be summarized as follows:
1. Not more than 5 sanctioned campsites will be allowed in any one of the city’s 9 city council districts, or 40 total campsites, and the campsites would be limited to 40 tents, cars or recreational vehicles. Ostensibly, a minimum 1,800 homeless city wide will be allowed to select the camp they want to use. The math is as follows: 5 sanctioned campsites times 9 council districts equals 45 times 40 tents, cars or recreational vehicles equals 1,800.
2. Each campsite will be required to have a certain number of water-flush or composting toilets, or portable facilities, hand-washing stations and showers based on occupancy.
3. It would require a surrounding wall or screen at least 6 feet high for those using tents.
4. Operators of the campsites, which could include churches and nonprofit organizations, would have to provide the city with a management plan or security agreement proving the site has 24/7 on-site support and security.
5. Operators would offer occupants some form of social services and support facilities.
6. The homeless campsites would be prohibited from being allowed within 330 feet of low-density residential areas. Religious institutions would have more flexibility for locating them.
7. The campsites would be permitted in certain commercial, business park and manufacturing zones and in some mixed-use zones after a public hearing.
According to City Officials, in most instances, the encampments would be set up and managed by churches or nonprofits.
Members of the public who appeared before the LUPZ committee cautioned the councilors about allowing homeless campsites and specifically asked for rules to restrict their proliferation in certain areas of the city. Councilor Pat Davis said his proposal addresses some of those concerns by banning more than 5 sanctioned campsites in any one of the city’s nine council districts. In other words, no more than 45 camp sites would be allowed within the city limits spread out over the 9 city council districts.
FUNDING FOR HOMELESS CAMPSITES AND GATEWAY SHELTER
Mayor Keller’s 2023 budget includes $750,000 for the first phase of implementing city sanctioned Homeless camp sites which if approved by Council “will enable ultra-low barrier encampments to set up in vacant dirt lots across the City” plus an additional $200 thousand for developing other sanctioned encampment programs for a total of $950,000.
Mayor Keller’s 2022-203 proposed budget also includes the following funding:
• $4.7 million net to operate the first Gateway Center at the Gibson Health Hub, including revenue and expenses for emergency shelter and first responder drop-off, facility operation and program operations.
• $1.3 million for a Medical Respite facility at Gibson Health Hub, which will provide acute and post-acute care for persons experiencing homelessness who are too ill or frail to recover from a physical illness or injury on the streets but are not sick enough to be in a hospital.
• $4 million in recurring funding and $3 million in one-time funding for supportive housing programs in the City’s Housing First model.
It was 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 emergency shelter and services hub is slated to provide overnight beds for 50 women by year’s end. The city has also said it could eventually host up to 100 adults and 25 families at a time.
2022-2023 PROPOSED FUNDING FOR CONTRACTS TO DEAL WITH HOMELESS
The City of Albuquerque has at least 10 separate homeless service provider locations throughout the city. This fiscal year that ends June 30, the entire general fund budget for the Department of Family and Community Services is approximately $41 million. The $41 million is not just exclusive funding for services to the homeless.
The services offered by the Family and Community Services Department to the homeless are directly provided by the city or by contracts with nonprofit providers. The services include social services, mental/behavioral health, homeless services, health care for the homeless, substance abuse treatment and prevention, multi-service centers, public housing, rent assistance, affordable housing development, and fair housing, just to mention a few.
This past fiscal year 2021 ending June 10, 2021, city hall and the Keller Administration have spent upwards of $40 Million by the Family and Community Services Department to benefit the homeless or near homeless. The 2021 adopted city budget for Family and Community Services Department provides for emergency shelter contracts totaling $5,688,094, affordable housing and community contracts totaling $22,531,752, homeless support services contracts totaling $3,384,212, mental health contracts totaling $4,329,452, and substance abuse contracts for counseling contracts totaling $2,586,302.
The link to the 2021-2022 city approved budget is here:
Mayor Keller’s 2022-2023 proposed budget significantly increases the Family and Community Services budget by $24,353,064 to assist the homeless or near homeless by going from $35,145,851 to $59,498,915. The 2022-2023 proposed budget for the Department of Community Services is $72.4 million and it will have 335 full time employees, or an increase of 22 full time employees.
A breakdown of the amounts to help the homeless and those in need of housing assistance is as follows:
$42,598,361 total for affordable housing and community contracts with a major emphasis on permanent housing for chronically homeless. It is $24,353,064 more than last year. (Budget page 101)
$6,025,544 total for emergency shelter contracts (Budget page 102.), down $396,354 from last year.
$3,773,860 total for mental health contracts (Budget page105.), down $604,244 from last year.
$4,282,794 total homeless support services(Budget page 105.), up $658,581 from last year.
$2,818,356 total substance abuse contracts for counseling (Budget page 106.), up by $288,680 from last year.
The link to the proposed 244-page 2022-2023 budget it here:
2021 POINT-IN-TIME (PIT) REPORT
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines sheltered homeless as “residing in an emergency shelter, motel paid through a provider or in a transitional housing program.” HUD defines “unsheltered homeless” as “those sleeping in places not meant for human habitation including streets, parks, alleys, underpasses, abandoned buildings, campgrounds and similar environments.”
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),
On June 22, 2021, Albuquerque’s 2021 Point-In-Time (PIT) report was released that surveyed both sheltered and unsheltered homeless.
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 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” locations. 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.
The link to quoted statistics is here:
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 in July, 2021, that there are 4,000 to 4,500 homeless people in the Albuquerque area. 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 reports 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.
NOT A CRIME TO BE HOMELESS
What is happening in Albuquerque is that the homeless are becoming more and more visible to the public by their camping anywhere they want and for as long as they can get away with it. The problem is complicated when the city, and for that matter private property owners, do not intervene with aggressive action to remove encampments.
Camping on public property is not allowed but people experiencing homelessness have constitutional rights. The blunt truth is being homeless is not a crime and arresting and jailing is not a solution.
The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and city workers have in the past done “sweeps” of unsheltered people from parks, sometimes arresting them, citing them for trespassing or loitering and taking and disposing of their property. APD is limiting its enforcement of trespassing and vagrancy laws relying on citations as opposed to making arrests as a result of federal litigation.
Alleged seizures of property and identification records of the homeless by APD likely violates the 2017 settlement agreement in the federal case of McClendon v. Albuquerque, which prohibits Albuquerque police from seizing or disposing of property or personal identification unless they are “authorized by law.” The point of the lawsuit was that police were arresting and incarcerating so many people that the jail was severely overcrowded with the settlement meant to reduce the number of people in jail. To that end, it also prohibits Albuquerque police from even asking for identification if they have reason to believe that the person is mentally ill or homeless.
PROCESS IN PLACE
The process the city has in place to deal with homeless encampments is a long process from when the city gets a complaint about a homeless camp to when it gets cleared out, if it ever gets cleared out. The only time the city can immediately clear out a camp is if it is putting the campers or community members in danger. The city does have the west side homeless shelter which is located 20 miles outside the city and located in the old vacated jail where the homeless can go, but the city cannot force them to the shelter or any other shelter.
The city has an “encampment team” made up of seven people. Their job is to respond to reported encampments set up on public property, and give the people living there “written notice” that they have to go. Once their time is up, the encampment team checks in to make sure the people have in fact move. Once the encampment has been vacated, the city cleans up whatever is left behind at the camp which includes many times trash and needles for elicit drug use.
There are multiple steps the city follows when no law enforcement sweep actions happen. When an encampment is reported and a complaint filed, the Family and Community Services Department and Albuquerque Community Safety sends outreach providers to speak to the people to see what services they might want and what services can be offered.
After the assessment, written “notices to vacate” are issued and people have 72 hours to clear the area of their personal property and belongings. The camps are then cleared by the city, but it does not always stay that way. Neighbors, and area property owners and the homeless population are stuck in a vicious cycle of filing 311 reports and calling APD and filing complaints and getting camps cleared out, then the camps moving back in.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
During the April 13 LUPZ Committee hearing, Republican City Councilor Brook Bassan had this to say:
“We have to do something, and these are ideas. Let’s try it – let’s try it, because we’re already mad [about the homeless] . We’re probably going to get a little bit madder. … Then if we don’t try anything, it’s just going to continue getting worse, but if we try something, we’re going to start seeing something else better happen.”
Director of the city’s Family and Community Services Department Carol Pierce had this to say about both amendments:
“This is a huge opportunity for our community to help unhoused folks and to have more options. … We need more options. … We just need different kinds of tools in our tool belt.”
Basaan’s and Pierce’s comments fall squarely under the category of “Exactly what the hell are you thinking?” How many more tools are needed and must be funded for services not wanted?
NEED TO HAVE THEIR HEADS EXAMINED AND TOUR CORONADO PARK
The City Council amendment to the Integrated Development Ordinance will allow 5 sanctioned homeless campsites in each of the city’s 9 city council districts, or 45 total sanctioned campsites spread throughout the city, and allowing 40 tents, cars or recreational vehicles in each campsite, or ostensibly for a total of 1,800 homeless to camp. This is the best example of elected officials’ good intentions that will go awry making a crisis even worse. A total of 45 sanctioned campsites, coupled with $59,498,915 million in spending for the homeless, will likely have the unintended consequence of making Albuquerque an even bigger magnet for attracting the homeless to the city.
Any city councilor or any member of the general public that thinks 45 city sanctioned campsites with upwards of 40 occupants spread throughout the city is somehow “good idea” need to have their head examined. All they need to do to realize this is a very bad idea is to take a tour of the Coronado Park located near I-40 and 2nd street. As of April 17, the public park has upwards of 60 tents with the homeless wondering the park and the surrounding area.
Coronado Park is considered by many as the heart of Albuquerque’s homeless crisis. It comes with and extensive history lawlessness including drug use, violence, murder, rape and mental health issues. In 2020, there were 3 homicides at Coronado Park. In 2019, a disabled woman was raped, and in 2018 there was a murder. Police 911 logs reveal a variety of other issues. In February 2019, police investigated a stabbing after a fight broke out at the park. One month before the stabbing, police responded to a call after a woman said she was suicidal, telling police on lapel camera video that she had previously made attempts to overdose on meth. Officers then took her to get help.
On August 20, 2020, the City of Albuquerque paid more than a half-million dollars for a small piece of property with a two story office building at 2040 Fourth Street NW, right next to Coronado Park. For decades, the two story office building housed the law firm Dubois, Cooksey & Bischoff. Reports were that the homeless use of the park became so bad that the firm felt it had no choice but to sell to the city and threatened an inverse condemnation action against the city.
City officials have said Coronado Park is the subject of daily responses from the encampment team because of the number of tent’s set up there. They say the encampment team, along with Parks and Recreation Department , and Solid Waste go out every morning, during the week, to give campers notice and clean up the park. They also work on getting them connected to resources and services they may need.
GOVERNMENT SANCTIONED HOMELESS CAMPS FLAWED POLICY
As it stands, the proposed amendment to allow homeless camp sites is seriously flawed. Those flaws include:
1. Exact size or physical area of the encampments are not defined.
2.The length of time of occupancy that will be allowed and the extent of screening of campers, check in times and check out times are not delineated.
3. There is no mention if the City Administration will be allowed to unilaterally decide where the camp sites can be located, like Mayor Tim Keller did with the purchase of the Lovelace/Gibson for the Gateway Shelter, with very little or no input from neighborhoods and the city council.
4. Will the amendment allow under-utilized city parks and city owned open space be allowed to be used for the encampments. Bullhead park near the Veterans Hospital or even the vacant airport industrial park come to mind when there is talk of open space locations that are near homeless services in that both are in walking distance to the soon to be open Gateway Homeless Shelter Center on Gibson.
5. Location and site selection criteria, including proximity to residential areas, school, churches, hospitals and bars and recreational marijuana dispensaries.
6. The extent of rules imposed to allow camping such as no drug use, no weapons nor firearms or open fires.
7. Security to be provided by the city.
8. To what extent is the city assuming liability for any injury sustained to anyone who uses the camps?
CREATING LIABILITY WITH USE OF CITY OWNED PROPERTY
Once a homeless campsite becomes a “city sanctioned operation” on city owned open space property, the city will be subjecting itself to liability. The city is assuming the responsibility for maintaining a safe environment and to provide accommodations for personal hygiene. When there is a failure for the city to provide satisfactory security and a person is injured, a personal injury lawsuit for damages will likely result.
EXTENT OF THE UNSHELTERED DECREASED
The 2021 Point-In-Time (PIT) report found that there were 1,567 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people living in Albuquerque, a slight increase over the 2019 count of 1,524 homeless. It also found Albuquerque’s unsheltered homeless decreased from 567 people in 2019 to 413 in the 2021 count. It is the “unsheltered homeless”, or between 413 to 667 homeless that the campsites are being proposed to help, yet the council wants to provide campsites to accommodate 1,800 adults.
Basaan, Pierce and the city council need a reality check. They have a hard time dealing with the facts that many homeless adults want to live their life as they choose, where they want and how they want, without any government nor family interference and especially no rules. They simply do not want anyone’s help. Many homeless do not seek help, even though they may desperately need it, especially those who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. It’s an aversion to any sort of rules, a desire to live as one chooses, and many times the inability to qualify for help that makes things difficult for the homeless.
City hall sanctioned homeless camps, especially those on city owned property, must have rules and regulations, which in practice will likely be totally ignored by the homeless. The county’s Tiny Homes Village is the best example the problem. Bernalillo County is having a hard time finding people to stay at the Tiny Home Village complex. The county spent $5 million to build the facility even as homeless encampments keep popping up all over the city.
One year after the Tiny Home Village opened in the International District, 25 of the 30 homes are empty as nearby streets are lined with tents. One of the city’s largest homeless encampments is right outside the Tiny Home Village. One of the biggest reasons for the Tiny Homes village being empty is all the rules that must be adhered to. To qualify for a Tiny Home, one must be free of drugs and alcohol. In addition to following the rules, residents are required to help around the complex. Many applicants for the Tiny Homes project cannot make it past the vetting process.
The 2021 Point-In-Time (PIT) report does reflect that progress is being made when it reported 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.
GONVERNMENT SANCTION ENCAMPMENTS NO SOLUTION
The city does have a homeless crisis with around 1,500 homeless in any given night in the metro area. The city and the county for that reason are spending millions a year in addressing the homeless crisis. It is the actual services that are being provided to the homeless that are critical to solving the homeless crisis.
If the Family and Community Services Department and its Director Carol Pierce think the department needs “more tools” than $60 million dollars can provide a year, they do not have the know how to “build” or find a solution other than just throwing more financial resources at the problem.
City sanctioned homeless camps will defeat any real progress being made. Government sanctioned homeless encampments will only encourage those who seek such encampments to continue with their lifestyle living on the streets. Providing a very temporary place to pitch a tent, relieve themselves, maybe bath and sleep at night with rules they do not want nor will likely follow is not the answer to the homeless crisis.
The answer is to provide the support services, including food and lodging, and mental health care needed to allow the homeless to turn their lives around and become productive citizens and self sufficient and no longer dependent on others.