On Wednesday, August 18, at 4:00 PM., Mayor Tim Keller conference, along with city officails, held a press in front of a vacant, clean up and fenced off Coronado Park and made the announcement that Coronado Park was officially closed to the public making good on a promise he made on June 27 to close the park by the end of August.
Mayor Keller Keller said the closure of Coronado Parke does not represent “any kind of a comprehensive strategy” to resolve homelessness crisis. Keller said this:
“The actions taken today by the City of Albuquerque are made necessary by the threats to public health, safety and the environment that this encampment has created. … Let no one think, however, that these actions represent a comprehensive strategy for resolving the problem of what we commonly call the homeless in Albuquerque or anywhere else in America.
I know that burden is on me as your mayor, I know that, but it’s also on everyone else in this community. … That means the homeless themselves, that means every provider involved, that means everyone complaining about this on social media, we’ve all got a role to play. And it is not just to complain about the problem. … In June we shared that we were evaluating all of our homeless policies. As part of this, in July we stated that we have to close Coronado Park. Throughout the next few months, we’ll continue taking our all-of-the above approach to help our city cope with these issues.”
Mayor Keller added that the yearslong “status quo” and public safety risks at the park including drug and human trafficking to those who lived at the park and those who provided them services had become “no longer acceptable.”
Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael’s cited the prolonged challenge with the homeless at the park and said this:
“Homelessness at Coronado has been a challenge for nearly a decade … But we have to draw a line and simply stop a situation that is obviously unacceptable, regardless of what we do next.”
The city also cited lack of sanitation posing a health risk to those at Coronado Park and playing a role in the park closure, as well as overall damage to the park. Drug trafficking at the park had reached a crisis level. Albuquerque Police Department announced that they recovered several different firearms at the park, as well as narcotic drugs like fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin. The department has received over 400 phone calls this year regarding Coronado Park.
During the August 18 news conference, APD police Commander Nick Wheeler said police will keep people out of the park by increasing patrols in the area, with help from State Police, and respond to trespassing calls from businesses and residents. He said they will first issue citations and, if that doesn’t work, make arrests. Wheeler said this:
“It’s not illegal to be homeless, but it is illegal to break the law. And my guys are going to hold everybody accountable. … ”
SELF PROCALIMED “MAYOR OF CORONADO” PARK ARRESTED
In an interesting twist to the closure of the Coronado Park, APD Commander Nick Wheeler said many of the people who lived at the park were “afraid to get services”, and he made this disclosure:
“When I asked about what they were afraid of, they explained to me that they were afraid of the self-proclaimed ‘mayor.’ … The most vulnerable folks, the unhoused, that were living in Coronado Park, every day they were victimized [by this guy.]”
Wheeler was alluding to Joseph Garcia, who called himself “the Mayor of Coronado Park.” Police arrested Garcia Monday in the shooting death of Andrew Aguilar, who was killed inside the park. Wheeler said Aguilar was shot because he didn’t want to pay rent to live in the park. Wheeler made it clear that those living at the park felt safer after Garcia’s arrest.
CLEAN UP AND PLACEMENT EFFORTS
On June 27 when Keller announced the closure of the park, between 120 and 150 homeless would camp in the park nightly. By Tuesday, August 17 when the park was officially closed and after weeks of what the city has called “intensive outreach” and contact with the homeless campers, the number was down to 30 to 40 and 15 subsequently accepted transportation to a shelter.
Spokeswoman for Family and Community Services Katie Simon said that part of the city’s intensive outreach, the city did more than 110 surveys of those who had been living at Coronado Park. She said that 24 were either given a motel voucher or transported to a shelter, two were given tickets to travel housing out of state and two were taken to the hospital.
Since June 27, the city has taken great pains to clean up Coronado Park and do extensive outreach to the homeless that resided there to provide services. According to one news report, upwards of 20 tons of trash and debis were removed from the park. Virtually all the trees in the park are dead and the city will cut them down. The city intends to strengthen the new fence around the park.
During the last month, the city provided services to those in need at the park. APD has received over 400 phone calls this year alone regarding Coronado Park and APD police and metro security patrols will reportedly be monitoring the area to keep people out of the park.
Links to quoted news sources are here:
LONG TERM USE MAY INCLUDE SELLING PARK TO THE STATE
Keller said the city has not determined exactly what to do with the park property in the long term and figuring out what to do with the park will take time. Keller did say the city has 3 main options as to what to do with the park. Those options include:
- Make it a park again
- Build a fire station expansion and training area, or
- Build supportive, affordable housing
As to making the area a park again, Keller but pointed out the city is planning a park on the Walker property blocks away. Keller said this:
“That’s where a park should be, in the heart of the neighborhood, not next to a highway.”
The Walker property is an entire block of vacant land where 21 residential homes and businesses between 5th and 6th and Summer and Rosemont streets were once located and that were demolished by the city. The property is directly north of the Wells Park Community Center and was later purchased by the city at a cost of approximately $1.8 million. All the structures were boarded up and abandoned and often used by squatters and the homeless and criminals for drug trafficking. It was on September 2, 2007, that it was reported that the entire block of vacant homes, which were all owned at the time by 86-year-old Anne Davis Walker were demolished. The demolition cost the city $189,000 and Davis Walker paid back the city within a year. The demolition of all 27 structures was negotiated by then Deputy City Attorney and Safe City Strike Force Director Pete Dinelli. The Safe City Strike Force is a best practices program that Mayor Keller abolished and defunded.
What Mayor Keller did not disclose is that the State has expressed an interest in purchasing the park. On August 4 an event was held for Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham where she spoke as she campaigns for reelection. During her comments, the Governor took time to discuss crime in Albuquerque and how she is committed to programs to reduce the city’s out of control violent crime rates.
While discussing the City’s crime, Governor Lujan Grisham in particular brought up the closure of Coronado Park. In what can only be considered a surprise announcement, the Governor said that her administration wants to purchase Coronado Park. Her plan is to build a facility or complex on the land for service providers to the homeless which would include private providers and state and city providers so that there will be one centralized location for services being provided. The Governor did not disclose exactly how far along the purchase plans are but a confidential source has said the State had been in contact with the Keller Administration.
KELLER’S CLOSURE CRITICIZED FOR FAILURE TO CONFERE WITH STAKEHOLDERS AND LACK OF ANY PLAN
Mayor Keller was severely criticized for making the decision to close the park without conferring first and getting input from the surrounding neighborhoods, especially the Wells Park neighborhood, local businesses and stakeholders. Critics complained that Keller made the decision without a plan for what to do next after the park closed. Keller took issue with the criticism that he made the park closure decision without first notifying or consulting with key constituencies justifying his decision by saying the situation at the park had become a major crisis that needed to be dealt with immediately
Wells Park Neighborhood Association President Doreen McKnight said this:
“It’s hard for us to take a position on this — whether or not we think it’s a good or bad idea — if nobody communicates with us and there’s no plan.”
The Mental Health Response Advisory Committee is in charge of advising the city on issues related to chronic homelessness. Max Kauffman, who co-chairs the committee, said Keller’s announcement came as a surprise. Kaufman said this:
“Now we’re in the position of having to react to it rather than getting ahead of it, helping to make sure that they’re considering all the factors that are relevant to people experiencing homelessness and they’re taking good care in how they’re executing this policy, and whether to execute this policy at all.”
The link to quoted news source material is here:
A petition was presented to the City Council on August 15 by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness where the city was asked to pause closure plans. It criticized the city for leaving people who are homeless out of the closure decision.
The leadership of the city’s Mental Health Advisory Committee raised concerns over the abrupt announcement and closure of the park by the Mayor. The Mental Health Advisory Committee is mandated by the Federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA) with the U.S. Department of Justice dealing with APD Police reforms. The committee is charged with advising the city on issues related to chronic homelessness. The city did not notify the committee or seek its guidance about closing the park before Keller publicly announced that was his plan.
On Tuesay, August 16, the city gave the committee a presentation on the closure of Coronado Park. However, co-chair Rachel Biggs said they did not solicit the group’s feedback nor even bother mentioning that the park would close the next day. Biggs had this to say:
“We raised concerns that the lack of involvement in plans for something such as closing down Coronado Park could put the city at risk of being non-compliant [with the Court Approved Settlement].“
The link to quoted news source material is here:
HISTORY OF A PARK CLOSURE AND REASONS GIVEN
Over the last 5 years, Coronado Park became the “de facto” city sanctioned homeless encampment with the city repeatedly cleaning it up only for the homeless to return the next day. City officials have said it was costing the city $27,154 every two weeks or $54,308 a month to clean up the park only to allow the homeless encampment to return.
Residents and businesses located near the park complain to the city repeatedly about the city’s unwritten policy to allow the park to be used as a homeless encampment and its use as a drop off by law enforcement for those who are transported from the westside jail. At any given time, Coronado Park had 70 to 80 tents crammed into the park with homeless wondering the area.
The biggest factor and justification in closing the park is crime. Criminal activity has spiked at the park over the past three years. The city park has an 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. APD reports that it was dispatched to the park 651 times in 2021 and 312 times thus far in 2022. There have been 16 stabbings at the park in the past 2 and in the past 30 days APD has seized from the park 4,500 fentanyl pills, more than 5 pounds of methamphetamine, 24 grams of heroin and 29 grams of cocaine. APD also found $10,000 in cash. All the seized drugs were tied to a single bust in late June that occurred at a nearby motel, not the park, though an APD spokeswoman said the suspect was “mainly doing all their distributions [at the park].”
The links to quoted news sources are here:
On June 27, calling it “the most dangerous place in the state of New Mexico” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller held a press conference standing in front of Coronado Park to announce its closure and to discuss his reasons for ordering the parks closed and saying it was imperative even without a fully formed plan for how to do it and what happens next.
The primary reason Keller gave for closure of the park was the extent of the crime. According to APD in the last two years there have been at least five homicides, 16 stabbings and 20 assaults. In 2021 APD responded to 651 calls at the park, and as of July 21, 2022 there have been 312 calls for service.
Keller said this :
“We’re not going to wait any longer. We have all the evidence we need that says that we have to do something different. … It is not going to be something where every question is answered, and every plan is thought out. … We do not have the luxury of a perfect plan. … At this point, if we don’t close the park now, it will never be a park again. … There was unanimous consensus that at a minimum, temporarily, this park has to close. … This is the first step. We welcome everyone to help us problem-solve, but someone has to step up and make a decision … And that’s what people elected me to do.”
Keller said the immediate closure of the park would be “messy” and that dispersing park residents could create other problems.
CITY SPENDS MILLIONS A YEAR TO HELP THE HOMELESS
The City of Albuquerque has adopted the Housing First policy as mandated by the federal HEARTH Act in order to secure federal funding.
On May 16, the Albuquerque City Council voted to approve the 2022-2023 fiscal year city budget which will begn on July 1,2022 . The 2022-2023 approved city budget provides major funding of upwards of $60 Million to deal with the homeless. Included in the adopted budget is funding for Safe Community programs that deal with issues such as substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and youth opportunity.
Following is a listing of approved funding:
- $24 million in Emergency Rental Assistance from the federal government, which the City will make available in partnership with the State.
- $4 million in recurring funding and $2 million in one-time funding for supportive housing programs in the City’s Housing First model. In addition, as recommended by the Mayor’s Domestic Violence Task Force, the budget includes $100 thousand for emergency housing vouchers for victims of intimate partner violence.
- $4.7 million net to operate the City’s first Gateway Centerat the Gibson Medical Facility, including revenue and expenses for facility and program operations.
- $500 thousand to fund Albuquerque Street Connect, a program that focuses on people experiencing homelessness who use the most emergency services and care, to establish ongoing relationships that result in permanent supportive housing.
- $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.
- Full funding for the Westside Emergency Housing Center which is operated close to full occupancy for much of the year. On October 23, 2019, it was announced that Albuquerque’s West Side Emergency Housing Center was expanded to provide a coordinated approach to homelessness. The homeless use that facility to get medical care, treatment for addiction and behavioral health, job placement and case management services. The west side shelter now has the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, Presbyterian Hospital and Alburquerque Health Care for the Homeless providing medical services two days a week. It also has case management services being provided by Centro Savila, funded by Bernalillo County. Job placement opportunities are being provided by workforce connections.
- $500 thousand to fund the development of a technology system that enables the City and providers to coordinate on the provision of social services to people experiencing homelessness and behavioral health challenges
The link to news source material:
The Fiscal Year 2023 budget includes the following funding for Safe Community programs:
- $1.8 million to develop what will be Albuquerque’s only medical substance abuse facility dedicated to youths likely housed at the Gibson Health Hub.
- Full funding for the Violence Intervention Program that deals with both APD and Family & Community Services departments, including the first phase of School-Based VIP in partnership with APS.
- $736 thousand to fully fund the Assisted Outpatient Treatment program.
- $730 thousand for a partial year of operation of a Medical Sobering Center at Gibson Health Hub, which will complement the social model sobering facilities available at the County’s CARES campus.
- Full funding for service contracts for mental health, substance abuse, early intervention and prevention programs, domestic violence shelters and services, sexual assault services, health and social service center providers, and services to abused, neglected and abandoned youth.
The link to the enacted 2022-2023 proposed budget is here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Allowing the homeless to use, congregate and camp in Coronado Park in violation of city laws and ordinances should never have been considered as an option to deal with the homeless crisis given all the resources the city is spending to help the homeless. This so called “grouping” of the homeless at Coronado Park was sanctioned by Mayor Keller, a mayor who for his entire first term made dealing with the homeless crisis a corner stone of his administration. A Mayor whose administration spent $40 million in 2022 and will spend another $60 million in 2023 to provide assistance to the homeless. A Mayor who saw to it that the city purchased the 529,000 square-foot Lovelace Hospital facility on Gibson for $15 million to have it converted into a Gateway Shelter and who made the westside shelter a 24-7 facility.
It was disingenuous for Mayor Keller to say just a few weeks before he announced closure of the park that “[The federal courts] will not allow us to just walk in and arrest someone because they’re homeless and the current situation beats the alternative. … .“ The situation at Coronado Park did not beat the alternative of having a zero tolerance of allowing an illegal encampment at a city park and allowing the homeless to squat all over the city and not enforce the law.
It was Mayor Keller who allowed a once beautiful and pristine park dedicated to public use to become a festering blight on the community. Simply put, Coronado became an embarrassment with the city violating its own ordinances and nuisance laws by allowing overnight camping and criminal conduct in the park thus creating a public nuisance both under state law and city ordinance. Coronado Park became the symbol of Keller’s failure as Mayor to deal with the homeless crisis and he had to deal with a nuisance property of his own creation.
The homeless crisis will not be solved by the city nor by Keller, but it can and must be managed. The management of the crisis by Mayor Keller is to provide the support services, including food and lodging, and mental health care needed to allow the homeless to turn their lives around, become productive self-sufficient citizens, no longer dependent on relatives or others.
Too many elected and government officials, like Mayor Tim Keller, have a hard time dealing with the fact that many homeless adults simply want to live their life as they choose, where they want to camp for as long as they can get away with it, without any government nor family interference and especially no government rules and no regulations. The city and Mayor Keller cannot just ignore and not enforce the city’s anti-camping ordinances, vagrancy laws, civil nuisance laws and criminal laws nor pretend they simply do not exist.
Squatters who have no interest in any offers of shelter, beds, motel vouchers or alternatives to living on the street really give the city no choice but to make it totally inconvenient for them to “squat” anywhere they want and force them to move on. After repeated attempts to force them to move on and citations arrests are in order.
Mayor Tim Keller is to be commended for coming to his senses after a full 4 years and exercising his authority to issue executive orders to clean up and remove unlawful encampments and permanently close Coronado Park. Closure of Coronado Park is a good first step in announcing a new approach to the city’s homeless crisis. Now comes the real hard part to come up with a viable plan that will not make things worse for the area and the city.
The links to quoted news sources are here: