On April 8, CNN national news service outlet published a remarkable story written by staff reporter Gabe Cohen entitled “A huge homeless camp will be cleared after neighbors sued. What happens to its vulnerable residents is an open question.” What made the story so remarkable is that what was reported as going on in Phoenix today is essentially identical to Mayor Tim Keller’s “all the above approach” to dealing with the homeless crisis except for the private lawsuit.
Below is the CNN story in full followed by the link to the story that has photos:
The young widow watched as the helpers wended through the Zone at sunrise, offering what they could: water, a bus ticket or a shelter bed – if one was open.
Standing beside her tent, Rayann Denny sized up the sprawling camp of 900 or so people improvised along sidewalks in downtown Phoenix:
“It’s a whole nother world.”
The soft-spoken 37-year-old ended up homeless last year after her husband died and she couldn’t pay the bills alone. This camp, she said, can be “a lot of drama,” with flares of violence. But Denny won’t stay in a shelter, with its rules and a curfew, as she relies on drugs to get through her days.
“I just try to keep myself high,” she said, “so I don’t have to deal with the pain.”
Her home base here, though – however scant – soon will vanish.
In the latest chapter of America’s increasingly polarized approach to homelessness, Phoenix must permanently clear the area that’s become known as the Zone after a judge ruled in favor of neighbors who sued the city, calling the encampment – next to a non-profit social services hub and blocks from the state Capitol and the city’s Major League Baseball stadium – an illegal “public nuisance.”
Their lawsuit could be a model for those looking to force other US cities to clear similar encampments, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said. But the prospect worries advocates for the unhoused, who say it simply pushes a critical problem out of public view, especially as soaring home prices and expensive borrowing have pushed households to the brink.
As Phoenix officials prepare to start moving tents out of the Zone this week, they’re also scrambling to create safe options for the displaced: leasing more hotel rooms and vacant buildings to convert into shelters, and building an outdoor campground with security, restrooms and hand-washing stations, the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions director told CNN.
But those won’t be available right away.
So for now, the crew of helpers has stepped up its years-old effort to try to get residents off the streets.
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“We have to move fast,” team leader Nette Reed said. “We have to come up with a plan.”
THEY SUED THE CITY – AND WON
Debbie and Joe Faillace have owned Old Station Sub Shop, next to where the camp cropped up, for more than 30 years. They frequently discover property damage, drug paraphernalia and feces when they get to work, they said.
“There’s just a complete lawlessness, and it’s getting worse,” Debbie Faillace said. “We want our neighborhood back. We want to feel safe.”
While more states are passing controversial laws to ban public camping, Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs this year vetoed one such bill, saying it only served to make homelessness “less visible.”
The Faillaces and others already had sued last year in state court over the Zone, an unofficial nickname that isn’t universally embraced. They claimed the city had allowed its public spaces to violate its own public nuisance laws, with unsanitary conditions, drug use, violence and property crimes, fire hazards and blocked rights of way, court documents show.
A judge in March ruled in their favor, giving the city a few months to eliminate the nuisance conditions, records show.
The legal strategy may offer a template to anyone who lives or works near large homeless encampments, said Ilan Wurman, a lawyer for the Phoenix plaintiffs and an associate law professor at Arizona State University.
“We basically showed a proof of concept to use the courts to force cities’ hands to actually do something about the humanitarian aspect of this crisis,” Wurman said. “We hope other businesses, property owners and homeowners take up this fight in other jurisdictions where there are massive homeless encampments.”
But using such a lawsuit to clear an encampment like the Zone is an oversimplified tactic that not only doesn’t end unsheltered homelessness – but also increases “invisible homelessness,” National Alliance to End Homelessness CEO Ann Oliva said.
“Of course we’re worried that this is going to be picked up as a tactic by other communities,” she said. “I hope that it’s not a template for how other communities want to address this issue because we know that the only way to actually address this issue and homelessness is affordable housing and the services that people want and need in order to get housing.”
‘I DON’T WANT TO … WALK THE STREETS’
The Phoenix area has roughly half as many shelter beds as people experiencing homelessness, a population that’s grown 46% since 2019 amid the affordable housing crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to annual counts coordinated by the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Many who live in the Zone have jobs or get government assistance – but say they still can’t afford rent. By setting up camp outside the non-profit Human Services Campus, they guaranteed quick access to a secure center with roughly 900 shelter beds – full on most nights – plus aid including food, water and health care, all critical during Arizona’s scorching summers.
As the Zone is cleared, “the farther people get removed, … the harder it will be for them to access services,” Human Services Campus CEO Amy Schwabenlender said.
“People will be more likely to die,” she said, “or be sick and go to the emergency room.” More than 700 people experiencing homelessness died last year in Phoenix’s Maricopa County – a 23% increase over 2020 that reflects the bump in unhoused people over that period, county officials confirmed to CNN.
The Zone clearing, due to start Wednesday, will be piecemeal and dovetail with city efforts to come up with alternatives for its residents, said Rachel Milne, director of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions.
“The city’s approach will be to take it one step at a time, one block at a time, one group of people at a time, making sure that we are able to offer those 50 or so people in that block a variety of different solutions, a variety of different places to go, all of which have the services that they will need to keep them safe and healthy,” she said. “It’s safer certainly than where they are now.”
But without a confirmed opening date for the city-structured campground, advocates for unhoused people expect encampments like the Zone to pop up in other Phoenix neighborhoods, they said.
“It moves people into other spaces where they’re most likely also not going to be welcomed in,” Schwabenlender said. “And if they think a safe outdoor space is going to end homelessness, it’s not. It just shuffles people from one place to another.”
Indeed, many see efforts now in the works in Phoenix as a Band-Aid on the larger crisis facing cities across the country. “We’ve got to work on other solutions: preventing more inflow, preventing people from experiencing homelessness, helping them exit the system quickly so that those shelter beds that we do have can be used more efficiently,” Milne said.
“I think we have a lot of work to do.”
Stefanie Powell doesn’t know where she’ll go when cleanup begins at the Zone, where she lives in a tent with her boyfriend, she said.
“I don’t want to wind up having to walk the streets again,” Powell said about finding a new place to stay. She can’t work, she added, because of medical issues like neuropathy and fibromyalgia.
“It’s hard because nobody wants to see the problem. Nobody wants to acknowledge the problem,” she said.
“They just want it to go away.”
The link to the full CNN report with photos is here:
ALBUQUERQUE’S CORONADO PARK CLOSURE
On June 27, 2022 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 the park’s closure saying it was imperative even without a fully formed plan for how to do it and what happens next.
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.”
City officials said that upwards of 120 people camped nightly at the park.
In Albuquerque, Coronado Park was the City’s version of the Phoenix “Zone” but on a much smaller scale. Instead of 900 homeless like the Zone in Phoenix, Coronado Park had between 75 and as many any 120 homeless camping and it was the largest concentration of city homeless. The big difference is that Coronado Park evolved over the first term of Mayor Tim Keller as Keller insisted it to become the city’s de facto city sanctioned homeless encampment over the objections of the neighborhoods and businesses who expressed anger and frustration as Keller and the city refused to enforce the city’s vagrancy laws and city park prohibition’s on camping.
Over the period of about 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 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 and neighborhood associations complain to the city repeatedly about the city’s unwritten policy to allow the park to be used as homeless encampment. At any given time, Coronado Park had 70 to 80 tents crammed into the park with homeless wondering the area.
Criminal activity had spiked at Coronado Park over the previous three years with an extensive history of 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 reported that it was dispatched to the park 651 times in 2021 and 312 times in 2022. There have been 16 stabbings at the park in the previous 2 years and when the park was closed APD had 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.
PRIVATE NUISANCE ABATEMENT REMEDIES EXIST
The April 8 CNN report revealed that it was a private civil cause of action against the City of Phoenix that resulted in a Court order declaring the “Zone” a public nuisance and ordering the City of Phoenix to vacate the area and clean up the area. It could as easily happened here. The City of Albuquerque already has one of the strongest nuisance abatement ordinances in the country. The State of New Mexico has one of the strongest nuisance abatement laws on the books.
Normally, a nuisance is defined in terms of an “activity” that endangers the public health and safety and welfare. The New Mexico state legislature has enacted a statute that empowers all municipalities to define and abate a nuisance as they see fit. Under the Albuquerque nuisance abatement ordinance, the City Council defines a nuisance in terms of real property, not an activity, both commercial or residential, that is used to assist, promote, facilitate or involved with criminal activity and the real property can be declared a nuisance by a court of law.
In 2004, the city’s Nuisance Abetment Ordinance was amended extensively to include all state felony and misdemeanors as well as all city code violations (plumbing, electrical, gas and construction) in order to be included for consideration to determine that a property is nuisance. Reliance is made on the number of calls for service to APD to declare a property a nuisance.
Under state law, a nuisance is defined as a single act or activities that endangers the public health, safety and welfare. A public nuisance is a misdemeanor but a civil District Court injunctive court action under the rules of civil procedure is used to abate such nuisances. Both the city and state laws are enforced through the State District Courts relying the Rules of Civil Procedure to secure injunctive relief in the form of Temporary, Preliminary or Permanent Injunctions. Injunctive relief actions are fast tracked by the courts and a temporary restraining order can be secured within 10 days at the outset.
What is generally unknown to the public is that the State’s nuisance abatement laws provide for private remedies. Private citizens, neighborhood associations and businesses can initiate nuisance abatement actions and secure injunctions and even collect attorneys fee if they are the prevailing party.
CITY’S NO ARREST POLICY
New Mexico Statutes and City Ordinances have been enacted to protect the general public health, safety, and welfare and to protect the public’s peaceful use and enjoyment of property rights. All the laws cited have been on the books for decades and are applicable and are enforced against all citizens and not just the unhoused.
The specific statutes and ordinances are:
- NMSA 1978, Section 30-14-1 (1995), defining criminal trespass on public and private property.
- NMSA 1978, Section 30-14-4 (1969), defining wrongful use of property used for a public purpose and owned by the state, its subdivisions, and any religious, charitable, educational, or recreational association.
- Albuquerque City Ordinance 12-2-3, defining criminal trespass on public and private property.
- Albuquerque City Ordinance 8-2-7-13, prohibiting the placement of items on a sidewalk so as to restrict its free use by pedestrians.
- Albuquerque City Ordinance 10-1-1-10, prohibiting being in a park at nighttime when it is closed to public use.
- Albuquerque City Ordinance 12-2-7, prohibiting hindering persons passing along any street, sidewalk, or public way.
- Albuquerque City Ordinance 5-8-6, prohibiting camping on open space lands and regional preserves.
- Albuquerque City Ordinance 10-1-1-3, prohibiting the erection of structures in city parks.
For the last 5 years, the city and APD have had a “no arrest” policy when it comes to nonviolent misdemeanor charges and offenses that are committed by the homeless. The “no arrest” policy is the result of a settlement reached in the 1995 federal case of McClendon v. City of Albuquerque that involved overcrowding and racial discrimination at the jail and was filed to reduce overcrowding at the jail.
In the period between August 15, 2022, just before Coronado Park was closed, and October 2, 2022, two-and-a-half months later, the City enforced these provisions over 220 times by citation and very few arrests. Even when APD officers do not actually cite or arrest unhoused people for violations of these laws and ordinances, it enforces them by telling unhoused people that they must move on or they will be cited or arrested for their violation.
ALBUQUERQUE COMMUNITY SAFETY DEPARTMENT
It was in 2021 that Mayor Tim Keller created the Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS). The department provides a non-police response to 911 calls associated with homelessness, intoxication and mental health. The Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS) dispatches first responders to 911 calls with or without other first responders from the police and fire departments. According to the departments performance measures, in the 2022-2023, the department responded to 10,619 total calls for service with 6,062 calls diverted from police intervention.
Albuquerque Community Safety responders may have backgrounds as social workers, peer-to-peer support, clinicians, counselors, or similar fields. It is a first-of-its-kind cabinet-level department responding to calls on inebriation, homelessness, addiction, and mental health. It works alongside APD and AFR as a third option for 911 dispatch. It was created from a unique, Albuquerque idea based on programs the City developed and tested with the community.
KELLER’S ALL THE ABOVE APPROACH TO CITY’S HOMELESS CRISIS
Since day one of becoming Mayor on December 1, 2017, Tim Keller has made it a major priority to deal with the city’s homeless crisis. It is the city’s Family and Community Services Department that administers the city’s programs to address the homeless, additional housing, and behavioral health services, including mental health services and counseling.
Mayor Keller has proclaimed an “all above approach” to deal with the unhouse and provide housing and services the homeless and near homeless to address the root causes such as substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, and youth opportunity.
For five years, Mayor Kellers “all the above approach” has cost the city millions. Keller has done the following over the last two fiscal years:
- Over two years, budgeted $33,854,536 for homeless emergency shelters, support, mental health and substance abuse programs and $60,790,321 for affordable housing programs for the low-income, near homeless.
- Established two 24/7 homeless shelters, including purchasing the Gibson Medical Center for $15 million to convert it into a homeless shelter.
- Established a “no arrest” policy for violations of the city’s camping, trespassing and vagrancy laws with an emphasis on citations.
- For five years, allowed Coronado Park to become a “de facto” city-sanctioned homeless encampment, which he was forced to close down because of drugs and violent crimes.
- Advocated and funded city-sanctioned safe outdoor space (SOS) homeless tent encampments.
The Family and Community Services proposed budget lists forty five (45) separate affordable housing contracts totaling $39,580,738, fifteen (15) separate emergency shelter contracts totaling $5,575,690, and twenty seven (27) separate homeless support service contracts totaling $5,104,938 for a total of $50,261,366.
The Fiscal Year 2024-2025 Family Community Services budget includes the following major line-item funding:
- $14 million in non-recurring funding for supportive housing programs in the City’s Housing First model.
- $1.5 million in recurring and $500,000 in non-recurring funding 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.
- $3 million in recurring funding 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.
- $1.2 million for the Westside Emergency Housing Center, which has operated at close to full occupancy for much of the year.
SAFE OUT DOOR SPACES
Mayor Tim Keller’s “all the above approach” to deal with the homeless crisis includes Safe Outdoor Spaces (SOS). It was Mayor Keller on April 1, 2022 in his 2022-2023 proposed budget where he first advocated for the land use known as “Safe Outdoor Spaces” to deal with the homeless crisis. Buried in the approved 2022-2023 budget was line-item funding that provided as follows: “$750,000 for proposed “safe outdoor spaces”. … will enable ultra-low barrier encampments to set up in vacant dirt lots across the City. There is an additional $200,000 for developing other sanctioned encampment programs.”
It was on June 6, 2022 that the City Council enacted a series of amendments updating the Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO). One of the amendments was the “Safe Outdoor Spaces.” The legislation passed on a 5 to 4 vote and as enacted allows for 18 city sanction safe out door spaces, 2 in each of the 9 city council districts. “Safe Outdoor Spaces” are city sanctioned homeless encampments located in open space areas that will allow upwards of 50 homeless people to camp, require hand washing stations, toilets and showers, require a management plan, 6-foot fencing and provide for social services.
For over a year Safe Outdoor Spaces became one of the most divisive issues between the Mayor, the city council and the general public and neighborhood associations. City sanctioned homeless encampments are not just an issue of “not in my back yard,” but one of legitimate anger and mistrust by the public against city elected officials and department employees who mishandled the city’s homeless crisis and who were determined to allow them despite strong public opposition. Six applications have been filed thus far with only 3 approved and one of those 3 approved was appealed. The one appeal involved a Safe Outdoor Space on Manual and the freeway on city owned property that was to house 50 women who were victims of sex trafficking. The appeal was rendered moot when the city owned property was sold to the state for a new State Police facility.
“HOUSING FORWARD ABQ” PLAN
On October 18, 2022 Mayor Tim Keller announced his “Housing Forward ABQ” plan. It is a “multifaceted initiative” where Mayor Keller is hoping to add 5,000 new housing units across the city by 2025 above and beyond what private industry normally creates each year. As it stands now, the city issues private construction permits for 1,200 to 1,500 new housing units each year. According to Keller, the city is in a major housing crisis and studies show the city needs as many as 13,000 to 30,000 new housing units.
To add the 5,000 new housing units across the city by 2025, Keller is proposing that the City of Albuquerque fund and be involved with the construction of new low income housing to deal with the homeless or near homeless. The strategy includes “motel conversions” and a zoning code “rebalance” to enhance density. It includes allowing “casitas” which under the zoning code are formally known as “accessory dwelling” units.
Keller wants to allow “different forms of multi-unit housing types” on residential properties. 63% of the city’s housing is single-family detached homes.
According to Keller, the city will also be pushing to convert commercial office space into to residential use. The Keller administration is proposing $5 million to offset developer costs with the aim of transitioning 10 properties and creating 1,000 new housing units. The new plan also includes “motel conversations” which is the city purchasing and turning old and existing motels into housing.
“Motel conversions” are a major component of Keller’s “Housing Forward Abq” plan and includes affordable housing where the City’s Family & Community Services Department acquires and renovates motels to develop low-income affordable housing options. The existing layout of the motels makes it cost-prohibitive to renovate them into living units with full sized kitchens. An Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) amendment provides an exemption for affordable housing projects funded by the city, allowing kitchens to be small, without full-sized ovens and refrigerators. It will require city social services to regularly assist residents. The homeless or the near homeless would be offered the housing.
On February 1, 2023 it was reported that the City of Albuquerque has executed a purchase agreement for the purchase of the Sure Stay Hotel located at 10330 Hotel NE for $5.7. million for a motel conversion and to convert the 104-room hotel into 100 efficiency units. On April 17, Mayor Tim Keller held a press conference and announced the city had finalized purchase of the Sure Stay Hotel and the city intended to renovate the building into 100 apartments for low and moderate-earning households. Keller said the new apartments will help address the housing shortage while providing a quality living situation. City officials said that $3-4 million has been earmarked for renovations. City officials said that converting and remodeling the property is much cheaper than building a new structure.
“POINT IN TIME” SURVEY
Each year the “Point in Time” (PIT) survey is conducted to determine how many people experience homelessness and to learn more about their specific needs. The PIT count is done in communities across the state. The PIT count is the official number of homeless reported by communities to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to secure federal funding.
The PIT count requires the use of the HUD definition of “homelessness”.
The PIT count uses the HUD definitions of “Sheltered”, “Unsheltered” and “Transitional Housing”. The Unsheltered are defined as those who encamp in neighborhood open space areas, alleys, parks, high-traffic areas and points of congregation, meal service sites, and general service sites. It is the “unsheltered” that Safe Outdoor Spaces are targeting and designed to help the most.
In August, the 2022 the Point In Time (PIT) homeless survey reported that the number total homeless in Albuquerque was 1,311 with 940 in emergency shelters, 197 unsheltered and 174 in transitional housing. Surprisingly, the survey found that there are 256 fewer homeless in 2022 than in 2021 which was 1,567. In 2019, the PIT found 1,524 homeless.
The 2022 PIT report provides the odd number years of shelter and unsheltered homeless in Albuquerque for 8 years from 2009 to 2019 and including 2022. During the last 12 years, PIT yearly surveys have counted between 1,300 to 2,000 homeless a year. Those numbers are: 2011: 1,639, 2013: 1,171, 2015:1,287, 2017: 1,318, 2019: 1,524, 2021: 1,567 and 2022: 1,311.
The 1,311 figures in the 2022 PIT report is the lowest number of unsheltered reported for the last 5 years. According to the 2022 PIT report there were 256 fewer homeless in January 2022 than in January 2021, yet the public perception is that the city is overrun by the homeless likely because they have become far more aggressive, more assertive and more visible.
The 2022 PIT data breakdown for the unsheltered for the years 2009 to 2022 in the city is as follows:
Chronic homeless: 67% (homeless 6 months to a year or more)
First-time homeless: 38%
Homeless due to domestic violence: 16%
Adults with a serious mental illness: 46%
Adults with substance use disorder: 44%
(2022 PIT Report, page 7)
Note that a whopping 90% combined of the unsheltered are suffering from mental illness or substance use disorder.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Albuquerque’s homeless crisis in no way approaches the Phoenix homeless crisis yet Mayor Tim Keller is using the identical approach which has a very steep financial cost when compared to the actual number of chronic homeless. The approach as CNN reported is one of “moving tents out of [homeless encampments] … and … scrambling to create safe options for the displaced: leasing more hotel rooms and vacant buildings to convert into shelters, and building an outdoor campground with security, restrooms and hand-washing stations. … Many see efforts now in the works in Phoenix as a Band-Aid on the larger crisis facing cities across the country. “We’ve got to work on other solutions: preventing more inflow, preventing people from experiencing homelessness, helping them exit the system quickly so that those shelter beds that we do have can be used more efficiently.”
Albuquerque’s total chronic homeless numbers and those living on the streets is between 1,300 to 2,000 homeless with the actual number dropping this last year according to the annual point in time survey. Notwithstanding, the public perception is that the city is being overrun by the homeless. The likely reason for the public perception is that the homeless have become far more aggressive in going anywhere and whenever they want, within the city, including neighborhoods and parks and camping with less than adequate law enforcement action. The Keller Administration has adopted a “no arrest policy” when it comes to enforcing the city’s vagrancy laws.
Over the last two years alone, the Keller Administration has spent upwards of $100,000,000 to provide services and shelter to the homeless. It is now proposing to spend another $50 million in fiscal year 2023-2024. There must come a point when it must be asked “when is enough is enough” to deal with the 1,300 to 2,000 chronic homeless in Albuquerque, especially those who do not want any kind of help?
Being homeless is not a crime. The city has a moral obligation to help the homeless, mentally ill and drug addicted. The city is meeting its moral obligation to the homeless with the millions being spent each year for services, shelter and housing. But there comes a time when the public must demand and expect results.
The blunt truth is that Mayor Tim Keller, the City Council and the city will never solve homelessness crisis and it’s not at all likely that the city will ever be free of the homeless. All that can and must be done is to manage the homeless crisis but there must be limitations. Adopting an “all the above approach” has been just plain foolish on a number of levels.
Spending millions on homeless services, shelters and housing and having no visible impact on homeless squatters who have no interest in city shelters, beds, motel vouchers and who want to live on the streets and camp in city parks, in alleys and trespass as they choose is at worst evidence of incompetent management and at best wasting city resources.
Keller and company need to do a better job dealing with the homeless and those who refuse services. Mayor Keller needs to take a more measured approach which must include reliance on the city and state nuisance abatement laws, current laws and law enforcement and perhaps the courts, such as civil mental health commitment hearings, to get those who refuse services and to get them off the streets in order to get them the mental health care and drug rehabilitation they desperately need.