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Albuquerque eyes formal camps for people who are unhoused

Tents with cots inside for Washoe County’s Safe Camp pilot program in Reno, Nev., on June 18, 2021. The program provides a place for people experiencing homelessness to camp outside safely with access to restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Tents with cots inside for Washoe County’s Safe Camp pilot program in Reno, Nev., on June 18, 2021. The program provides a place for people experiencing homelessness to camp outside safely with access to restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.

Campgrounds for unhoused people in Albuquerque could become easier to set up under two city council proposals, the Temporary Campground Proposaland the Safe Outdoor Spaces proposal. These will be heard by the city of Albuquerque’s Land Use, Planning and Zoning Committee Wednesday. KUNM’s Yasmin Khan talked about the issue with Peter Rice, editor of Downtown Albuquerque News.

PETER RICE: So right now you've got people camping on pretty much only private land or public land. And in both cases, it's pretty well illegal. There are some cases in which it is tolerated, like at Coronado Park north of Downtown in the West Park neighborhood. Basically, if you're camping, whether it's the Bosque, or the side of the road or under a bridge, you could at any point be be evicted. So this would establish a formal location with an assigned spot, you fill out a form or two, and you'd have a kind of officially sanctioned place to go.

KUNM: Who are these encampments designed for?

RICE: So the term of art they're using is "low barrier." The idea here is that we're pretty much gonna take anyone under the theory that you can be in a place where you know you at least have an assigned spot and a place to go and access to bathrooms and trash collection, (which) is better than you jury-rigging some kind of campsite in a in a park.

KUNM: And have you heard from campground dwellers themselves about what they think of this proposal?

RICE: Some people say "sounds great, I'd check it out." Some people say "no way I wouldn't." And I imagine some people are are probably on the fence. That seems to be the way it's gone in other cities. And speaking of other cities, this is not something we're inventing here. I mean, Las Cruces does this, Denver does, this several other cities around the West.

KUNM: The article that you wrote says that Wells Park, Martineztown, Barelas, South Broadway and areas along Central are some of the target areas under the proposal. But we know unhoused people are in all parts of the city. Are there proposals for temporary campgrounds in other parts of the city too?

RICE: This is a city wide issue. And between talking to the counselor [Ike] Benton and reviewing the mayor's budget document, it sounds like the general plan is to find vacant lots all over the city and kind of spread that out, which is something that is probably a political necessity. If this is actually going to be done, Downtown neighborhoods especially already have a lot of homelessness services in their backyard, and they're especially prickly about the prospect of shouldering more than their fair share, as they see it.

KUNM: So some people criticize these campgrounds as a stopgap solution for a larger housing crisis. How do these campgrounds fit into more permanent affordable housing strategies?

RICE: I think the stop gap criticism is probably pretty valid. I guess the the best case scenario here is that sort of like an ideally run shelter, a campground is a place where people can kind of hang their hat for a bit, get access to whatever services they need, and kind of get settled enough to the point where the next step would be getting their own place. So I guess in the best case scenario, they act as a kind of funnel to the more traditional housing system. Now that more traditional housing system still has major structural flaws at this point. Things are really expensive. It's outright illegal to build apartment complexes in much of Albuquerque. We have slowly drifted away from communal living situations like single room occupancies. So there is really not a large emphasis on kind of small, more affordable living, that seems to be the primary problem that we're dealing with here.

KUNM: So for people who may have that knee-jerk reaction of "I don't want this in my backyard," the alternative is just what's happening now, which a lot of people also complain about. I mean, there has to be some movement, some way or another.

RICE: You'll find a lot of people Downtown who who have that opinion of "maybe I don't want it next door. But I don't want it in my park either." So if this makes it easier to use the park, or walk down the street or ride the bus or whatever, then okay, let's talk about it. A small portion of our city has shouldered the vast majority of the burden. So if you see somebody camping or a large encampment, it's probably going to be south of I-40. Now, if you live north of I-40, the kind of "not in my backyard" sentiment I imagine is going to be much stronger because it's actually worked in the past. Now those of us who live in the urban core, or other parts in this kind of broadly south of I-40, we can see in our everyday life that it hasn't worked. I think there's broad consensus that something needs to change here now.

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.
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