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Advocates say Albuquerque is violating a court order on encampment removals

Christine Barber of AS U R walks in the vacant lot at Central and Alcazar. She says the "No Trespassing" sign high on the pole
Megan Myscofski
Christine Barber of AS U R walks in the vacant lot at Central and Alcazar. She says the "No Trespassing" sign high on the pole was only placed there a couple days prior and isn't easy to spot.

People experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque and staying on public property are currently protected from having their things cleared by the city, with some exceptions. That is because of a court order that went into effect on November 1st.

But unhoused people and their advocates say that the city hasn’t followed the order.

Keely Pioche and Chile Reano live in tents in the International District.

“We are on Central and Alcazar, in a dirt field, in our home,” she said.

It’s a big, empty lot owned by the city with an unkempt fence with holes. Pioche lives here on and off with a mix of biological and found family. But today, it’s just her and her friend Reano.

“Yesterday, I wasn't here when it started, but I came at the ending,” Pioche said.

They said that’s when the encampment of about a dozen people that was here was cleared by city workers, who arrived with dump trucks.

“All we could do was watch them throw away our stuff, you know, blankets to keep us warm, tents,” Reano said.

It happened just as a cold front was coming in, and it rained into the night.

In sweeps like this, people often also lose IDs, medicine and other critical, and meaningful, belongings. The communities and support systems they form are also scattered.

“It's challenging already as it is being homeless,” Reano said. “But when they come in and start taking our property and throwing it away without even us having a word or anything, it just brings you back down to zero or negative.”

Back in September, a Bernalillo County District Court judge sided with the ACLU and other groups in saying the City of Albuquerque was violating the constitutional rights of unhoused people by sending or threatening to send them to jail for being in public spaces when housing and shelter beds are sparse.

The order blocks the city from continuing that practice and clearing encampments on public property, with some exceptions – people can’t camp on public school property or block roadways or walkways, like sidewalks, medians or alleys. The city can still sweep encampments on private property.

Christine Barber is the executive director of As U R, which provides necessities and helps get services to women living on the street, including sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

She parked near the vacant lot at Central and Alcazar in a car full of basics to hand out, including, “Pads, tampons, condoms, panty liners, soap, facemasks.”

She said that in the 15 years that she’s been doing outreach work with people experiencing homelessness, she has had very little pushback from police, but that’s changing.

“I can tell you right now that I have never seen so many police officers in my life driving around since the injunction started,” Barber said.

She said in the month since the order went into effect, she’s seen police and city workers continue to clear encampments, including at this lot.

And she said when the unhoused people she works with are forced to disperse, it just gets harder to help them, even into new homes.

“I cannot even tell you the number of times we have had someone call us and go, ‘Hey we have a housing voucher for this person. They have a place to go. They have a place that will be paid for for the next year.’ We have to all kind of fan out and go like, ‘where are they?’” she said.

The City of Albuquerque filed a motion in October saying the initial court order was unclear or untenable. It asks the court to clarify several aspects of the order, including whether or not it can impose limits on how long unhoused people and their belongings can be in public spaces.

KUNM contacted the Mayor’s Office for this story, but did not receive a response clarifying what the city is doing to comply with the court order, what instructions city employees have been given, or how it plans to create enough shelter space for people experiencing homelessness so they aren’t in these areas.

“It is obvious to me that the city is grossly violating this court's orders daily,” said Peter Cubra, a member of the Coalition for a Safer Albuquerque and a retired lawyer.

“I have received emails, text messages and phone calls from many people, and I have directly observed several campers who either have just been displaced by the city or were in the process of being displaced by the city,” he said.

Cubra said he hasn’t seen a change in the way that the city handles encampments since the court order went into effect.

“What should be happening is the city should be assigning people to assess its compliance with the court order to avoid being hauled in front of a judge. The city should be paying attention to the written complaints I know they've received alleging violations, and correcting those promptly,” Cubra said.

The city has asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to rule on the legal arguments in the case. That hearing is on December 13th.

This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners. 

Megan Myscofski is a reporter with KUNM's Poverty and Public Health Project.
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