KUNM

Unsheltered Amid The Pandemic: One Man's Experience With Police In ABQ

Apr 23, 2020

There have been zero confirmed cases of the coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque so far, city leaders say. KUNM is following the city’s efforts to prevent an outbreak in that population, and one gap stands out: the city continues to break up unsheltered people’s encampments, despite guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to do so during the pandemic. The CDC says clearing encampments can worsen community spread by causing people to disperse and lose connections with service providers, and they say not to do it unless it’s to move folks into individual housing units. KUNM has more on the City of Albuquerque’s treatment of encampments during the pandemic and about one man’s experience living on the streets this past month.

During a press conference about homelessness on April 15, 2020, Mayor Tim Keller said, basically, he doesn't think those CDC recommendations apply to Albuquerque.

“That was really intended for large existing encampments that a lot of major cities have,” Keller said. “We do not have that. So that’s just kind of an apples and oranges comparison there. The other thing is, unlike a lot of other cities, we have somewhere better for folks to go to get medical care.”

The CDC does not specify different interim guidance on homelessness for different places.

Albuquerque has the Westside Emergency Housing Center on the far outskirts of town, a 450-bed shelter operated by the non-profit Heading Home that’s open 24/7 and busses folks in and out from several pick-up spots in town each day. The city has health care providers there, screening people twice a day for COVID symptoms, and handing out masks donated by community organizations.

Still, many people choose to sleep outside, and it’s the city’s ongoing policy that they cannot stay on public property. Officials say that during one week in April, the Department of Family and Community Services visited 117 encampments – the bulk of them at Coronado Park near the highway – to offer resources, make people move and get rid of stuff left behind.

One night during that mid-April cold snap, Cypher Johnson was walking north of downtown with a big backpack and other gear, trying to get to a friend-of-a-friend’s place to camp in their yard. He said he's been in the area since early March. “I’m on my way to Oklahoma to stay at a military base right now, with my sister,” he said.

KUNM caught up with him again this week near a laundromat on Central Avenue. Johnson is a soft-spoken 27-year-old. He wears an Adidas tracksuit, with shorts and gloves embellished with his own hand-stitching.

“Yeah, I’ve been sewing since I was in seventh grade,” Johnson said. “I used to do some real weird stuff back then.”  

He said he’s been sleeping in gravel lots near downtown or behind law firms that are closed right now. That’s where he was sitting one night, with a guy he’d just met, when he says a black SUV pulled up. He figured right away it was an undercover police officer.

“He threw his lights on, came up and was like, ‘hey, what are you guys doing? Let me see your hands!’” Johnson recalls. “We had our hands up, and he started taking pictures of us and stuff. I told him ‘I’m just sewing right now.’”

The officer did talk to them about the coronavirus outbreak, nothing Johnson didn’t already know, he said. But the interaction was scary for him. “I’m like, man, I’m not even from here, I don’t got no family here, and this dude about to arrest me for something.”

The officer never introduced himself, Johnson says, but before he left he told him it was OK for him to stay near that law office for the time being. The city says their protocol is to clear encampments on private property only if the landowners call for it. 

Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Harold Medina told Your New Mexico Government that police are trying to use discretion these days about encampments, only clearing them if there’s a disturbance or criminal activity that seems dangerous, or if private property owners ask for it.

Johnson said he’s had about seven interactions with police in the past six weeks. He said they usually don’t make him move, but that black SUV driver was the only one who offered any kind of resources or information – even though APD tells us their officers have been given pamphlets to hand out about COVID.

Johnson said most police officers just seemed defensive or fearful. One officer he asked for help, because his wallet had been stolen and he needed to figure out how get new paperwork.

“He got out the car, looked at me real frightening-like, and put his hand on his hip where his gun was,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I can do!’ When people get like that with me, I’m not listening to nothing they’re saying. I’m just gonna leave, you know, ‘cause I don’t like that feeling. I’ve never got that feeling ‘til I came here.”

The city says street outreach teams from their partners, like Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, are out at least five days a week offering resources, but Johnson said hasn’t run into any outreach workers. Nor had he heard of the Westside Emergency Shelter. He says he washes up in gas station bathrooms and a lady he met lets him shower at her place.

Johnson said he’d thought a little about what he’d do if he started having a cough, shortness of breath, fever or other COVID-related symptoms.

“Honestly, I would take my butt to the hospital quick, because my uncle told me you can’t put a price on good health,” Johnson said. “[If] they don’t admit me or take me in, then I’m gonna seclude myself and honestly, I'm not even gonna eat or anything. I'm just gonna die slowly. And I don’t mind doing that, honestly."

The City of Albuquerque has motel vouchers available for people experiencing homelessness who test positive for the coronavirus, have symptoms, or are waiting for test results. To get a motel room in order to self-isolate, individuals must be referred by a medical provider or through the screening process at the Westside shelter.  

Over the past month, the city has set up 18 new portable restrooms around town, all stocked with hand sanitizer. Here's where those are located: 

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Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the motel rooms the City of Albuquerque has made available for people with coronavirus symptoms are not empty as of April 23, 2020.

This story originally aired on Your N.M. Government on the episode "Walking The COVID Beat." Support for KUNM’s public health coverage comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and from listeners like you.