Councilors weigh repeal of measure to create city-sanctioned camps for unsheltered people

Friday is the last day for Mayor Keller to sign or veto the Safe Outdoor Spaces ordinance that was just passed by the council

By: - June 23, 2022 4:54 pm

The Albuquerque City Council voted against adopting rules to the ordinance it passed earlier in the month that will allow for sanctioned encampments.

Albuquerque city councilors are trying to reverse course on an ordinance sanctioning camps for unhoused people that they passed earlier this month. As part of that, they’re postponing decisions on the rules for such camps. 

But that might mean the Safe Outdoor Spaces ordinance will become law in early August without guidance or a zoning plan. 

It’s in Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s hands now. He has not signed the ordinance into law. Friday is the final day for him to take action with a signature or veto. If Keller takes no action, the ordinance becomes law. 

A tense meeting over Zoom on Wednesday night pitted Council members against city administrators from the Mayor’s Office, with much of the conversation going back and forth between councilors that want arrests and citations to clear out camps, and the city’s position on legal protections that grant constitutional rights for people who sleep outside in tents.

In the end, the Council voted against adopting operating rules that would have set up protections for sanctioned camps but also did not fast track a proposal to repeal the measure. 

“A deferral on this bill means that we will have legally allowable safe outdoor spaces without any rules in place for how they will be put in place,” Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn said. “I don’t think that is what anyone I’ve spoken to wants.”

Rules city administrators are seeking for sanctioned camps: 

  • A public hearing to designate a space 
  • A conditional-use agreement
  • Distance requirements for private property
  • Management and operations plans reviewed by the city and law enforcement
  • Lockable screening walls around a camp
  • 24/7 security
  • Social services and support facilities on site
  • Portable toilets and hand-washing stations 

Fiebelkorn voted in the minority with Councilors Ike Benton, Pat Davis and Trudy Jones in support of adopting rules to the camping ordinance. Councilors Renee Grout, Dan Lewis, Klarissa Peña, Louie Sanchez and Brook Bassan defeated the measure 5-4.

Bassan originally co-sponsored the Safe Outdoor Spaces ordinance but changed her mind and unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a repeal during Wednesday’s meeting. She can bring it back up, and it could be considered by the Council as soon as August.

During a news conference at the North Domingo Baca Multicultural Center on Wednesday morning, Bassan announced a new pool headed to the facility in the far Northeast Heights and then renounced her support for city-sanctioned camps.

She said her vision for moving tents to a central location needed more public input, which she received in the form of protest by a group called Women Taking Back Our Neighborhood. The group calls the Safe Outdoor Spaces ordinance a “disastrous idea” and says it will hurt property values and reduce tourism. 

The group is also taking the stance that more policing of homeless camps is necessary, something that was echoed by councilors during the meeting Wednesday evening. 

During one exchange, Council President Lewis wondered if the city can arrest people at camps based on the number of beds available at local city-run shelters, a link to the 2018 federal court case Martin vs. Boise where a judge ruled people cannot be arrested if services are not available.

City attorneys and Albuquerque police reminded Lewis that people cannot be forced to go to shelters if they do not want to and that federal ruling, even though it does not apply to Albuquerque, could cause further lawsuits for the city if police are more aggressive toward clearing camps.

Bassan accepts the notion that arresting people for camping in public spaces can be problematic but questions why there are not more arrests for misdemeanor or felony crimes that reportedly happen at encampments. She said concerns of jail overcrowding at MDC should not be an excuse. 

“I think that that’s something that we do need to look into,” she said. “Maybe it’s overcrowded, because we need more behavioral health services, because we need more drug addiction treatment. We need to get those things online so that we can truly be able to filter out the difference between illegal activity and a need for access to services.”

The Metropolitan Detention Center has twice declared a state of emergency in June because of a shortage of guards that’s worsened over the last couple of years. In recent months, Bernalillo County officials also called on the National Guard and county employees to handle administrative tasks at the jail to free up guards. Sometimes the 1,300 or so people incarcerated there are on lockdown for days at a time so they’re easier to watch.

Albuquerque Police Deputy Chief Josh Brown made it clear to councilors that the department cannot, “simply arrest people for camping at city parks.” 

“There are multiple factors that determine when and if an arrest should be made. Potentially violating the rights of individuals, the city will likely be sued, facing extensive litigation and face significant damage.”

Brown said that when police determine an arrest is not possible, they call other city resources such as the Albuquerque Community Safety Responders. 

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.