ABQ mayor to close Coronado Park, uprooting encampment amid housing shortage

“We do not have the luxury of a perfect plan,” Mayor Tim Keller said.

By: - July 27, 2022 5:00 am

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller released more details Tuesday about a planned closure of Coronado Park, pictured above. About 100 unsheltered people live in the park, and they’ll be evicted amid a housing shortage afflicting the city and state. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez)

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller released more details Tuesday about his decision to close Coronado Park where about 100 unsheltered people reside.

Keller, in a news conference across the street from the park, said the decision to break up the longtime camp partly comes from increased violence there. It’s also finally time to do something about the encampment, he said, because it’s been a public health and safety nuisance for at least seven years.

“The time is up for waiting that much longer to do something with Coronado Park,” he told reporters as park residents milled behind him, many of them in tents.

The park is expected to close to the public sometime in August. Keller said city officials from various departments met earlier this spring, and the “unanimous consensus” among leaders was to shut it down, at least temporarily.

The eviction and closure happens despite a citywide housing shortage and continued high housing and rental costs. The Albuquerque City Council recently approved tens of millions of dollars to go toward housing and homelessness programs, though the money is not yet spent.

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And the Council in late June walked back a proposal to allow for city-sanctioned encampments, which would designate areas where unsheltered folks could set up a tent or sleep so long as they were nonviolent and abided by other rules.

Between 60 and 120 people stay at Coronado Park, city officials said. Many have been without other homes for more than a year. They are primarily individuals and couples, officials said.

Some have housing vouchers, said Carol Pierce, director of the city’s Family and Community Services Department. Those vouchers enable them to find an apartment where the city or federal government pays at least some of the rental cost. Until last month, landlords could refuse to rent to a tenant with a housing voucher or other subsidy.

A pandemic-era ban prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants for not paying rent also lifted in March.

Many Coronado Park residents don’t want to stay at any of the city shelters, Pierce said, commonly noting how packed the shelter is or saying they don’t want to stay at the Westside Emergency Housing Center because it used to be a jail. Others think they can’t bring their pets, she said, which is incorrect.

There were at least 105 beds available on Tuesday at the Westside shelter, Pierce said, and it has an isolation wing for those who test positive for COVID. About a dozen people were staying in the COVID unit as of Tuesday, she said.

City officials are still working out how and when they’ll close the park. Keller promised ample advance warning for those in the park and said the news conference was a way to put the city “on notice” about the impending closure.

He also stressed that it will be temporary, though the city hasn’t yet decided what the park will be when it reopens.

The potential for encampment sweeps when the city finally closes the park could be in defiance of recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That guidance says encampments should be left intact, if there are no individual housing options, to prevent residents from spreading infectious disease or breaking contact with service providers.

The CDC website has been reviewing its guidance on encampments, according to its website, “to determine how to align current precautions with the CDC’s new COVID Community Levels recommendations.” The guidance recommending against breaking up camps remained in place after an update in February of this year, according to the website.

Asked about how evicting the camp fits with the CDC guidance, Pierce again said a city-authorized encampment would be a good alternative. And she said that the Westside shelter’s isolation wing is aimed to prevent viral spread.

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“On encampments, (the CDC guidance) was just really trying to say don’t move encampments, because we want to be able to track people where they are” for contact tracing, she said. “COVID is still alive and well, as we know. And so we’re still maintaining a safe congregate setting… at our Westside shelter.”

After the park is closed, Keller said the city is faced with multiple options and difficult choices.

They could simply reopen the park, though Keller said that could just open the door for another camp to form. The city could also authorize an encampment at the park, though the controversial legislation creating the process for that is still pending in the Council and is expected to be repealed next week.

Also, the city could turn the park over to Albuquerque Fire and Rescue, which recently acquired a building adjacent to Coronado Park that is due for upgrades.

“We do not have the luxury of a perfect plan. So the first step is to figure out what we’re going to do in August,” Keller said. “Then once we actually close the park, we’ll have the time to think through longer-term options.”

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller speaks to reporters on Tuesday. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez)

Lt. Nick Wheeler, the acting commander of the Albuquerque Police Department’s Valley Area Command, said the park is increasingly violent and that many residents there are “preyed upon” by drug dealers and traffickers.

In the last few years, there have been several homicides in the park, Wheeler said, plus shootings, stabbings and other assaults. Police also recently seized a few pounds of methamphetamine and several thousand fentanyl pills, he said.

“It is a huge problem,” Wheeler said. “And we just want to make it safe for everyone that wants to be in the park for a legit reason.”

Source New Mexico requested records relating to drug busts and police calls to the park in the past few years.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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