Chris Dixon, a resident of the Coronado Park encampment, reflects on where he’ll go next in late July. A recent survey found that 38% of Coronado Park residents said they’ll sleep on the street now that the park is closed. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
News of the Coronado Park closure filtered through to residents quickly enough. The day after Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s announcement, many were already thinking through their options.
But no option seems great, several people said in interviews with Source New Mexico. The Westside Emergency Housing Center is crowded and feels like jail because it used to be one; some residents are already on wait lists for housing vouchers; and, for others, Coronado Park has provided a stable home base near services they need.
Rader Garner said he’s lived in the park for nine years.
“I don’t want to get some kind of COVID disease up there (at the shelter),” he said, “or stabbed up there. I’m safe right here in this park.”
People acknowledged there can be violence in the park, but it’s a common result of fending for yourself in the streets of Albuquerque. And being in the park puts them near services with some stability. Nearly all interviewed said they’d jump at the chance to have a home of their own, but they didn’t know how that might happen.
Keller this week announced the closure of Coronado Park, where a long-standing collection of tents expanded over the pandemic. The mayor cited crime, including several homicides in recent years, as reason to close the park. But he said the city is still working on a plan for the closure of the park and then for how it will be used in the future.
Options so far include reopening it as a city-sanctioned encampment or turning it over to the city’s fire department. Between 75 and 120 people usually stay at the park.
Garner said violence at the park is a reality of the desperate conditions he and his neighbors are in, and it often results from theft. Park residents take it upon themselves to retrieve what’s been stolen, he said.
“We’ve got to take care of our own, because cops don’t always show up around here,” he said. “When you come here and you try to steal other people’s things, we’re gonna beat you up. If you’re in somebody else’s house, he’s gonna come out and shoot you. So why can’t we do the same?”
But he also said the mayor’s explanation about crime seems misplaced, given how little it seems the mayor cares about the fate of people in the park. Crime feels like an excuse to close the park, he said.
“We’re stable here,” he said.
Some of the park residents do have housing vouchers, which enable them to find a place and have the government pay at least a portion of the rent, city officials have said. Even sowith a voucher, it can be hard to find a place. A new law that bans landlords from refusing to rent to people with those vouchers doesn’t go into effect for about two more months.
Others in the park say they’re trying to get assistance, but they’re at the bottom of waitlists for those vouchers because they are single and without kids.
Albuquerque is facing a housing shortage, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. An Urban Institute analysis in May 2020 found that the city needed 15,500 rental units affordable for those with very low incomes, plus 2,200 units of supportive housing and 800 units to quickly house people experiencing homelessness.
So the timing of the closure seemed odd to Brie Sillery, a longtime advocate who recently left her job with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
“It’s just a really bad idea,” she said.
She and other city partners advocated for more services and, with that, millions in new funding for housing vouchers, city-operated hotels and shelter expansions. But that money, like $19 million for housing vouchers and $4 million for hotels, was just allocated and isn’t yet spent.
“It’s concerning for them to evict everyone from the parks with what seems like no plan,” she said. “I worry about the impact on the people that are in the park, as well as where individuals might go when they’re destabilized and the impact that that has on everyone.”
In addition to the Coronado Park closure, Keller said his administration is prioritizing clearing parks and sidewalks when people complain about people in tents. Encampments at parks where children gather for school programs will no longer be allowed, Keller said, and he has directed city employees to prioritize responding to calls about people on sidewalks, saying they pose a safety risk and inhibit rights of those with disabilities.
The closure is just the latest indignity for some in the park who have dealt with so much, said Chris Dixon, who is staying there at least until he starts school at the University of New Mexico this fall. He plans to study archeology.
Dixon said he doesn’t feel unsafe at the park, his home since March.
“As long as you don’t make no waves, you don’t get any backlash,” he said.
While here, he’s survived with pay from odd jobs as a handyman, but worked before the pandemic as an archeological technician for a company doing cultural surveying ahead of the Gallup-Navajo Nation Water Supply Project, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Dixon said the biggest hurdle for housing and stability for his neighbors is lack of mental health care. People need that care, he said, before they can begin to search for housing.
Dixon decided to leave his home near Gallup during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, which took his mother and brother, he said. He wanted to get free of the virus, which is most infectious indoors.
To him and some of his neighbors, he said, life in the park is a type of freedom.
“I’ve been locked up,” he said, referring to the shelter. “It doesn’t feel right. Being free is better.”
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