Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, center, stands with city and nonprofit leaders after the official closure of Coronado Park on Aug. 17, the day it was closed. About 100 people stayed at the unauthorized encampment. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)
City officials put up fences around Coronado Park near Downtown Albuquerque on Wednesday, the official closure of a place where as many as 125 unsheltered people once camped.
Mayor Tim Keller made the announcement about closing the park last month, surprising many. The move comes amid a housing shortage in the city and right after the Albuquerque City Council voted to ban approved encampments until at least August 2023.
The park has been an encampment for at least seven years, though the number of residents has increased over the course of the pandemic, officials said.
When the closure was announced at the end of July, about 100 people were staying at the park. In the weeks since, the city and nonprofit organizations have done daily outreach and surveying, and spoke to 110 people. They also added about 70 new people to the Coordinated Entry System, use to find housing for those who need it, according to the city.
City officials said those efforts resulted in 29 people leaving the park voluntarily. Of them 21 received motel vouchers, four were taken to the Albuquerque Opportunity Center men’s shelter, two were sent to a hospital to receive medical care, and two got help with transportation to their home city outside of Albuquerque, according to a news release.
“Every single person in this park was offered services and help several times, and many took us up on that offer,” Keller said at a news conference in the newly empty park on Wednesday afternoon.
About 40 people, however, were kicked out of the park Wednesday, and city officials aren’t sure yet where they’ll end up. The number of people in the park fluctuates between about 75 and 125, making a complete accounting of who left and who stayed difficult, said city spokesperson Ava Montoya.
Now that the park is closed, Keller said he sees three options for its future. It could reopen as a park again, become a training facility for the next-door fire department or become a new supportive housing development. It’s too soon to say what the park’s long-term future will be.
Joey “Skittles” Holmes, a resident of Coronado Park for the last year and a half, said he came to the park when his home was “stolen” from him, though he declined to elaborate. Now that the park is closed, he said, he doesn’t know where to look.
“I don’t do shelters,” he told Source New Mexico. “Maybe I’ll set my tent up in a side street or something like that.”
The city should find apartments for residents of the park, he said, and then employ them to help them pay rent, possibly by doing trash cleanup.
“That way we’ll have some ownership of our place,” he said.
Many of the park residents, like Holmes, said the city’s shelters are not an acceptable alternative. Some said the Westside shelter, which regularly has about 100 beds open, is dangerous and disconnected from services. It’s also a former jail, which makes them feel locked up, they’ve told Source New Mexico and city officials.
The mayor has cited high crime as a reason to close the park. There have been several homicides in the park, along with drug and human trafficking, police said.
One man, Joseph T. Garcia, was charged this week in a June shooting death at the park. Police said Garcia was the “self-proclaimed mayor” of Coronado Park and, though he lived nearby at Court John Motel on Fourth Street, was one of a small group of residents who sold drugs and behaved violently.
One park resident told police that the group sold Fentanyl to residents, and members had sectioned off parts of the park for themselves, according to a criminal complaint.
He’d said the park was “swimming in drugs,” and no one did anything about it, Det. L. Wise wrote in the complaint. “He explained that if someone steps out of line the ‘group’ will get them out of the park.”
The risk to residents and service providers was the final straw, Keller said. Some residents previously told Source New Mexico that they think the city is using crime as an excuse to evict them and the violence that erupts is a result of the desperate situation many residents are in.
The city’s also stepped up efforts to clear those without shelter from public spaces in recent weeks. Keller, in his closure announcement last month, said the city is also clearing people from parks where youth programming occurs — like in nearby Wells Park — and has directed city employees to prioritize responding to calls about people on sidewalks, saying they pose a safety risk and inhibit the rights of those with disabilities.
The City Council also last month made it a crime to ignore police orders to leave drainage ditches, citing the drowning risk to those who camp in arroyos and also to first responders who might be called in to save them from a flash flood.
Meanwhile, the Council reversed course on so-called “safe outdoor spaces” ordinance, which would allow organizations to establish permitted areas for those without shelter to camp or stay in their cars. After amending the city’s zoning code to legalize sanctioned encampments, the Council voted 6-3 on Monday to impose a yearlong moratorium on them.
There are currently five possible encampment sites in the city. One has been approved, though it is being appealed.
New Mexico’s biggest city is facing a housing shortage 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.
The park’s closure happens after the Council has invested tens of millions in vouchers and new housing options, but well before those programs are up and running. The Council also made it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to would-be tenants who pay rent with subsidies or vouchers, but that law does not go into effect for another month.
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