Albuquerque’s Homeless Will Be Evicted From Tent City For Fourth Time In Five Weeks

The original site of Albuquerque homeless residents’ Tent City, before city and state officials started driving homeless campers from various sites in March. CREDIT: DINAH VARGAS/BURQUE MEDIA
The original site of Albuquerque homeless residents’ Tent City, before city and state officials started driving homeless campers from various sites in March. CREDIT: DINAH VARGAS/BURQUE MEDIA

For the fourth time in five weeks, homeless people in Albuquerque are facing eviction from a patch of unused ground where they had set up tents and sought to cobble together some kind of community.

State police and Department of Transportation (NMDOT) officials notified the campers on Tuesday that they would have until Friday afternoon to disperse. An NMDOT spokeswoman told ThinkProgress that the agency will not use police to enforce that Friday deadline, but will ask a judge to order the campers to disperse — something that could ultimately mean law enforcement would get involved if the homeless campers still refuse to comply.

The original “Tent City” had about 30 tents when Albuquerque city police and social workers cleared it out in February. Just five days after moving the last stragglers off the original site, city employees covered the original tent site with “sharp, bowling ball-sized rocks,” local foreclosure attorney Joe Coffey told ThinkProgress.

The latest camp has shrunk to “about 10 tents, 15 people and a few dogs.” On the surface, the new camp seems like a solution to the crime, safety, and waste concerns that had motivated previous sweeps. Instead of setting up shop near residential blocks as they had previously, the campers are on a dusty patch of state land a few hundred feet off of Interstate 25, just east of the frontage road that runs alongside the highway and just north of Lomas Blvd. An NMDOT spokesperson confirmed the location but declined to answer questions about the department’s rationale and the possibility that the agency could have left the camp alone.

Prior to NMDOT’s eviction decision, this same group of people has been subject to repeated relocations by the city. The city took great care with its first eviction, spending weeks doing outreach to Tent City residents to explain their meager options prior to posting actual eviction notices on February 9. The cautious approach might owe to Albuquerque’s far messier 2013 experience running homeless campers out of a wooded midtown area called the bosque, a controversial series of actions that likely displaced some of the same people who built Tent City.

One original Tent City resident named Angel Ruiz took the city’s offer of a motel voucher and help finding permanent digs. A week later, she was right back in her tent. “They dump us in a hotel and expect us to figure it out,” Ruiz told the Albuquerque Journal.

Many Tent City denizens declined the offer of one-week motel vouchers and the promise that social workers would do their best to find people permanent housing, and moved instead to a new, privately-owned lot a few blocks away. Five days later — the same day that city workers rendered the original site un-campable — the owner of the second site evicted everyone all over again. The repeat evictions have since become a flashpoint for local activists.

Coffey said he first got involved after the Albuquerque police’s unjustified shooting of a homeless man who was camping outside town last spring. The police killing of James Boyd in an uncoordinated and unnecessary SWAT raid on a mentally unstable man camping on the edge of the Sandia Mountains national forest helped galvanize activists around homelessness issues at a time when the Albuquerque police were revealed to have systemic abuse-of-force problems after a federal investigation.

Coffey, who has volunteered his time to help the homeless campers fight the city in court in recent months, is baffled by the city’s actions. “The city hadn’t been doing anything in the way of due process at the time [of the first eviction],” Coffey said. “The city relied on scaring them away. They sent some of their service people down there to offer them this, that, and the other, but the biggest thing they were doing was giving them a free week in a motel. After that week, they didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Jodie Jepson, who leads the Albuquerque homelessness services group Heading Home, endorses the broad national consensus among advocates that permanent housing is the key to ending homelessness. “We really want to put our money into the permanent housing model. That’s the goal. We’ve seen the solution and it’s working,” Jepson told the Journal. But rather than wait to martial the resources that approach requires before clearing out the tent camps, she helped the city’s push to erase the tent camps. Jepson, who did not respond to an interview request from ThinkProgress, said in January that “not very many people are in support of” allowing the tent camps to linger, even though the only alternative the city could provide this winter was short-stay motel coupons.

To Coffey, thinking like that indicates a fundamental flaw in the city’s approach to homeless people. “If those people don’t fit in their boxes, don’t go to the shelters that are run by religious organizations, if you can’t take out a P.O. box to get food stamps, if you’re too disorganized to do any of those things, it’s outta sight, outta mind,” the attorney said. “To my way of looking, it’s kind of stupid. They make all these false claims, that all the women are prostitutes and all the men are drug dealers, which is bullshit.”

Former Tent City denizens left a message for Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry (R) after city workers covered the site in pointy rocks. CREDIT: Dinah Vargas/Burque Media
Former Tent City denizens left a message for Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry (R) after city workers covered the site in pointy rocks. CREDIT: Dinah Vargas/Burque Media

After the backup tent city got shut down by the private lot’s owner, a third attempt to re-establish a tent community near the original site was shut down by police. When state officials eventually evict the campers from I-25, it will be the fourth time they’ve been relocated. With no one certain where these people are supposed to go now, a fifth round-up seems like it will only be a matter of time.

The story of Albuquerque’s homeless policy is more complicated than the ugly Tent City evictions, and offers an example of the systemic neglect and underfunding that leaves even well-meaning officials flailing. The city’s waiting lists for both units in public housing buildings and section 8 affordable housing vouchers are thousands and thousands of names long — common problems all across America these days, and ones that Albuquerque officials are trying to address. The city council recently passed a dedicated tax to fund homelessness services that would raise a projected $16 million a year, and approved a bond proposal that would raise another $4.5 million for affordable housing. Service workers from the city’s network of shelters say they have untapped capacity, though the tent campers are understandably reticent to trade their static, semi-communal camping lifestyle for one-night-at-a-time shelter beds that come with conditions such as early-morning departure or breaking bread in an overtly religious environment.

But while deciding to drive people out of the camps and rendering former campsites un-campable is a slightly less hostile approach to the unsheltered homeless community than many citieshave taken around the country, it is still an aggressive policy. Albuquerque had other choices, of course. Other cities have taken more compassionate and gradual steps when faced with significant numbers of homeless people out of shelters either due to overcrowding or to individual distrust of the shelter system. In Seattle, city officials recently moved to set up three officially-sanctioned tent camps in collaboration with local service providers who have agreed to help maintain the camps and conduct outreach to their residents.

The fruits of that approach are visible just three hours south of Albuquerque. A large tent city called Camp Hope that sprung up in 2011 in Las Cruces, NM, has since grown and stabilized with the city’s blessing. The camp, which got a formal redesign with the help of New Mexico State University engineering students after the city signed onto the idea as a launching platform for homeless people’s efforts to re-enter society, is home to dozens of individuals at any one time and hundreds of people over the course of a given year. The official sanction and resulting stability made a huge difference to the prospects of Camp Hope’s denizens, and to the quality of life in the camp itself.

“We saw a huge change in the idea of every man for himself,” Nicole Martinez, head of the charitable group that facilitates Camp Hope, told the Albuquerque Journal. “Instead, it’s been community.”