September 26, 2022

A solution for homelessness in Las Cruces finds little traction elsewhere

Michael Benanav/Searchlight New Mexico

Rows of sheltered tents at Camp Hope in Las Cruces.

On a sweltering day at the end of July, Mike Amos crouched by his tent, fiddling with a few car batteries powered by solar panels that sat on the bottom rack of a shopping cart. Amos used them to charge his phone, e-cigarettes and an electric skillet while living at Albuquerque’s Coronado Park, where he has stayed for much of the last six years. He had a couple of other carts filled with his belongings, along with a bicycle and a brindle Tennessee hound named Skittles. “Compared to the rest of society, I’m a dirtbag,” he said. “But for here, I live pretty good.”

On any given night, some 70 to 120 people stayed in the park that had become the face of Albuquerque’s homeless crisis, with a reputation as a haven for drug use, violence and poor sanitation. When Mayor Tim Keller announced his intentions to dismantle the encampment before the end of August, Amos knew his life was about to change. “The city is stuck, there’s nothing they can do. I get why they want to close this place,” he said. “But if they just kick us out, people will freak out when we go to their neighborhoods.” 

This story is by Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Amos, who graduated from Albuquerque’s Sandia High School in 1979, didn’t know what he was going to do. “I fly by the seat of my pants,” he said. “I don’t have a Plan B.”

Neither, it seemed, did the city. 

“We do not have the luxury of a perfect plan,” Mayor Keller acknowledged at a July 26 press conference to discuss Coronado’s imminent closure. Flanking him was Albuquerque Police acting commander Nick Wheeler, who reeled off statistics: five homicides and 16 stabbings had occurred at or near the park over the past two years; police were called there 651 times last year and 312 times in 2022, to date. Closing the park was imperative for public safety, Keller said. “So the first step is to figure out what we’re going to do in August. Then once we actually close the park, we’ll have the time to think through longer-term options.” 

Despite a surge in outreach to connect park squatters with city services and temporary lodging before the fences went up on August 17, the majority has fanned out on the streets, according to Heading Home, a nonprofit that tries to find housing for people experiencing homelessness in New Mexico. 

The slow pace of progress

Along with the rest of the country, homelessness has swelled to crisis levels in New Mexico, with a particularly stark increase in the number of people living on the streets, in cars and elsewhere outdoors. 

Today, Albuquerque’s population might be as high as 5,000, estimates Tony Watkins of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness (NMCEH). While data about the problem is notoriously inexact, “it’s self-evident that there are a lot more people on the streets” than there were five years ago, Watkins said. According to the associate director of NMCEH, Mark Oldknow, some 700 people are experiencing homelessness in Santa Fe. 

Residents of both cities are increasingly pressuring the local government for solutions. Some who live in areas where the homeless tend to congregate — often near soup kitchens and emergency shelters — have been frustrated by the slow pace of progress and have come to feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, such as those around Harrison Road in Santa Fe and Wilson Park in Albuquerque.

But solutions are exquisitely hard to find. For one, people camping on the streets and in parks and arroyos have a variety of different needs. Some are mired in addictions or have mental or physical health issues. Others have simply fallen on hard times and have been priced out of an increasingly exorbitant rental market. While many would, ideally, like to be able to move into a house or an apartment, others feel more suited to tent life. 

“What works for some part of the group doesn’t work for everyone,” said Oldknow, in a phone interview. “The problem is complex, difficult and growing.”

In Santa Fe, as elsewhere, efforts to address the problem have led to only incremental progress, falling far short of meeting the city’s needs. 

“We are working on a by-name list that tells you how many people need housing and who they are,” Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said in an interview at his city hall office. “It’s about figuring out a methodology that gets each person in the queue the kind of housing that works for them.” 

The city entered a partnership with the nonprofit Community Solutions to purchase Santa Fe Suites and transform the hotel into housing for 120 people, a project completed in 2021. It’s doing the same with the Lamplighter Inn, which has about half the capacity and could open in 2023. Both ventures include a mix of subsidized apartments as well as below-market, non-subsidized units for low-income tenants. 

But housing for hundreds of other people has yet to be found. An overall solution remains beyond the horizon. 

“functional zero,” advocates say.

“Santa Fe is struggling to find an answer that works for the community,” said Oldknow. “It’s hard to get around NIMBYism — people don’t want a new facility in their backyard, whatever it is. I appreciate that reaction, and I understand it, but it has to be in someone’s backyard. There are no easy answers.”

Hope in Las Cruces

Some cities believe the answers lie in creating “sanctioned encampments” — managed sites in safe places where people live in individual tents. Denver, Austin, San Francisco and Portland are among the cities that have experimented with this model. But to find an example that’s been hailed as a success, there’s no need to look outside of New Mexico. 

Camp Hope in Las Cruces, run by the nonprofit Mesilla Valley Community of Hope (MVCH) and established on city-owned land, has been lauded nationwide. Founded in 2011, it has played an important role in bringing the Las Cruces homeless veteran population to  “functional zero,” advocates say.

It can serve up to 45 people, who live in orderly rows of tents, most of them protected from the elements by three-sided lean-tos. Shade structures provide residents with places to gather, including one with a television. There are bathrooms, showers and lockers, and though the facilities are basic, they are well organized. Drugs and alcohol are barred from the premises and residents aren’t allowed to cause a disturbance, but sobriety is not required. Residents are expected to pitch in to keep the place clean and safe. 

“I see this 100 percent as a good investment for the city,” said Natalie Green, the Housing and Neighborhood Services manager for Las Cruces, in a phone interview. “Studies show that when we house someone experiencing homelessness, it’s much more cost-effective.” 

Part of the reason for Camp Hope’s success is that it sits next door to a soup kitchen, a food bank, a health clinic and a day care center. The main office is bustling with people, including some who don’t live at the camp. They come in to do laundry, pick up mail, get help with filling out paperwork or browse through donated clothing. Walls are covered with bulletin boards papered with information about health and housing resources. The weather forecast for the week is written in blue ink on a whiteboard. 

Though the goal of Camp Hope is, ultimately, to move people into housing units, MVCH Executive Director Nicole Martinez recognizes that, for some, camp life is the best option. “We see this as a waiting room for housing,” she said. “But some people don’t want to go indoors. Or they may not want to go indoors today. One resident stayed at the camp for seven years — she’s now been housed for three.” 

Residents elect camp managers from their own ranks; others who show leadership qualities can be trained to work on a safety team. One of the current camp managers, J.J. Dalcour, thinks he was elected because “I don’t raise my voice or get mad easily and I listen to both sides if there’s an issue that has to get worked out.” 

Once a long-haul truck driver, Dalcour quit after he was sideswiped by a car while riding his bicycle. “I think I have a traumatic brain injury, so I stopped driving because I didn’t want to kill or hurt anyone,” he said. “You’re carrying 80,000 pounds going more than 70 miles an hour — I didn’t want to risk it. It was the hardest decision I ever made.” 

Dalcour had trouble finding another job. He tried living with his mother, but “that didn’t work out. If Camp Hope wasn’t here, I’d probably be on the streets somewhere. And it’s not pleasant out there. Here, it’s much safer. It feels like a big family.”

When done right, encampments offer a sense of dignity and “a greater sense of autonomy and security from targeted aggression, assault, theft or police harassment,” as the National League of Cities puts it.

Some advocates for the homeless, however, warn that city-sanctioned encampments can lead to the criminalization — and arrest — of people bivouacked elsewhere. The camps can also become a cut-rate “good enough” alternative to actual housing, critics say. 

The other sticking point: Not all cities have found a way to accept them. Residents of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, for example, have thus far pushed back against this model.

It takes a (safe) village

Santa Fe had begun to explore the possibility of establishing a so-called Safe Sleeping Village at a former college campus off busy St. Michael’s Drive, surrounded by a shopping plaza, restaurants and other businesses. At the start of the pandemic, a dormitory there was converted into an emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, but that only put a dent in the city’s needs: Scores of makeshift encampments appeared across Santa Fe over the next two years. The Safe Sleeping Village proposal was nevertheless nixed in August 2022, following protests from nearby businesses.

No other potential sites are being seriously discussed at present, but the idea hasn’t been abandoned. City officials are grappling with whether to eventually propose one Safe Sleeping Village for all of Santa Fe or to place one in each of the city’s four districts, so residents in one area don’t feel like they’re carrying the burden for all. 

Mayor Webber anticipated protests from the public either way. Given the resistance to setting up official encampments, “it is probably easier to take an existing property, like a motel with a kitchenette, and say ‘this is your new place to live,’” he said.

Albuquerque faced similar challenges after city council members passed legislation in June to create Safe Outdoor Spaces — their term for sanctioned encampments — across the city. Following intense blowback from constituents, the council reversed itself in August, pausing the approval of any new Safe Outdoor Spaces. 

That moratorium was in turn vetoed by Mayor Keller, who issued a statement saying, “We need every tool at our disposal to confront the unhoused crisis and we need to be willing to act courageously.” The council on Sept. 8 failed to override the mayor’s veto, but that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for Safe Outdoor Spaces.

The first site to win approval is intended to host sex trafficking victims who are living on the streets. But the encampment, slated for an empty lot where Menaul Boulevard meets I-25, has drawn the ire of the local Santa Barbara-Martineztown Neighborhood Association, which views it as a further threat to residents who already feel besieged by blight and crime.

“We are already living in fear,” said the group’s president, Loretta Naranjo Lopez, in a phone interview. “Our parks have been destroyed. Some of my neighbors have been assaulted by homeless people. And putting a camp here will only make things worse.” The association has filed an appeal with the city, hoping that it will revoke the camp’s permit, though 40 people have already signed up to live there. A hearing is set for September 28.

Kylea Good, the chairperson of Dawn Legacy Pointe, the organization that would operate the camp, believes it will serve a critical — and unmet — need. Housing vouchers are difficult to redeem and are most often accepted by slumlords who rent run-down apartments in areas where women are “scared to walk around,” she noted. “There needs to be a different solution.” 

Fear, clearly, plays a strong hand on multiple sides of the homelessness dilemma. But there are other impulses at work, as well. “I see a great deal of care, acts of generosity toward the homeless, every day,” said Oldknow, of the NMCEH. “And this is the essential ingredient that will lead us to an answer, eventually.”

‘The middle of the War Zone’

For now, Santa Fe and Albuquerque residents are left to wonder when the flurry of government plans will result in real change — and people experiencing homelessness don’t know what their options will be.

Just before being evicted from Coronado Park, Mike Amos was given a motel voucher by Heading Home, the nonprofit group, but he felt uneasy about it. “The voucher is only good for one week, and I don’t know if I’ll get extended for another week, so it’s kind of unsettling,” he said. “And the place I’m in is a wreck. It’s right in the middle of the War Zone, with pillheads, hookers and gangs. I felt much safer at the park. I knew my neighbors, I knew where to have breakfast, I knew everything that was going on in our little microcosm. Here, I don’t know what I need to survive, or what’s going to happen next.”

Tired of the uncertainty, Amos got on a list for permanent housing, and by early September, he was approved for a nine-year voucher, worth $900 a month. 

“Now I have to find someone who will accept it, and I have to do it fast,” he said, skeptically. “If it takes too much time, I think they’ll give the voucher to someone else.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.