• Why do some prefer camping over homeless shelters? All we had to do was ask.
  • Recapping the first mayoral debate
  • Steam locomotive set for tour of Wells Park in October
Why do some prefer camping over homeless shelters? All we had to do was ask.
George Garcia, who had set up a camp near First and Iron earlier this summer, once stayed at the city's Westside shelter years ago when he had pneumonia but says he generally avoids it because it smells bad and he doesn't do well in highly controlled environments.
About one mile west of the Double Eagle Airport's hangers is a former jail that the city has repurposed as an emergency homeless shelter. It is certainly not conveniently located - the city spends about $1 million per year just shuttling people back and forth - but it does have one obvious advantage: It's huge and has room to spare.

"Four hundred beds are available each night for single men and women," city spokesman Bobby Sisneros told DAN in July. "Last week's nightly census average was 300."

Though that number tends to go up when the weather gets colder, "beds are available consistently - it is rare that the Westside Emergency Housing Center is at capacity," Sisneros said.

So why do people choose to camp, braving the elements and the distinct possibility that a police officer or property owner will tell them to move along, instead of taking advantage of an open shelter bed? We put the question to several homeless campers around greater Downtown, and it turns out there's a long list of pretty good reasons.

For some, the complex itself can bring back horrible memories. "I've done a lot of time in that jail," said Daniel, who had set up camp near Second and Stover (many people interviewed gave only a first name, a nickname, or no name at all).

He's gone there in exceptionally cold weather, but fundamentally, "It's still a jail to me," Daniel said.

The logistics are also pretty daunting, particularly if you have more possessions than you can easily carry.

"Once you leave your stuff, it's gone," said a man we'll call Joe, who was camping just off of the bike trail near I-40 and Rio Grande. Instead, he tends to camp with others who he trusts so they can watch out for each other's stuff.

Just getting to the shelter it tough, too. There is a shuttle, but between the walk to one of the stops, loading up, and the 20-minute drive, it can add up to one of the longest commutes in town.

"You never have time to take care of your business," Joe said.

For others, being packed into a dormitory atmosphere with a bunch of people - many of whom have serious health issues - is a dealbreaker. Daniel spoke of trying to sleep while someone paced back and forth nearby, muttering to himself. Another man who goes by the nickname Old School worried about catching a cold - or worse: "They're sick," he said, adding, "they don't cover their mouths."

One man camping near 12th and I-40 complained that someone had stolen his phone while he was at the shelter, and he was not the only one to mention theft as an issue there.

"This can be a challenge," Sisneros admitted, "so guests are often encouraged to not leave valuables unattended."

(Some homeless service providers, including HopeWorks and Steelbridge, offer limited storage options.)

Joe, Daniel, and Old School would in theory be prime candidates for a forthcoming city and county initiative to create an officially sanctioned encampment complete with basic sanitation and other services (DAN, 3/15/21). But if our straw poll was any indication, that could be a tough sell for some.

"It won't work," said George Garcia, who has camped in at least two different spots near Stover and Iron this summer.

Daniel likewise said he wasn't interested, preferring to go it alone.

But the reception was better along I-40.

"Yea, I'd go," Old School said.
Recapping the first mayoral debate
The three candidates for Albuquerque mayor met last week for their inaugural debate, a production of the Near North Valley Neighborhood Association that was moderated by none other than DAN editor Peter Rice. The wide-ranging discussion touched on major citywide issues like crime, the sanctuary cities policy, the pandemic, and policing, and you can listen to a scratchy audio recording of the whole thing here.

But some of the back-and-forth covered issues of particular interest to the Downtown area, and those highlights, along with brief summaries of what each candidate said, are here:

Homeless encampments
  • Eddie Aragon: We need to help non-profit organizations, especially churches, work with the homeless population rather than creating government programs that compete with them.
  • Manny Gonzales: We need to be able to screen folks quickly and provide them with a range of comprehensive services.
  • Keller: An "all of the above" approach is best, including more direct outreach, enforcement, and a 24/7 services center where people can be dropped off to get help.
A possible public safety district along Fourth, roughly between Mountain and Menaul:
  • Aragon: Remarked that "public safety districts have no meaning whatsoever."
  • Gonzales: Pivoted to a discussion of homelessness in general.
  • Keller: Didn't commit to one on Fourth but did say "I'd like to have them all over the city."
Soccer stadium location:
  • Aragon: Doesn't think it will pass and doesn't support it but if it does he will do a thorough evaluation, calling on his experience in commercial real estate in the process.
  • Gonzales: Would do an extensive search of where would get the most economic bang for the buck.
  • Keller: A recent study highlighted locations Downtown, but "I'm actually open to putting it anywhere," he said. Still, that will depend on finding willing property sellers and on neighborhood buy-in.
Steam locomotive set for tours of Wells Park in October
The historic steam locomotive that lives in a garage off of Eighth in Wells Park could make a few runs back and forth to First along the rail spur as soon as October, according to Robert DeGroft, who works with the New Mexico Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society.

Last month, the locomotive ran under its own power for the first time since 1953, when it was retired and installed in Coronado Park. But that trip was only about 100 feet in distance, serving as a kind of test for the crew of volunteer mechanics.

DeGroft told the Rail Yards Advisory Board earlier this month that the tour would be another step toward eventually taking the locomotive to the Downtown core.

"We could probably go down to the transportation center for the weekend," he speculated.

That piqued the interest of City Councilor Isaac Benton, who sits on the advisory board: "We could do a real community event around that," he said.
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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