Albuquerque Moves to Evict Homeless People Living in Tent City

By DAVID CORREIA

It’s called Tent City. A homeless camp along a narrow strip of land between the curb and a chain-link fence on 1st Street SW just north of Iron Avenue in downtown Albuquuerque.  Tents first began to appear in early October of 2014, populated by people without options, who had lost jobs and were evicted from apartments, or who were turned away from Albuquerque shelters. They arrived throughout the fall and the camp quickly grew as more and more people pitched tents, hoping that safety in numbers would protect them.

I'm talking with Natani, who didn't want me to take his photo, so I take a picture of our shadows instead. Tent City in the background, up against the fence that marks the western boundary of the railyards.
I’m talking with Natani, who doesn’t want me to take his photo, so I take a picture of our shadows instead. Natani shows me his left eye, red and swollen. “A cop just came up from behind and sprayed mace right in my face,” he tells me. Tent City is in the background, up against the fence that marks the western boundary of the railyards. Photo by David Correia

Activists with a local group called ABQ Justice, which had emerged out of Albuquerque’s anti-police violence political organizing of the previous spring and summer, started to spend time in the camp, talking to residents, trying to help connect people to services. They monitored both the police reaction to “Tent City,” as the press began to call the camp, and the drug dealers who began to prey on residents. ABQ Justice members brought food, supplies, warm clothes and blankets; they offered company on Christmas Day; they filmed the constant police encounters with homeless residents. Homeless camps exist all over Albuquerque, but they’re usually hidden out of view. Tent City is different. It’s large; it’s public; and it’s directly in the path of the City’s gentrification plans for downtown. The homeless residents of Tent City picked a spot along what the City of Albuquerque hopes to turn into a boulevard for the well-heeled pedestrians the City hopes will soon stroll between downtown and the newly redeveloped Railyards to the south.

ABQ Justice held a meeting with residents this week. Here two women describe their experience with the voucher system. They were promised vouchers so they willingly gave up their tents. No vouchers arrived and now they were without tents. Many residents received short-term vouchers and then had to return to Tent City when they expired.
ABQ Justice held a meeting with residents this week. Here two women describe their experience with the voucher system. They were promised vouchers so they willingly gave up their tents. No vouchers arrived and now they were without tents. Many residents received short-term vouchers and then had to return to Tent City when they expired. Photo by David Correia

By January, efforts to evict residents of Tent City had intensified. Nearly every morning, members of the Albuquerque Police Department’s COAST (Community Outreach and Support Team) unit would visit the camp, with APD Crisis Intervention Officers in tow. Sometimes they’d come with staffers of various faith-based agencies and offer residents vouchers to local hotels in return for their tents. If they agreed, APD would confiscate and throw away their tents and blankets. Residents would have a few days in a warm hotel room. ABQ Justice activists have criticized these efforts. According to Ilse Biel, “The voucher system is a failure. It offered the hope of some relief for a maximum of seven days but did not address what is supposed to happen once that time period elapses. It did not take into consideration that the offered accommodation is miles away from any services and that the people forced into accepting these vouchers do not have the means to travel back to where these services are located. And the vouchers ran out despite a growing demand for them.” Last week KRQE reported that the City planned to evict residents from Tent City. City staffers have been increasingly criminalizing residents in statements to the press. But this has just been an excuse to build support for the coming evictions. In truth, APD ignores the open drug dealing that occurs in Tent City. I spent hours this week at Tent City, watching two men in a maroon Mercedes SUV slowly patrolling up and down 1st Street, occasionally stopping to sell drugs to a few residents or to other people who were driving into the area looking for drugs. The only time APD officers ever appear at Tent City is in the morning, when they arrive to remove people. Another tone-deaf editorial by the Albuquerque Journal appeared in today’s paper. In it the Journal (activists have taken to calling the paper The Albuquerque Urinal) condemned activists for their slogan “homelessness is not a crime,” insanely concluding that it means ABQ Justice wants to defend and somehow make permanent Tent City. It’s absurd of course. Activists have been demanding a a comprehensive solution to the problem and an end to the City’s self-serving criminalization of homeless people. The only thing that vouchers and evictions are a solution to is the problem that the presence of Tent City poses to the City’s gentrification plans. The Journal calls evictions and vouchers “pitching in.” Activists note that the only thing being pitched are the tents of homeless residents. Earlier this week Alan Armijo, Mayor Berry’s Director of Constituent Services, told ABQ Justice that the City would not pursue criminal charges against residents of Tent City; instead it would pursue civil eviction. Such an action, if approved by the court, would require three days notice.  Local attorney Joe Coffey filed a petition on Tuesday with the court asking for a restraining order to stop the City from evicting residents of Tent City. Today Judge Butkus denied the petition, writing that it did not “demonstrate an apparent legal enforceable right” for residents to stay. Just minutes after the Judge filed the order, COAST and APD flooded Tent City with officers. Activists rushed down to defend residents against anticipated evictions. Some activists held signs with the image of James Boyd, the homeless man APD killed last March. Like the residents of Tent City, he was “illegally camping.” At the time of publication, the City has not yet served Tent City residents with an eviction order. Activists were able to defuse the situation and stop the evictions. It was a momentary piece, however. By 2PM, city sanitation workers arrived at Tent City and began throwing tents and supplies in garbage trucks while activists recorded. See video of Albuquerque’s broken promise to residents of Tent City here: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=423250347824587&set=vr.423250347824587&type=2&theater

Among the officers APD sent to Tent City, was Leah Kelly. In 2011, she shot a homeless mentally ill man named Chandler Barr just a few blocks from Tent City. He was holding a butter knife. Photo by Dinah Vargas, courtesy of Burque Media
Among the officers APD sent to Tent City, was Leah Kelly. In 2011, she shot a homeless mentally ill man named Chandler Barr just a few blocks from Tent City. He was holding a butter knife. Kelly now works for APD’s Crisis Intervention Team. She’s shown here talking with COAST. Photo by Dinah Vargas, courtesy of Burque Media
Members of ABQ Justice negotiating with APD to stop evictions. Photo by Bill Bradley
Members of ABQ Justice negotiating with APD to stop evictions. Photo by Bill Bradley
IMG_1428
Photo by Bill Bradley
ABQ Justice activist Ilse Biel, center, gets APD to agree to stop throwing away people's tents and blankets. Photo by Bill Bradley
ABQ Justice activist Ilse Biel, center, gets APD to agree to stop throwing away people’s tents and blankets. Photo by Bill Bradley
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