A simple legal document posted to an obscure corner of a city zoning hearing website last month marked the almost unceremonious end to a nearly half-decade fight between the mayor and Southeast Albuquerque neighborhoods over the future of the city’s keystone project to address homelessness in the city.
After several quixotic efforts to locate a citywide homeless service center downtown and on the UNM campus, in 2020 Mayor Tim Keller decided it should be at the former 570,000 square foot former Gibson Medical Center on the edge of the International District. In April 2021, he announced that the city had purchased the old hospital for $15 million. Plans to convert it to a homeless shelter and community service center were quickly set in motion. There was, however, one problem: it wasn’t zoned for a shelter.
Residents of the nearby Elder Homestead, Parkland Hills, and Siesta Hills Neighborhood Associations led efforts opposing the mayor’s plan to house hundreds of homeless residents in city council district 6. That district, they pointed out, already hosts more than 30 sites providing services to low-income and homeless residents. As scattered unmanaged encampments and low rent by-the-night motels around the city accumulated more police and service calls, residents feared that clustering those populations at the Gibson health hub would simply transfer citywide issues to their area.
The mayor’s office moved forward with the application anyway.
In a lesson gleaned from years of community organizing victories of the past, neighborhoods organized, held meetings with city officials and even recruited residents who were attorneys to assist with the legal filings and hearings. Many argued that the city needed to do more for homelessness, but not all in one place at one time. They were ultimately successful in negotiating greater input on the site development, neighborhood investments in lighting and infrastructure, security plans and an ongoing “neighborhood council” to address unintended consequences. The city, for their part, also paired back their plans from an unlimited number of overnight beds to a more modest proposal for just homeless women and those needing medical care.
By the spring of this year, the mayor’s more ambitious plan to house an undeclared number of homeless had been refined. A new city website on the center explains that, for Phase 1, “the Shelter and Engagement Center portion of Gateway will serve 50 single adult women-identifying individuals (on a yearly basis, up to 200 individual women). The First Responder Drop-Off will make up to 1,500 transports a year to needed services.”
In June, the city’s zoning hearing examiner approved the mayor’s request allowing an overnight shelter, but under city rules neighbors still had 30 days to file an appeal of that decision to the city council.
The deadline for appealing the new use quietly came and went last month without any new appeals. The neighbors, it seems, were satisfied (or at least tired of fighting). Without appeal, the zoning decision stands and shelters are now permitted on the site.
The city has not yet said when it would begin receiving limited homeless residents for overnight stays.