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 V.18 No.49 | December 3 - 9, 2009 

Newscity

Sleeping in the Old Jail

Is Albuquerque’s winter haven for the homeless up to code?

The men’s sleeping area at the old Westside jail, used as a homeless shelter during the winter months.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The men’s sleeping area at the old Westside jail, used as a homeless shelter during the winter months.

The western slope of the Petroglyphs falls dark early, except for an aisle of towering floodlights in front of a lone building. Men in winter coats file out of an old school bus carrying bedrolls. Then they wait. Before the men may go inside, the women who have ridden in the back of the bus must first clear through to their separate wing. Here, in the old Westside jail, the Albuquerque Rescue Mission has been sheltering people from the cold for about five winters.

“We Could Not Afford to Have Another Site”

In early 2009, the city’s Family and Community Services Department (FCS) became aware that the former county jail may have been in violation of safety codes. Homeless people stayed overnight in the building until mid-March when the Rescue Mission’s winter program concluded.

FCS Director Valerie Vigil says there had been an informal inspection of the jail, but she doesn’t recall the details. The Alibi checked with the Fire Marshall’s Office and Code Enforcement, but both departments didn’t have any documentation related to the inspection.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

Vigil spoke in June of efforts to identify potential alternative sites for the winter shelter. In her department conference room on Thursday, Nov. 12, Vigil commented on the city’s decision to renovate the former jail so that it may be used as a winter shelter again: "We could not afford to have another site."

Upgrades to heating and plumbing comprise part of an estimated $250,000 the city has invested. Other contracts deal with fire safety, such as equipping alarms with a strobe component for the deaf or outfitting exit doors with panic hardware (bar latches that present minimal difficulty in a crisis situation). The problem arises when a building designed to contain large amounts of people must quickly channel all occupants out the exits, explains Sergeant Tony Mantelli of the Fire Prevention Bureau.

Just two days before reopening on Sunday, Nov. 15, the winter shelter had not met all requirements and was issued a 14-day temporary occupancy permit. But remaining upgrades are minor, Mantelli assures, and no permit would have been issued were the building unsafe.

In past years the city has left most of the operation to the Rescue Mission. Vigil cannot explain the failure in previous years to submit the former jail to safety inspections and renovations. Nor can the Fire Prevention Bureau or the city division of Code Enforcement suggest a reason. These departments usually handle cases brought before them and don’t necessarily seek them out. Mantelli says entities like FCS do not specialize in safety codes and might not know when they’re below par.

“Exponentially Escalating”

In March, after the Rescue Mission stopped using the jail, a proposal was made by another homeless shelter. Joy Junction wanted to begin using the space in the off-season. The homeless provider was seeing more people in unusually busy summer and fall months, and its main facilities could not accommodate them all. After some weeks FCS denied the proposal, citing the building code violations.

A non-denominational church/mission, Joy Junction gives priority to families and women with children, and remaining beds are given to single men. When the Alibi spoke with founder Jeremy Reynalds in June, he said Joy Junction was forced to turn away five or so men every night. In the first weeks of winter that number grew to as many as 25. "We have seen an exponentially escalating number of homeless," he says.

"No long-term decision has been made for the building.”

Valerie Vigil, outgoing director of the city’s Family and Community Services Department

With the opening of the Rescue Mission’s winter shelter, Joy Junction must still turn men away. But now there is somewhere to send them, Reynalds says.

In his proposal letter to FCS and the Mayor's Office in March, Reynalds emphasized that his organization sought no competition with Albuquerque Rescue Mission over use of the building. Reynalds based the appeal of his offer on the promise that Joy Junction would provide all services to the old Westside jail at its own expense.

In October, Reynalds wrote a second letter to Vigil that reproached her for the delay in responding to his first proposal. He also advanced a duplicate request for the following year. “My wish is that we have a seamless transition,” he tells the Alibi, referring to mid-March 2010 when the Rescue Mission will stop operating at the jail for the year.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Richard Berry announced the appointment of Robin Dozier Otten as the new director of Family and Community Services. While Reynalds has not had the chance to speak with Otten, he feels encouraged after meeting with Berry’s transition director.

"No long-term decision has been made for the building," outgoing Director Vigil said on Nov. 12.

“It’s a New Home”

“People have an image of a jail with bars,” says Doug Chandler, assistant director of the Rescue Mission.

Guests aren’t locked into the facility, as people were when the space was still a jail. "We don't have any right to force them to stay,” Chandler says. He ventures that no one would want to leave because the site is so remote. "We hope they don't leave, because the idea is to protect them from the weather."

Yet, the building does retain many touches of a jail. In one of the sleeping pods, as they are called, pencils are wedged behind a wall panel and strung with line. One man who has stayed in a number of jails says it's a line for drying socks and underwear. Security cameras, although disconnected and folded toward the ceiling, give the impression of surveillance through the hallways. More uneasy, however, are the coils of razor wire that top the surrounding fences.

Regarded as cosmetic, much renovation is neglected in favor of more immediate needs. However, the sliding gate once used to secure the unloading of inmates has been taken down, points out the Rescue Mission’s Assistant Ministry Director Kip Vaughn. In addition, a fresh coat of whitewash lightens the women’s quarters, where Christmas decorations have also been hung.

"Although it's an old jail, it's a new home," says guest Kevin Lemajeur. It’s his second night sleeping in the shelter.

When it first opened this season, the shelter was cold and had no hot water, the men say. But on the fourth night of operation, the building is so warm that some men prefer to take the mats from the cots and move to the cool floor where they can sleep more comfortably.

For Vaughn, along with supervisor Darrell Clark, the most important thing about their job is to treat the men as guests. A small security force is a necessity, “but all rules are seasoned with grace,” they say. In fact, Vaughn welcomes security because it frees him up to interact with the men on a more personal basis. "There is nobody walking around with grapefruits under their arms," as he puts it, imitating a security guard with a puffed-up chest.

After dinner is served at the Rescue Mission’s Downtown location, bus vouchers are passed out from a muffin tin for the nine-mile ride past the Petroglyphs.

Each sleeping pod is furnished with a microwave and steel cafeteria tables where the men play chess, draw, write. Some who have brought food enjoy it in their bunks. Supervisor Clark announces plans to bring a television, and the men meet the prospect with cheers. In the women's commons room, a television has already been set up, and the encircling armchairs are occupied with a few women sharing coffee brought by one of the guests.

"Male on the floor," is called whenever staff from the adjoining wing pass through the hall door. The women’s sleeping quarters are forbidden to the men the shelter serves. Partitions separate the women’s rooms into cubbies of four beds each, which affords some degree of privacy.

The winter shelter has a total of 250 beds for men and 28 beds for women. Chandler, the Rescue Mission’s assistant director, says that number reflects the gender disparity in people seeking shelter.

Tonight the shelter is nowhere near capacity, but Vaughn expects to see numbers grow when the temperature drops. Chandler affirms, "We have had over 300 people out there."

With the growing number of homeless, Vigil says, the duty of FCS is to assess how each demographic might best be served. “Shelters are important, and we are funding those,” she says, along with other homeless services funded by the city. Her department and former Mayor Martin Chavez have advocated building a new shelter. The difficulty, she says, is finding a business community or neighborhood that will accept one.

 
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