Letter from Tent City
The camps may move, but the problem of homelessness remains
When I arrived the lot was packed with people, many of them residents of the original Tent City at First and Iron, but also activists, supporters and journalists. Volunteers from SWOP served hot food from folding tables, local poet (and sometimes Tent City dweller) Vincent St. Vincent delivered both poetry and announcements from a portable PA system, and television newscasters gave on-location reports from the fringes of the gathering. The mood was hopeful and the atmosphere electric.
The announcement that the Barelas Neighborhood Association and Barelas Community Coalition had voted unanimously to allocate the lot at Second and Santa Fe to residents of Tent City seemed like a sudden miracle, a solution to a saga marked by superficial gestures, betrayals and, some residents say, outright lies over the past several weeks. Only three days before, the City of Albuquerque had posted eviction notices at Tent City’s original location: letter-sized printouts hastily taped to a chain link fence separating First Street from the mostly empty expanse of the rail yards. A few days before that, city sanitation workers had driven through and unceremoniously pulled up tents and items belonging to absent residents and thrown them into the back of a garbage truck. And in the last week of January, the Mayor’s office had announced that it would attempt to “encourage” residents to vacate the site (by offering motel vouchers and sending social workers to hopefully connect the homeless with resources, among other things) but that it would not attempt to do so through force.
“When I need safety, I come here. It’s a family. We watch out for each other. Nobody is perfect, and some people do bad things, but not all of us,” she said.
The day the eviction notices went up at First and Iron, I stood near a ramshackle tent at the original location and spoke to a woman who called herself Junior. She seemed like she was in her mid-to-late thirties, though with deep lines on her face. After hearing so much about the residents of the “city” from local news reports—in which they were often portrayed as criminals who ran brothels out of their tents or sold drugs—I wanted to see for myself who these people really are.
She told me that she didn’t always stay at Tent City; she spent most of her nights walking but she often stopped by the camp. “When I need safety, I come here. It’s a family. We watch out for each other. Nobody is perfect, and some people do bad things, but not all of us,” she said. She told me she worried what would happen to the people at the location if the city followed through on its threats.
Several other residents echoed the same concerns, again and again returning to the point that Tent City, though far from perfect, at least offered a modicum of stability and a community of people who watched out for each other. Another common refrain was that the homeless shelters in town are often perceived as more dangerous than staying on the streets. “People fight there, and they’ll rob you,” a man who wished to remain anonymous told me. “I stay out here where I can be safe.”
Three days later, at the new location, the concerns were the same, though the mood more hopeful; residents pitched tents and discussed their plans. Kim Gallegos, also known as Kimbo (and sometimes “Wondercat”) is an ebullient woman, though years of sun and street living have made her age indistinct. She told me that she has been diagnosed with PTSD and schizophrenia, but her outgoing nature has made her something of a natural leader among Tent City residents.
She spoke of her hopes for the future of “Camp Faith,” a name that was gaining currency among the homeless at the site. “I’m very happy to be home,” she said, flashing a gap-toothed smile. Gallegos grew up in the Barelas neighborhood, and she still considers it a part of her community. Now that Tent City had a more permanent home—located on private property so residents could not be arrested for trespassing—she told me the next step was setting up some rules. As a car drove over the shallow curb and through the lot, she said, “We can’t have people driving up over here like that all the time. It’s dangerous. And, you know, some people are coming here to deal drugs and stuff. We want to stop that.”
“I have no idea,” she said. “I mean, sometimes it’s just five guys telling someone else that he has to go. Things happen how they happen. But maybe we can block off most of the lot.”
A few hours after we spoke, Gallegos’ hopes for the new camp suddenly faced a new threat. Although the Barelas Neighborhood Association and Barelas Community Coalition have some say over how the property can be used, word quickly spread among local media and activists that the lot’s owner, a developer based out of Portland, had not been informed about the decision to allow campers before they moved in. Now that the camp was being set up, he expressed concern about potential liability and revealed his intention to remove Camp Faith. In addition one of the camp’s neighbors had been involved in a yelling altercation with its residents and had complained to the city.
After the announcement Kim Gallegos was sweeping the area in front of her tent with fellow residents. I asked if she had heard about the property owner’s objection. “No, we only know what you guys tell us,” she said.
“Well, what will you do if the owners tries to get you guys to move?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she sighed. “I just want to get my house ready before it rains or the wind starts blowing.”
For now, Gallegos’ concerns echo the ones that we, as a city and as a greater community, face. The problems of homelessness in Albuquerque are daunting, endless and complicated. A Tent City—with no running water, no bathroom facilities and uncertain oversight, not to mention the attendant crime that often accompanies a transient population—is merely another temporary solution in a long line of such solutions.
It’s important for us to remember that the residents of Camp Faith and tent cities all over Albuquerque want the same things we all want: safety, stability and a responsible community. But as the Mayor’s Office begins the next step of its campaign to deal with homelessness in Barelas—this time by “landscaping” the area near the original Tent City with fist-sized rocks that have the added bonus of discouraging future camping—the only solutions available to the homeless seem to be short-term ones.
There is, perhaps, a ray of hope. In the 2014 general election, voters in Bernalillo County approved an advisory measure for a one-eighth-cent tax increase that would provide funding for mental and behavioral health care. It is a small step but given that much of the city’s homeless population struggles with mental health issues, it would at least be a step in the right direction. The Bernalillo County Commission was scheduled to vote on enacting this measure on Tuesday, Feb. 18, but the vote has now been rescheduled for a special session next week. According to the Albuquerque Journal, several commissioners have already begun to waver in their support of the measure, and there is no guarantee it will pass.
Whether the Commission takes up the measure or not, we—like the residents of the tents, the property owners in the neighborhoods and the community as a whole—can only wait and hope something more permanent than shifting the embattled Tent City from one place to another can be achieved. Until then, tents will continue to go up, the police will continue to circle, the neighbors will continue to complain, and the Kim Gallegoses and Juniors of our city will continue to look for a home.