ALBUQUERQUE, NM – A Bernalillo County District Court judge issued a preliminary ruling today, giving the City of Albuquerque six weeks to change city practices that punish unhoused people for their presence with their belongings outdoors on public property.
The court’s order will go into effect on Nov. 1, 2023. It will prevent the City of Albuquerque from violating the constitutional rights of unhoused people by sending or threatening to send them to jail for being outdoors in public spaces when there is no indoor place for them to live, whether in actual housing or emergency shelter space.
The ruling will also prohibit the city from seizing and destroying unhoused people’s personal belongings without providing notice, an opportunity for a hearing and an opportunity to reclaim their property. The order contains exceptions that apply to school property, as well as to sidewalks, streets and alleyways if the obstruction poses an immediate threat to the safety of any person. The temporary ruling will remain in effect until a final ruling in Williams v City of Albuquerque.
The plaintiffs in the case, unhoused people living in Albuquerque, are represented by the law firm of Ives & Flores, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) and Davis Law New Mexico.
"The City of Albuquerque has a housing crisis. There just aren't enough affordable places for people to live, so thousands of people in this city are sleeping outdoors,” said Adam Flores, Partner at Ives & Flores. "We all know this is happening and it's getting worse. The city isn't spending a fraction of what it needs to address this problem and is instead wasting public funds chasing people from one place to another. This is cruel, unconstitutional and stupid. The city needs to immediately identify places where people can lawfully be and take the hard steps to address affordable housing, employment opportunities and treatment for people with disabilities."
Albuquerque’s housing crisis is largely of its own making, as zoning and development regulations have prevented the amount of housing from expanding to meet growing population numbers. Rising rents, housing prices and the decline of federally subsidized housing have led to a critical shortage of affordable housing units. Rents in Albuquerque increased between 10% and 19.9% in the first quarter of 2022 and such increases inevitably push some people out of their homes. Every $100 increase in a locality’s average monthly rent is associated with a 9% increase in homelessness.
There are not enough emergency shelter beds to meet the needs of the unhoused population in Albuquerque, and the city's largest existing homeless shelter, the Westside Emergency Housing Center, is unsafe and unsanitary. Several plaintiffs stated that the Westside shelter is in such poor condition and has so much theft that living on the street is safer than staying there. A previous director of the shelter has even likened the facility to a “concentration camp.”
Lance Wilson, a plaintiff in the case, noted that the Westside shelter was usually at capacity, ridden with bedbugs, mice and cockroaches, and that “every pod was dirty and smelled like urine and feces.”
Many of the plaintiffs said both shelter and city employees unlawfully searched and confiscated personal property merely to throw it away. Several have had valuable items thrown out, such as medications, bikes, wheelchairs, government documents and basic survival tools like tents, tarps and blankets.
This video, captured on an Albuquerque Police Department officer’s lapel camera, shows a city worker throwing an unhoused person’s tent into a trash truck as a police officer looks on.
“Living under constant threat that property will be thrown away and having to move constantly is exhausting and overwhelming. It exacerbates my mental health impairments and has never helped me access resources that would help me transition into housing,” stated Ladella Williams, whose bike, tent and new clothes were thrown away by city employees during one of the many raids.
“Access to shelter is a basic human right. We hope the city uses this order as an opportunity to focus resources on short and long-term solutions to the lack of shelter and affordable housing in Albuquerque.” said Wolf Bomgardner, Economic Equity Attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
“What purpose does it serve to put people in jail for being homeless? This is not a solution. Even misdemeanor convictions can make someone ineligible for subsidized housing, thus exacerbating the situation,” said Maria Martinez Sanchez, Legal Director at ACLU-NM. “We know the solution – affordable housing. The city just needs to find the will and courage to make it happen.”
Below are more stories from the plaintiffs’ testimonies:
Plaintiff Sonja Garcia explained that living on the street and being subjected to raids exacerbates her family’s physical and mental disabilities. She and her son have heart valve disease, which impairs blood flow and makes walking and moving around difficult. Her husband has frequent seizures, and the family relies on each other and their service dogs to keep her husband safe during these dangerous episodes. On several occasions, police and city workers forced the family to relocate, arrested and separated them, and threw out necessities such as medicine, blankets and suitcases with her and her family’s belongings.
“I believe that I am resilient and that people like me who are unhoused create community where we live and take care of each other. For example, I move the property of my neighbors and friends so that it is not taken by the police or City workers. In many ways we have adjusted to the hardships of living outdoors without reliable access to basic needs.” - Ladella Williams
“In late August 2022, I was on the street downtown guarding a friend’s belongings, which were in a shopping cart. A City sanitation worker arrived and wanted to throw away my friend’s belongings. I told him not to do that. The sanitation worker took his phone out and told me he was going to call the police...based on what I could overhear about that phone conversation, someone was telling him that a particular homeless person’s belongings were currently unguarded and so the worker had the opportunity to throw away their belongings. The sanitation worker appeared to be excited about that opportunity and left.” - Lance Wilson
The photo can be credited to Sonja Garcia.