Albuquerque approves its first safe outdoor space

(Liam DeBonis/Diary)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The city has given the green light to Albuquerque’s first safe outdoor space.

Dawn Legacy Pointe’s application for a camp on Menaul near Interstate 25 has won Department of Planning approval, according to the city’s website.

Kylea Good, who chairs the Dawn Legacy Pointe board, said Wednesday the approval represents years of behind-the-scenes work on a project she says is badly needed.

“It’s that moment that you think changes the lives of so many people,” she said.

A project consultant said the site could be ready for tenants in the next 30 to 45 days.

Meanwhile, three requests for other safe outdoor spaces are currently pending review, according to the city’s website, and the city council – which in June approved safe outdoor spaces – is set to vote on legislation to prohibit them.

Safe Outdoor Spaces are organized and managed camps where homeless people can spend the night in tents or vehicles. Due to the June City Council vote, they are currently permitted under Albuquerque’s zoning code, although there are restrictions. They have a maximum capacity of 50 people and are limited to two years, with the possibility of a single two-year extension. Operators must provide restrooms, showers, and hand-washing stations, and must also submit for city review a copy of their management plan or security agreement indicating that the site has assistance 24/7.

Dawn Legacy Pointe, a new organization that will help victims of sex trafficking and other vulnerable populations, was the first organization to apply to run a safe outdoor space once it became legal just weeks ago.

Brad Day, a local businessman who assists Dawn Legacy Pointe, said the public, private and nonprofit sectors have collaborated on the project. The non-profit organization Street Safe New Mexico financially oversees Dawn Legacy Pointe while the new organization takes shape. Day said several companies also helped the project in some way, including Scott’s Fencing, Cabela’s, Rick Bennett Architectural, Consensus Planning and John and Gavino Lopez Carpentry. The City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are also making financial contributions, he said.

A spokeswoman confirmed that the city intended to help operators of safe outdoor spaces, but had not finalized specific amounts.

“We are working with all of our applicants for safe outdoor spaces to ensure they have the resources to comply with the operating plans for each (approved) space,” said the spokesperson for the Department of Family Services and community, Katie Simon, in an email.

The city has money available for such projects. The current budget includes $950,000 for outdoor spaces/safe encampments, and voters approved $500,000 for encampments as part of last fall’s $140 million bond package.

“Could be a game changer”

Other organizations are also looking to create safe outdoor spaces.

Nonprofit Heading Home has asked to run two — specifically for people in cars, not tents — in parking lots outside the shelters it already operates at 715 Candelaria NE and 7440 Jim McDowell NW . The city has already denied the West Side location, but the Candelaria site, which would provide 12 parking spaces, is pending review.

Heading Home CEO Steve Decker said he’s not a fan of safe outdoor spaces, but it’s a stopgap he’s willing to try as he believes they would accommodate a segment of the population without shelter who would not want to sleep in shelters.

“Having a safe place in town where they could stay in their vehicle could be a game-changer for some of them,” he said.

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Pastor Dennis Hubbard of Bethlehem Baptist Church has requested safe outdoor spaces at both church locations: 5915 Bluewater NW and 512 Wheeler SE.

He said he was pursuing the sites in partnership with the city, as Family and Community Services officials introduced him to the idea and will provide resources to help create it.

He said the church could offer its parking lots for people to sleep in their vehicles.

“They are already sleeping in their car; I’m just going to provide them with a safe place to park,” he said, adding that the ultimate goal is to connect them with resources to access more stable housing.

The debate over safe outdoor spaces — a concept used in many other communities, including Las Cruces — has divided the Albuquerque City Council. Proponents managed to add safe outdoor spaces as a legal land use while amending the Integrated Development Ordinance earlier this year, but the IDO update passed a slim margin of 5 to 4 and one early proponent has since changed his mind.

Councilor Brook Bassan – who had voted ‘yes’ and previously expressed support for safe outdoor spaces – reversed course. Just weeks after helping pass them, Bassan introduced legislation to repeal them.

She wants to ban the city from accepting or approving applications for safe outdoor spaces for a year, unless she officially removes them from the zoning code sooner than that. The council is expected to vote on its moratorium bill on Monday.

But even if the council passes the moratorium, safe outdoor spaces could still be possible.

Any request for safe outdoor space that the city now approves could go ahead because land use locks in upon a completed request.

Additionally, Mayor Tim Keller could veto the moratorium. Although he is not committing to any action at this time, his spokeswoman said Wednesday “we need to use all the tools in our toolbox to address homelessness.”