The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and others are suing the city of Albuquerque to stop officials in the state’s largest city from destroying homeless encampments and jailing and fining people who are living on the street.
The lawsuit filed Monday accuses the city of violating the civil rights of what advocates describe as Albuquerque’s most vulnerable population.
Lawyers for the ACLU, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and a group of homeless plaintiffs contend that Albuquerque has initiated a campaign in which city personnel is hounding and harassing the homeless.
The complaint blames the city's own policies for causing a housing shortage, along with escalating home prices that have put ownership out of reach and have resulted in more pressure on the rental market. They also point to the trend of institutional investors buying single-family homes and renting them at sky-high rates.
“The lack of affordable housing and adequately paid employment in Albuquerque has not only caused precariously housed individuals and families to lose their housing, but it has also presented a barrier for currently unhoused people to exit homelessness," the lawsuit states.
The lawyers also acknowledge that mental illness, disabilities or substance abuse can be contributing factors to some people’s homelessness, but that the city simply doesn't have enough beds or shelters to accommodate the growing population.
Democratic Mayor Tim Keller's office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The ACLU is fighting similar actions in Arizona, where a federal judge last week temporarily halted Phoenix from conducting sweeps of a huge homeless encampment downtown.
In Albuquerque, the mayor's office has struggled to address the complaints of residents about homeless encampments taking over public parks and about aggressive panhandling. The city plans to develop a multimillion-dollar center on Albuquerque's south side where the homeless can seek services but the number of beds will meet only a fraction of the need.
Those without a place to go also have complained that the city's emergency housing shelter in a remote area west of Albuquerque is dangerous, unsanitary and infested with black mold.
According to the lawsuit, the shelter — which is able to house as many as 450 people — lacks working fire hydrants, does not meet fire safety and building codes, and has no means of sanitizing sheets, blankets or bedding to rid them of bed bugs and parasites.
Many of those at the shelter also have mental illness and behavioral health disabilities, and the advocates say mental health therapy is not provided there.
The lawsuit also detailed a homeless community of about 120 people that set up camp in Coronado Park, a city park north of downtown along a busy interstate. City workers began clearing the park of tents and belongings earlier this summer, making for what the plaintiffs described as a chaotic scene.
“Because the city lacks adequate shelter space and because even the available shelter space is not a viable option for some people, the people evicted from Coronado Park had nowhere to go," the lawsuit states. “People have looked for other locations, but the city continues to sweep unhoused people from wherever they land, making it impossible for people to settle anywhere.”
The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness estimates the number of New Mexicans experiencing homelessness statewide is between 15,000 and 20,000. That includes those staying in shelters or outdoors and those who are temporarily living with others, living in unsafe housing conditions, sleeping in cars or staying in motels.
Maria Martinez Sanchez, legal director at ACLU-NM, said laws that criminalize people experiencing homelessness make it harder for them to find housing and jobs because even misdemeanor convictions can make someone ineligible for subsidized housing.
“Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to address its root causes. In fact, it exacerbates the problem," she said. "We know the solution — affordable housing. The city just needs to find the will and the courage to make it happen.”