Talk of a $14 million Gateway Center on a vacant University-owned plot of land amassed a swath of student opinions at the Student Union Building atrium on Feb. 11.
The undergraduate student government hosted a midday panel that included Associated Students of the University of New Mexico President Adam Biederwolf, Graduate and Professional Student Association President Muhammad Afzaal, two UNM administrators and the City of Albuquerque's Housing and Homelessness Deputy Director Lisa Huval.
Huval said the Gateway Center may house around 300 people — based on how many people that the Westside Emergency Housing Center sees nightly — but said the number is not concrete.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told the Daily Lobo the UNM plot off I-25 and Lomas Boulevard is appealing because the center would be constructed from scratch, rather than require the renovation of an existing property.
"We just know that any location near the Big I is preferable, and anywhere in there is where we're looking at different pieces of land," Keller said. "This particular one just happens to be empty and has a nice road in and out."
Huval noted that the Albuquerque Opportunity Center — an emergency housing and respite care center on Candelaria Road — restricts access, requiring participants to enter via shuttle and said the Gateway Center may model that approach.
Chamiza Pacheco de Alas, chief of staff for Health Sciences Chancellor Paul Roth, said having restricted access to the shelter in terms of structural design has been discussed as it relates to communal safety.
"It's on the frontage road (and) it's illegal to walk on the frontage road, and it's actually enforced because there's not many people who walk there," Pacheco de Alas said. "So, the idea would really be that the way you get into the shelter and the way you get out is on a van or on a bus or potentially their own car."
Aside from the empty land opportunity for the city's project, Huval said the centrality of the possible location would be a way for people experiencing homelessness to access resources.
"We feel that a central location that provides relatively easy access to jobs, services (and) educational opportunities is really critical," Huval said.
Pacheco de Alas said there will be opportunities for the University community to get involved as well.
"Anyone who is a student at the Health Sciences Center — or any other college or school — has the opportunity to go out there. We would like to expand it to give students an opportunity to do either service learning or specific learning," Pacheco de Alas said.
Huval also attempted to clear up misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness during the forum.
According to a letter provided by the City of Albuquerque's Family and Community Services branch, women comprise one-third of homeless New Mexicans and about another third are struggling with a mental health issue, substance abuse issue or both.
"This assumption that many of us carry that homeless people are dangerous or that they're more likely to bring criminal activity with them ... is not true," Huval said. "(There's) data that shows people experiencing homelessness are far more likely to be the victim of crimes than they are to commit crimes. I think we all can understand how vulnerable it would be to sleep outside on the streets for even one night."
Not all students appeared to be comforted by the statistics.
During public comment, ASUNM Senator and sorority member Briana Flores stated that about 2,000 UNM students suffer from a form of homelessness and questioned how this would square with the 300 capacity figure floated earlier.
She added that the possible overflow is concerning because as a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, the proximity to the shelter is worrisome based on the number of homeless people they say they already come in contact with.
"We have to call UNMPD quite often because there (are) constantly people walking up and down those streets, and the Gateway Center (would be) so close," Flores told the Daily Lobo. "It sucks when a few days a week, people are posting on our Facebook page 'hey don't go outside yet, hey stay in your car if you’re pulling up to the house' … (and it's) something we shouldn't have to worry about."
Taysear Ali, Sigma Chi president and a former ASUNM senator, reiterated Flores' concern and asked how UNM would plan on keeping students safe. In response, Huval said the Gateway Center is predicted to help this issue, not add to it.
"Our hypothesis is that having a centrally located shelter that's open 24 hours, that's a low barrier, and that connect(ing) people to the supports and services they need will reduce the number of people living outside in public spaces," Huval said.
Still, Ali remained concerned over the safety specifics.
"We've had instances (at Sigma Chi) of homeless people walking through our yard, trying to break in, trying to sleep in the house, sleeping on our porch (and) now we're having to spend about $6,000 getting new cameras for safety," Ali said.
Ali added that he likes the idea of helping homeless people but worries about the practical risks and benefits of the shelter being built on UNM property.
"They’re in the library every day, in the SUB every day; we're already greatly affected by (homelessness)," Ali said. "We only have four actual police officers on campus at all times, and where they're (considering) building it will be a part of north campus, so that does fall under UNMPD jurisdiction."
As for if UNM would hire additional University police officers if the Gateway Center were built on their plot, President Garnett Stokes said that is something to be considered but the city would incur all security-related costs.
"It could be that we'd be seeking funding for additional police officers for the campus, but by and large, the thinking is that the city would have the responsibility for the security and they'd put resources into that," Stokes said.
Both Afzaal and undergraduate Katie James questioned a possible further drop in enrollment due to the shelter's location. Pacheco de Alas said the specifics of reporting crimes to UNMPD is a complex legal issue that UNM legal counsel is researching.
"So whether or not (crimes are) reported on the Clery Report, students who are thinking about coming to campus here are going to see it, or students who are already here, as something that is dangerous, either because things happen or because it's here," Pacheco de Alas said.
No matter the location, the Gateway Center will be paid for by a $14 million general obligation bond passed by voters in the 2019 local election. The center itself is expected to be open 24/7, 365 days a year and may have a separate wing for young people, according to Huval.
"Wherever this shelter is, (UNM HSC is) committed to continuing to provide at least a minimum level of healthcare services and hopefully a higher level of healthcare services to this community, and that's for our learners, too," Pacheco de Alas said. "If this University decided to offer this site and the site were chosen ... it probably would be a high rent situation."
In all, students hope the University will heed their concerns with care.
"I hope UNM does put the students first for once and not think about the money," Ali said. "I just hope that they hear us out, which I think they are."
Alyssa Martinez is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @amart4447