Among the slew of challenges people experiencing homelessness face with a sometimes difficult, oftentimes punishing existence rests an ugly injustice: being targeted with criminal trespassing arrests.
It’s a trend that some cities have taken steps to change. Last year, San Antonio District Attorney Joe Gonzales said he had started instructing his prosecutors to dismiss cases “if it appears that the only reason the person was arrested was because they were homeless.”
Albuquerque, on the other hand, hasn’t taken quite the same approach.
Over a nine-day period in June, the Albuquerque Police Department made at least seven criminal trespassing arrests. Police reports obtained by the Daily Lobo detail officers arresting people in parks and — in two separate cases — in an arroyo and near an abandoned building.
A report from June 16 states a woman was arrested for trespassing and erecting a structure at the massive Los Altos Park in northeast Albuquerque. The arresting officer said she found the woman sleeping inside a tent while on patrol near the park.
The officer said the woman had “tin foil stuck to her chest with burn marks on it,” leading the officer to believe she’d been using drugs, and that she had been “criminally trespassed from the park last week for urinating on a tree in front of officers.”
After being informed she was trespassing and that erecting a tent was illegal, the woman “stated she had nowhere else to go and that she intended to return to the park.” She was then arrested.
It’s unclear if she remains incarcerated, as the Metropolitan Detention Center release list only goes back two weeks.
On June 17, an officer patrolling a bike path found a woman “asleep in the bushes.” The officer — who noted in her report that there are “no loitering” signs along the path — recognized the woman from previous encounters because she had been cited and arrested multiple times for trespassing in the same area.
The officer told the woman she wasn’t allowed to return to the path, to which she responded, “This is my area,” and added that she would return. She, too, was arrested.
New Mexico has a long, sordid history with homelessness, an nationwide epidemic that saw at least 567,715 people living without reliable shelter last year. The country’s — and by extension, the state’s — issues have shown no signs of abating.
New Mexico had a 27% increase of people experiencing homelessness last year, according to a study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The New Mexico Coalition To End Homelessness’ most recent survey counted 1,524 unhoused people in Albuquerque, up by about 200 people since 2017.
Lisa Huval, deputy director of the city’s housing and homelessness division, told the Albuquerque Journal, “We know it’s an undercount, because it’s really hard to find people who are living outside, particularly if they don’t want to be found.”
On June 18, Selinda Guerrero — a community organizer who the Daily Lobo interviewed for an article about her husband Clifton White’s arrest — posted a video on Facebook showing four police officers as they interacted with several unhoused people at Los Altos Park.
As officers checked on a man lying on the ground, a woman who seemed to be the man’s companion tried to intervene, telling the officers that he was sleeping. One officer appeared to place his hands on her arms in order to keep her away from the man on the ground.
The woman turned to Guerrero and said, “Did you see him put his hands on me?” She then exclaimed, “Get away from me,” to the two male officers on either side of her before fleeing with another woman who had been sheltering in the park.
Guerrero said to one of the officers, “Y’all scared her. You guys come through and you intimidate.”
Park management eventually arrived and helped APD remove shopping carts, filled with what appeared to be people’s possessions, that were sitting close to the park in a nearly empty parking lot.
“They came yesterday and arrested my old man for criminal trespassing — in a park. They dismissed it this morning, but he’s going back to prison for parole,” one woman told Guerrero off-camera.
A police report confirms that a man was arrested on June 17 at Los Altos Park for criminal trespassing. The man first appeared in the New Mexico criminal justice system in 2010 for possession of a controlled substance. Over the past decade, he’s been arrested multiple times — predominantly for criminal trespassing and shoplifting.
Hana Gossett, program director for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, criticized criminal trespassing arrests.
“It is not best practice for law enforcement to remove people from public property,” Gossett said. “The city and county should establish a dedicated, safe place, or places, for people to camp when there is no alternative.”
Moving unhoused people who are camping can also spread the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They report that people sleeping outside should be allowed to stay where they are but with encouragement to distance themselves from others, while those at higher risk should be connected to individual housing options.
The CDC also reported law enforcement can play a role in making sure people sleeping outside have access to information about the virus and access to services — something APD wasn’t observed doing.
The report additionally advises that unhoused people have access to functional water taps in public bathrooms and hand hygiene material. The City of Albuquerque, meanwhile, recently shut off drinking fountains in at least one of its parks — Robinson Park — according to a former nurse who has been providing care to unhoused people in her neighborhood.
“(Unhoused) people were cleaning up in them, so the city shut the water off,” Gina Herzog, a former nurse at the University of New Mexico Hospital, said. “It’s too hot for them not to have a clean water source.”
Herzog has been distributing water bottles and masks to people who are experiencing homelessness, some of whom have told her they’re forced to bathe in the Rio Grande. When she worked at UNMH, she treated multiple patients with severe dehydration and said the experience has remained in the back of her mind ever since.
“The few times I worked in the emergency room during the summer, it made enough of an impression to stick with me,” Herzog said. “For a blue state, I’m beyond disgusted.”
Jessie Damazyn, a spokesperson for Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, said no drinking fountains in city parks have been shut off. Damazyn said some fountains may not be functioning because they’re broken, in which case the city works to fix them “as appropriate.”
The Daily Lobo did not receive a comment from Keller’s office on the arrests and if they might decrease when the public safety department — plans for which were announced last month — is established. The department would have unarmed, trained personnel respond to calls about people experiencing homelessness and mental illness instead of the police.
Instead of responding to that request for comment, Keller’s office redirected the Daily Lobo to APD spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos.
“I can’t predict whether arrests will decrease. It is safe to assume the new department will likely respond to many such calls,” Gallegos said. “Currently, as part of APD’s community policing efforts, officers often come across individuals who are trespassing at a location where a no trespassing sign is posted.”
Many of the reports obtained by the Daily Lobo show that officers were on foot patrol when they came across people taking shelter in parks or in other public spaces.
According to the advocacy group National Coalition for the Homeless, the criminalization of homelessness refers to “prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces,” and affordable housing is the only solution.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @bladvs