Albuquerque is throwing out the belongings of homeless people, violating city policy

As a result, thousands of homeless people have lost personal property, according to interviews with community advocates, service providers and those who have had their possessions discarded.

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SOURCEProPublica
Image Credit: Autism Housing Network

On a recent morning, Christian Smith ran an errand, leaving a shopping cart carrying everything she owned near the Albuquerque, New Mexico, underpass where she’d been sleeping.

When she returned, the cart was nowhere to be found.

Most of the belongings, such as clothing, makeup and blankets, could be replaced in time. But she panicked when she realized that her dentures, acquired after months of dental appointments, were also gone. Without them, Smith believed, it would be more difficult to find a job, prolonging her time sleeping on the street.

“It’s hard to eat, it’s hard to talk — I sound like a little kid,” said the 42-year-old native New Mexican. “It’s embarrassing.”

The dentures and the rest of Smith’s belongings had been thrown away by city workers as part of an aggressive effort to rid Albuquerque of homeless encampments.

Christian Smith, in a handwritten response to a prompt from ProPublica, described the loss of her dentures, amid Albuquerque’s effort to get rid of homeless encampments. Also depicted is the lost denture case. Credit: Illustrations by Matt Rota for ProPublica. Handwritten card by Christian Smith.

As housing costs soar across the country, even once-affordable cities such as Albuquerque have experienced unprecedented rent increases and severe shortages of affordable housing. The number of homeless people has risen to record levels, and Albuquerque, with a population of about a half million, is no exception. Last year, a survey found the highest number of homeless people in recent years.

Tents, makeshift structures and shopping carts have sprung up in parks, arroyos, ditches and empty lots and on sidewalks. The city has deployed workers from multiple departments to remove them. In 2023, crews visited more than 4,500 locations where people were camping, more than double the number from the previous year, according to data obtained from the Solid Waste Management Department. The city is on pace to clear nearly 6,000 encampment locations this year, according to the data. Over three years, the effort has cost the department nearly $1 million in labor and equipment, according to records.

Albuquerque has escalated this work in spite of a court order prohibiting it from destroying the possessions of people who live outside without providing an option to store them. In doing so, the city also has violated its own policies, including that personal property should be preserved even when the owner isn’t present. The city operates a facility to store property removed from encampments, but ProPublica found it is rarely used.

As a result, thousands of homeless people have lost personal property, according to interviews with community advocates, service providers and those who have had their possessions discarded.

Some said their belongings had been taken by city crews multiple times. They described losing medication, birth certificates, identification cards, cellphones, chargers, carpentry tools, clothing, a car title, a dog kennel, treasured family photos and the ashes of loved ones. Nearly all of them said the city had thrown away their survival gear, such as blankets, sleeping bags and tents, even during cold weather and snowstorms.

“It’s the equivalent of having your house burned down multiple times a year — just over and over again, you’re losing everything and starting from scratch each time,” said Alexandra Paisano, the coordinated entry director at the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, which assists communities with solutions to homelessness. “I don’t think people always see it that way, which is unfortunate because if I went home to find just an empty lot and my house was completely burned down … that’s devastating.”

People who are living unsheltered told ProPublica that the city’s campaign has made them afraid to leave their belongings to run errands, harmed their mental health and made it harder to find housing and jobs and access services.

The Solid Waste Management Department and Mayor Tim Keller did not respond to questions from ProPublica about the city’s actions. In a written statement, a spokesperson said Albuquerque is “actively investing in programs and resources that get at the root causes of homelessness and provide sustainable solutions.”

“We will keep supporting and expanding these programs as part of our ongoing efforts to help people experiencing homelessness, while continuing the essential work of keeping our city clean and accessible for all of our families,” a spokesperson for the mayor said.

The Solid Waste Management Department said it provides notice before removing an encampment, works to help people move their personal items and recommends resources for them.

The department’s employees recently discarded Leandra Holt’s cold-weather sleeping bag, clothing, camping toilet, identification card application and cellphone. She said the loss makes it hard to focus on anything but guarding her belongings.

“I live in a constant state of fear of losing something,” she said.

“Hammer the unhoused”

The city has for years dismantled encampments, but it escalated those efforts as residents complained about the increase in people living outdoors near businesses and homes.

In August 2022, the city closed Coronado Park in northwest Albuquerque, where more than 100 people had been sleeping, saying it was a “hotbed for narcotic usage, trafficking and organized crime.” A text exchange between Keller and police Chief Harold Medina, which was first reported by City Desk ABQ, reflected the city’s aggressive approach. In the texts, the city leaders discuss their plan to “hammer the unhoused.”

In his State of the City address last May, Keller said “tent cities” will not be tolerated. Albuquerque “cannot allow large encampments to grow unchecked. They become hot spots for illegal activity, hazards to public health and safety for our community,” he said. “These are the steps we must take to keep everyone safe but also so that everyone can feel safe.”

Keller’s comments came as the number of people experiencing homelessness reached the highest point in recent years. A federally mandated count found that Albuquerque had 2,394 people experiencing homelessness in 2023. (The survey is considered to be an undercount.)

ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen people who in recent months lost property to the city’s efforts to clear encampments. They gave similar accounts: Blue sanitation trucks roam the streets searching for occupied encampments. They are joined by sanitation workers, police officers and sometimes outreach workers. When they come upon an encampment, they order the people to move their belongings or have them thrown away. Some of the people who were interviewed said they were given notice of an encampment removal, but none said they were offered a place to store their property or other resources.

City policy instructs workers to give notice before removing personal items; to try to find people whose possessions have been left unattended; and to offer to connect them to services. If they cannot find the individual, the city is supposed to store property for 90 days.

Records from November 2023 through mid-May show Albuquerque stored the property of only 80 people. Just 11 retrieved their possessions, according to data obtained through a public records request.

On a recent afternoon, Gabriel Rodriguez left a black duffel bag outside an Albuquerque shelter while he grabbed lunch. It contained a sleeping bag and clothing, as well as handwritten letters from his grandmother, who has since died.

Gabriel Rodriguez described the loss of letters from his grandmother. Credit: Illustrations by Matt Rota for ProPublica. Handwritten card by Gabriel Rodriguez.

When Rodriguez returned, it was gone and city workers said it had already been hauled away. Rodriguez said he had carried the letters from his grandmother as a reminder that even when he was going through a rough period, she had continued to check up on him.

“Everyone else in my life had forgotten about me,” he said.

“A right against unreasonable seizures”

Soon after the city closed Coronado Park in August 2022, the American Civil Liberties Union, joined by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and two private law firms, filed a lawsuit on behalf of several homeless people, alleging the encampment clearings and confiscation of personal property amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and deprivation of property rights.

The lawsuit hasn’t been scheduled for trial, pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case that deals with some of the same legal questions. In City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, justices will decide how far cities can go in criminalizing camping on public property. Albuquerque and other cities have filed briefs arguing their ability to address homelessness is limited by case law that prohibits citing or arresting a person for sleeping outside unless they have access to shelter.

Lawsuits nationwide have argued that the destruction of property in encampments violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable seizures. In Los Angeles, a lawsuit decided in 2012 forced the city to stop destroying unattended property in the Skid Row area.

In the Albuquerque lawsuit, attorneys asked for an emergency injunction to stop the city from citing people for sleeping outdoors and destroying their belongings, referencing statements from people claiming the crews routinely discarded their possessions.

District Judge Joshua Allison granted the injunction request. He wrote in an order that went into effect Nov. 1 that the city “cannot punish the mere presence of homeless people and their belongings in outdoor public spaces when there are inadequate indoor spaces for them to be,” a legal precedent that is being challenged in the pending Supreme Court case. Allison also noted the unequal treatment of homeless people, comparing the city’s hasty seizure of their belongings to its careful handling of vehicles that have been abandoned on public property.

“Homeless people, just like people with homes, have a right against unreasonable seizures of their unabandoned property, even if that property is left in outdoor public spaces,” Allison wrote.

The city appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the injunction “strips the City of the prerogative to enforce its laws and perform the basic functions for which city government exists.” The city also stated that its encampment team tries to find the owners of unattended property, but if city workers are unsuccessful they can deem it abandoned and destroy the items. The case and the appeal are still pending.

City Attorney Lauren Keefe said that Albuquerque is not violating the injunction, which has been modified several times. “We make extraordinary efforts to provide notice, we make extraordinary efforts to offer shelter,” Keefe said. “But when we provide a notice, and we come back and there’s no person there, we don’t have the ability to store everything that’s in an encampment.”

In a March 1 order modifying the injunction, Allison wrote that the city’s encampment policy is “not very straightforward” and “leaves much to the discretion of the City representatives who are enforcing it.”

Since the injunction took effect, the city has accelerated its pace of clearing encampments.

Christine Barber, the executive director of AsUR, an organization that serves women living on the street, said that during a recent outreach, when the city was dusted with snow and overnight temperatures dipped into the low 30s, people didn’t have tents. They bundled in blankets or slept huddled together to try to stay warm. Several people showed signs of frostbite.

“How does that not cause desperation? How does that not cause immense suffering?” Barber asked.

In video captured by a ProPublica reporter in February, crews made no attempt to find the owners of belongings as they cleared an encampment in the International District, a neighborhood along Route 66 with one of the highest homeless populations in Albuquerque.

At a recent Albuquerque City Council meeting, Nichole Rogers, the council member who represents the International District, said she had witnessed an encampment “operation” in the area. She said she had stopped and asked the people if they had been given notice of the clearing or offered shelter or storage for their possessions. She said they told her no.

“I understand we have to move folks for safety and they can’t be on the sidewalks, I get that … but we aren’t doing what we say we’re going to do,” Rogers said. “I’m at a loss of how we just continue to disregard civil rights,” she said, adding that the city can “do better.”

Prolonging the time people spend on the streets

People experiencing homelessness and their advocates told ProPublica that by routinely discarding belongings, Albuquerque is prolonging the time people spend living outdoors and making its encampment problem worse.

The encampment removals further destabilize people’s lives, making it harder to keep appointments for services, which include housing and medical care. If people have had their belongings thrown away repeatedly, the disruptions can cause a sense of hopelessness.

Losing possessions and relocating can take “days, weeks and sometimes months” to recover from, said Jamie Chang, an associate professor with the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the impacts of encampment removals on unhoused people. “And sometimes you don’t recover. Sometimes folks lose their ID and they decide never to get ID again.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Margarita Griego walked from where she’d set up her tent on a sidewalk in southeast Albuquerque to get food for her dog, Safari. When she returned, her belongings were gone, including the tent, a new cellphone and a cold-weather sleeping bag that a good Samaritan had recently gifted her. Inside her tent was a backpack containing important documents, including her Social Security card and identification.

Margarita Griego tallied the belongings she lost during an encampment clearing. Credit: Illustrations by Matt Rota for ProPublica. Handwritten card by Margarita Griego.

“All the paperwork I need for every day,” Griego said. “I can’t go get an ID without my Social Security card; I can’t get a Social Security card without an ID.”

It was a “setback,” she said, and the third time the city had thrown away her belongings. Money that could have been saved for an apartment deposit would now go to a new tent and blankets and replacement IDs.

“Now while I’m still in the streets I have to go and get everything again,” she said.

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