ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – With capacity for up to 60 adult men and women, the city has opened the first phase of the long-promised Gateway Center overnight homeless shelter. Albuquerque city officials discussed the completion of phase one of the project during a news conference Friday, while also accepting a multimillion dollar donation for the ongoing project.

The overnight beds opened earlier this week at the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson, near San Mateo in southeast Albuquerque. Thursday night, the shelter had 26 people. For now, the city is positioning the beds as “winter emergency beds,” while it continues to leave the Westside Emergency Housing Shelter (WEHC) operational and prepares more space at the Gateway Center for future use.

“These emergency winter beds are about keeping people alive,” said Cristina Parajón, a systems analyst who works on the operations of the Gateway Center. “Next week, outside, it’s going to be 21 degrees at night time, and we want to ensure that we’re doing our best with every facility that we have in the city to keep people alive.”

The opening effectively represents the city’s first overnight operations of the new Gateway Center. For now, the beds are only available via referrals. The city says walk-in traffic won’t be accepted at the Gateway Center.

“The waiting time [for referrals] is about 24 hours,” Parajón explained. “We try to make that as quick as possible, processing those referrals, we do make sure the bed is ready and the linens are there.”

Accessing the referral process, those seeking housing have to be entered into the local “Homeless Management Information System,” known as HMIS. Referral organizations like the city’s Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS), and partner non-profits like First Nations, HopeWorks, or Heading Home’s Street Connect program are able to write referrals. The city announced Friday the referral process is now open to “all” of its providers.

From there, those overseeing referral processes can choose to send people to the city’s new overnight shelter or other programs. So far, the city says it has seen about 60% men and 40% women at the Gateway Center. Guests have to be 18 and older, checking in as early at 4:30 p.m.

For now, Gateway Center guests are allowed to stay until 8 a.m. the following day after they’ve checked in. Bathrooms, portable showers, personal storage and food is available to overnight guests at the shelter.

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What’s next?

The winter emergency beds is effectively a pilot project, or test run of the Gateway Center until the facility is ready to open more broadly. Albuquerque city leaders said Friday, they expect far more beds to available at the Gateway Center by the start of the spring season.

“Our team was nimble and able to convert this space, and it will likely remain open until April, until then, [when] we’re able to shift upstairs to the Gateway program,” Parajón said. “There will be many members that may want to shift upstairs, as well.”

Summarizing the vision for the Gateway Center, Mayor Tim Keller said Friday the city aims to serve “1,000 people a day” at the center for housing and medical related needs. Roughly 300 people are already use the Gateway Center facility, most accessing co-located medical offices at the old hospital site.

By April, Keller says the city hopes the Gateway Center will help “at least 500 people a day” at the facility. “That’s in combination from our initial 50 beds that are probably going to open early summer, that includes our emergency shelter which is open now,” Keller said.

The city is also planning to open a sobering center at the Gateway Center in 2023, alongside a medical respite. “So in aggregate, with the treatments already done here, with Turquoise Lodge, and Haven, and others, these are all things that are happening at the Gateway, not to mention current headquarters for the Albuquerque Community Safety Department,” Keller added.

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Multimillion dollar donation

Albuquerque city leaders also celebrated a three-million dollar donation to the Gateway Center project from Western Sky Community Care. The company provides health insurance to Medicaid, Medicare and the BeWell New Mexico marketplace.

The money is expected to address “cultural care aspects” the city says it will rope into services at the Gateway Center. A deputy director with the city’s Family and Community Services Department, Gilbert Ramirez highlighted the urban Native American population as an in-need focus group within the community.

“We know from data our team has collected, about 40% of the unhoused population identifies as Native American, yet out 20% of them can be documented as actually utilizing shelter services in our city,” Ramirez said. “We’re doing something wrong if we’re not serving everyone.”

Albuquerque is also slated to request funding for the Gateway Center project during the 2023 legislative session beginning on Tuesday, January 17. The city says it will ask for $20 million from the state to continue building out the second phase of the site.