ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – As 2022 wraps up, News 13 sat down with Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller for an in-depth look at the issues facing our city. He talked about the homeless problem and why he thinks the city will start seeing a difference next year.

“You know, it’s a major issue and all around the country and certainly, right here in Albuquerque,” Mayor Keller said. During his five years in office, the mayor of Albuquerque spent a lot of time and resources trying to solve the city’s homeless problem.

When asked what his assessment of where the homeless problem stands currently and whether it’s fixable, he says, “I’m not sure because it depends on national trends, but I do know there are major things that we have in the works that are going to make a difference that I think people are going to see when they drive through Albuquerque or they’re out and about. You’re going to notice a difference.”

Mayor Keller points out three things. First, the 24/7 Gateway Center, which is slated to open on Gibson this spring. “So there’s a women’s shelter – women and children’s shelter in there,” said Keller. “But there’s also a crisis triage center with about 40 beds and also a behavioral and mental health treatment area. That’s another 40 beds. So by March, we should have about 500 people getting help every day in the old Lovelace Hospital. And by this time, that time next year, the following year, we should have 1,000 people in Albuquerque getting out there. And that’s what we need because the problem is so big, but if you take 1,000 people off the street like we’re going to notice in a good way.” News 13 asked the Mayor what happens when the homeless don’t want to go to the new shelter.

Back in August, when the city closed Coronado Park, the mayor said everyone there was offered a bed and services. Most of them refused the help, a problem the city’s outreach workers encounter every day on the streets.

News 13 asked the mayor if he would support a similar proposal to New York City’s. The mayor there has ordered police and emergency medical workers to hospitalize people deemed too mentally ill to care for themselves, even if they’re not a threat to others.

“But we have to have somewhere to take folks, and this is the problem in New Mexico,” Mayor Keller said. “Right now, on a Saturday afternoon, whether there’s somebody who’s addicted or they’re mentally ill, there is literally nowhere they can go, or we can take them, other than the emergency room or jail – and neither of those are good answers. And that’s why the Gateway Center is so important. So this 24/7 first responder drop-off is a gateway into treatment and staying off the street. And until our city has this, we will not be able to make progress or even try new ideas. Because right now, what they’re trying in New York would never work with our consent decree, [and] would also never work with where we’re at with behavioral health. It’s just not even feasible here,” Keller said.

When asked what the city will do when someone says they don’t want help? “Well, eventually, we’re not going to let him sleep on the streets. We’re not going to let him do that,” Mayor Keller said.

That’s because the mayor says another goal is increasing housing. “So we’re short 30,000 houses and this has now been well-studied. And so right now, going through council in this winter are some zoning changes that are going to determine the future of Albuquerque,” said Keller. “Whether we’re going to be sort of flat and spread out, sort of like a Dallas or a Phoenix, or whether we’re going to sort of grow with more infill with casitas and things like that. That will all be determined this winter and it’ll define our city landscape for a decade.”

And, with more housing, “[an] increased number of housing vouchers, or increased availability of housing, and then we can actually say, ‘yeah, you can’t just live on the street.’ I mean, that’s the end goal but it’s also because you can actually go to a shelter or housing,” said Mayor Keller.

The mayor’s third plan to help with homelessness, he says is already working. The city’s new Community Safety Department, a team responding to 911 calls for mental health, substance use, and homelessness.

“That is an alternative response that is taking 21,000 calls away from APD and a lot of them are down and outs or addiction issues or mental health,” said Keller.

News 13 also asked the mayor about the controversial plan for sanctioned homeless camps across the city. “but I’ve never said it’s really going to move the needle on homelessness in the city,” said Keller. “It was actually council’s idea that I agreed to and then they changed their mind. So I think this is really, it’s much ado about a small thing. And I just think it’s a tiny tool and I need every tool, so I’ll take a tiny one too.”

Jessica: It’s tiny except if it’s happening in your neighborhood where they’re proposing one on the west side. One on I-25 and Menaul. It’s not tiny to them who are worried about these encampments being, you know, even if they’re safe outdoor spaces, worried about just their property values, worried about their kids playing outside. Worried about the elderly. You know, we’ve had an elderly family complaining because they’re right next door to the one that’s proposed at that church on the west side. What do you say to those people?

Keller: We might not do them. So we’ll listen to their input. Some places make sense for them and some don’t. Right now, there are zero. So I don’t think this is going anywhere fast anywhere in our city and we’re not spending a lot of time and effort on it. We’re just asking for the flexibility to experiment.

He says to tackle the city’s homeless problem, he’s had to make tough decisions. “No one wants any of this in their neighborhood. But the reality is, it’s here anyway. And I would rather have a safe, secure place where people can get treatment than just people sleeping in my yard,” says Keller. “And that’s the fundamental choice for the whole city. And so, you know, these treatment centers have to go somewhere. And I represent the whole city and so I will certainly look on an individual basis, what makes sense and what doesn’t. But in general, we have to build more housing and we have to have more shelter space and we got to put them somewhere in the city. So that’s just part of having to lead and make those tough decisions, putting the greater city ahead of perhaps one neighborhood.”