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Albuquerque Sued for Allegedly Violating Constitutional Rights of the Unhoused

This week on New Mexico in Focus, we explore an issue for which solutions increasingly elude the city of Albuquerque: homelessness. The situation invites a broad range of legitimate perspectives, from those of people living outside to other residents and business owners to advocates.  

We’ve approached the issue from several different angles over the past few weeks and months. You may remember my interview in May when I asked Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller about his handling of homelessness — and more specifically the pending lawsuit against the city alleging certain policies and practices violate the constitutional rights of unhoused people. “That court case is almost resolved,” Keller told me, later saying he’d received an “update” to that effect after I asked him to explain.  

That was five months ago. 

Since then, a state District Court judge has issued an order saying the Keller administration’s policies and practices violate the constitutional rights of unhoused people and barred the city from removing people from public property or taking their belongings starting at midnight on Halloween. Keller pushed back, with the support of Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman, asking the state Supreme Court to throw out the lower court’s order and let the city continue its current practices. 

As of this writing, the justices have not said whether they’ll hear the case or let the District Court’s injunction stand. 

To understand the issue more deeply, I interviewed two of the attorneys leading the litigation against the city’s policies. Among other questions, I wanted a sense of how this case fits into the larger puzzle of solving Albuquerque’s homeless crisis and its broader impact on everyone who lives here, including those who are worried about their businesses and neighborhoods. So, I asked civil rights attorney Adam Flores what he would say to someone who might be concerned that this lawsuit could make the longstanding issue even worse. I was struck by his answer.  

“I’d really push back against a narrative that, or the notion that the lawsuit is part of the problem or in any way contributes to the problem, or that the court’s order contributes to this problem.” Flores told me. “This is a problem that the city created. This is a problem that the city can solve…If this lawsuit that is designed to protect people’s rights went away tomorrow…it wouldn’t eliminate the housing crisis and it wouldn’t reduce the number of people who are forced to sleep outside by one person.” 

Among the primary drivers of the crisis laid out in the lawsuit is the city’s lack of shelter spaces and rental and housing markets that are pricing more and more people out with each passing day. Simply stated, there are far more people in Albuquerque than there are places to live indoors. District Court Judge Joshua Allison agreed with that assessment and, if his order stands, the city must find solutions beyond the methods officials have used for years. 

While the city might view homelessness as a nuisance it’s forced to deal with, we all must resist the temptation to frame the Keller administration’s responsibility to govern all residents in our city in accordance with the constitution as an unjust burden. Finding solutions to this issue, like any other task of government, is an inherent obligation.  

One way or another, our court system will determine if the city’s current policies and practices violate the constitution. And if they do, we should expect our leaders to lean into their duty and find solutions for every one of the people they’re compelled to serve — including those without a mailing address.  

– Senior Producer Lou DiVizio