Tent City Solutions Must Address The Root of the Issue

By Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.

Founder and CEO

Joy Junction Inc.

Tent City (via KOB  TV).

Tent City (via KOB TV).

What’s up with Tent City and where should its residents go?

This homeless community started in Downtown Albuquerque, and upon its eviction due to concerns of illegal activity moved into a vacant lot in the center of the historic Barelas neighborhood.

Tent City residents now have to vacate that space, as the decision to move to their current spot was at the invitation of the Barelas Community Coalition-and that apparently without asking permission from the lot owners.

At a recent meeting of Barelas neighborhood residents, also attended by a number of homeless advocates, local media reported that a legal tent city, based upon a self governed one in Las Cruces, is being considered with City of Albuquerque officials.

That location, a homeless advocate told area media, would be one where drugs and alcohol won’t be allowed on site. While that sounds good, I have serious concerns about how it will be enforced. It also doesn’t deal with the plight of drug addicts, alcoholics, and the disruptive mentally ill.

If a new and legal Tent City is set up as proposed, what will its organizers do when someone turns up drunk and disorderly, or perhaps due to mental health issues, behaving in an inappropriate manner? They’ll have to deal with a situation faced routinely by Joy Junction and other already existing Albuquerque agencies. Get the person to calm down, or call law enforcement and emergency medical services.

It’s been our experience at Joy Junction that unless a crime has been committed, law enforcement just make sure the individual has left our property or take them Downtown (there’s not really anything else they can do).

Could we then end up with a second Tent City for those unable to comply with the rules of the first one?

It’s no secret that some of the residents of Tent City are active substance abusers, others have histories of violence which would preclude them from staying at Joy Junction or other agencies, and some have mental health issues such as post traumatic stress and are unable to stay in a typically crowded shelter environment.

As Dr. William Wiese Co-Chair of the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative  wrote in a recent Albuquerque Journal op-ed,   “Untreated mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction are major contributors to homelessness.”

So with that in mind, how about people who have untreated mental health issues, don’t wish to be in a mental health facility, and can’t stay at an area shelter or even a new and legal Tent City?

Current laws make it very difficult to involuntarily hold someone with mental health issues against their will.

While I have no wish to deprive people of their freedom, it seems in certain cases that by allowing some mentally ill people to enjoy that “freedom,” we might be unwittingly signing their death warrant.

While I applaud all attempts to compassionately help the homeless, hungry and marginalized, let’s not fool ourselves that this issue is going to be solved overnight. In addition to communities and local governments putting their heads together in an ongoing dialogue, it’s also going to take lobbying for some of the current mental health laws to be changed.

As someone wrote in the comments section of a local news station website, “You can’t just move them from location to location , you somehow have to try to get to the root of the problem with who you can.”

I hope that happens soon, and toward that end, Joy Junction is available to help in any way we can.