...such calamities have at all times attended, and will at all times attend, the human race, and that they constantly recur in forms more or less disastrous, varying only in the scenes, occasions, and persons on whom they light...
Augustine, The City of God
Last month, I took a different route driving home than I usually do, and saw Tent City for the first time. The encampment on First Street was filled with flimsily pitched tents, many of these half-staked in dirt and the other half secured to the sidewalk with rocks. A few people were standing around the bed of a pick-up truck, passing food and hot drinks to a line of people.
When I drove past there were two APD cars with lightbars on, but not flashing. This was enough to make me wary, but my experience with APD in Barelas has been more positive than in other parts of the city, so I drove on home, checking in my rear view mirror as I passed the spot where Combo was shot, hoping that life would not imitate art.
My first response to this scene was to nod in affirmation, thinking of how we take care of our own in Barelas. Milliseconds later, my second response was to rage at the machine. How is it that we as a purportedly humane and civilized community have not addressed this issue of feeding and housing homeless people? I'm not exempting myself from this -- I struggle with my own complicit role in allowing this to continue in my own neighborhood. Contrary to popular opinion, NIMBY isn't a sustainable solution.
That said, I'm not quite sure what the solution is, except that I don't think it involves the version of musical camping that we've seen this week in Barelas. In case you haven't been following, APD put the kibosh on the First and Iron campsite, then the Barelas Community Coalition offered a space for Camp Faith to relocate, but apparently without the permission of the owner. (Or at least that's what I've gathered so far.)
When I moved my family to Barelas from the Northeast Heights almost twenty years ago, one of the first things I had to address as a mother was the question of homelessness. My children saw people pushing shopping carts down 4th Street -- shopping carts not filled with bags of groceries or boxes of newly purchased items, but of cherished possessions. My children noticed people who defied social conventions in some way, like the middle-aged man with a full beard who wore a pink muu-muu, and often talked to himself, or the elderly woman who sometimes walked down the street without a shirt. My children asked questions, but my answers never quite satisfied them (or me).
I chose to raise my children in Barelas because I liked the sense of community it offered. I was not disappointed to see how my neighbors responded to those in need, and tried to model this same behavior for my children (not to mention my conscience.) When people came to the door selling things that wouldn't have sold for a dollar at a garage sale, I responded by buying stuff I didn't need. When neighbors who'd been out of work came by asking whether I had any odd jobs that needed doing, I could usually come up with a job, and some cash. Sometimes, when times were lean at my home, I would be frank, saying in advance that I could only offer a meal as payment.
When people came to our door and asked for cigarettes, I couldn't oblige, but when they asked if they could have a tomato or cucumber from the garden in front, the answer was yes. (Truth be told, part of the reason we planted some vegetables in front was to give back to the community. Even the zucchini.)
I list these things not to pat myself on the back, but to hold myself accountable. We did little things through the years, and these little things are but weft threads in the finely woven Bareleño tradition of tending to our community that continues to this day.
If you attended the Rail Yards Advisory Board meeting January, you may recall Miguel García's recounting of the way that the mujeres de Barelas kept pots of beans boiling on the stove to feed hobos who had detrained in downtown Albuquerque and then headed south looking for a meal and a place to sleep.
I can't tell whether the people camping out in Barelas now are different from the hoboes who once passed through -- I am at too many removes from social conditions and time to make any kind of considered judgment. I also cannot figure out what the long term solution is to making sure that homeless people have a basic safety net available, and what that safety net should look like and what conditions ought to be attached to it.
Some people point to mental health and disability status as the primary reasons for this current state of affairs; others to drugs and addiction -- this latter falls under disability as well, no? Some think it has to do with the patients' rights movement and the swing of the pendulum towards giving people autonomy and the right to make their own decisions. I suspect it is all of these and more...
The bottom line is this: these are people in our community. As a Bareleña, I'm far more concerned about the inhumanity in decisions like this to my fellow Bareleños and human beings than the possible impact on my property values. Tent City may be located in Barelas, but it is also located in Albuquerque. It's on us -- all of us -- to figure out a solution.