Managing the homeless population on and around The University of New Mexico campus is a balancing act. On the one hand, many in the campus community have genuine compassion for the individuals who, through no fault of their own, are on the streets due to economic difficulties, mental illness, or addiction. Most homeless people and transients don’t pose a threat to anyone in the Lobo community.
Yet the issue of homeless people is a concern to students, parents, and the community, one that is shared by every university and college in an urban area.
In 2019, influenced by parental concern, the University considered a proposal to put a fence around the main campus to prevent homeless people from coming onto the UNM campus and bolster overall security.
“I talk to the parents going through orientation, and in almost every session, the parents talk about homeless individuals coming on campus and ask, ‘What can you do to stop this.’ Well, we’re an open campus. That’s how we’ve always been,” said Rob Burford, UNM’s compliance director at the time, in a 2019 interview. "'I know this fence or whatever is out there.’ Parents have asked directly, ‘Why don’t you have something like that.”
After two fires were started, purportedly by “unhoused civilians” in abandoned fraternity houses near the UNM campus in 2022, students told news reporters the abandoned properties attracted homeless people and had them concerned and stressed about their safety.
Homeless people can be spotted all around campus, sitting on benches or at tables to get free wi-fi, concealing themselves behind bushes to sleep, camping on the grounds of a nearby church, panhandling or otherwise engaging with members of the Lobo community, and occasionally lying unconscious in front of buildings where classes are held and students enter and depart.
Do the homeless, or in administrative parlance “non-UNM contacts,” present a risk to the campus community?
The homeless population around UNM is reflective of the homeless population and situation around the city, said UNM Police Department Chief Joseph Silva, whose team engages with them every day.
Homeless people come to campus because they feel safe there, he said. Studies show that students tend to be tolerant and compassionate.
“Typically, the police department receives calls for service describing a ‘homeless’ person on campus and usually described as acting suspicious or bothering students, faculty, or staff,” Silva said. “The officers also encounter people who are non-affiliated to campus − not students, faculty, or staff − who are violating some policy on campus. Depending on the situation, resources are offered, a request to leave the campus is made if appropriate, and arrests are made after a criminal violation… Officers address anyone on campus who is in violation of campus policy regardless of their status… We have hot spots on campus that include places where people like to loiter and/or try to set up camp—these places are checked throughout the day.”
Silva is thoughtful and compassionate when it comes to dealing with the issue of homelessness.
Being homeless is not a crime, Silva pointed out, adding, “Probably the most important thing the UNM community should know about homelessness are the myths and what to do when they encounter someone they feel uncomfortable about.”
Silva also noted that there are homeless students. According to the 2021 Basic Needs Research Report on food and housing insecurity among UNM students, although it’s difficult to measure accurately, results suggest that 1.5 percent of UNM students experience homelessness.
Homeless persons are more likely to be the victims of crimes, Silva said. For instance, in a recent incident, four young men attacked and beat up a homeless man at the Yale Parking structure but left campus before being apprehended.
Occasionally there are incidents when a transient, homeless person or other non-UNM contact has approached students, faculty, or staff and physically or verbally accosted them or vandalized property. In some instances, homeless people appear to be mentally ill and throw rocks, strip off their clothes, or exhibit other bizarre behavior.
When officers engage with homeless people, resources are offered, such as the location of the nearest shelter or a suggestion that the person be taken to substance abuse facilities. Campus police will arrest anyone if an actual crime has been committed.
“Campus police use similar strategies here regarding offering and providing resources to include Albuquerque Community Safety,” Silva said.” We also participate in the Nob Hill-University Project Echo also provides a forum for collaboration with the City of Albuquerque, Albuquerque Police Department, local businesses, and others in the community in addressing homelessness in the surrounding areas of campus, which can also include addressing unauthorized visitors and/or those who are violating campus policies as well. Our security operations director Jeff McDonald also provides input on any remodels or new development on campus using the principles of CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design).”
“The answer to this question of homelessness is very complex in that it would have to include the policymakers from the state and local governments,” Silva observed. “There is a lot of information online about what other communities are doing to address the issue of homelessness. Part of it has to do with resources and part has to do with addressing the myriad of issues that cause homelessness… I think what is important to note is that you can’t look at homelessness through the same lens. The exact cause of homelessness varies and there are different schools of thought on why it’s increasing and how to appropriately respond to this issue.”
Silva said that anyone who sees something of concern on campus should report it to his department.
“In other words, if you see something, say something,” he advised.
Hazards of homelessness on campus
Homeless people on campus present other challenges besides person-to-person confrontations. Many come to campus to find places to sleep, use a bathroom, or find refuge from street life, and leave trash and sometimes hazardous debris behind.
Buildings on the perimeter of the campus such as the Centennial engineering building on University Boulevard and Communications and Journalism on Central Avenue have installed locks that must be swiped with a Lobo ID card for entrance.
The Center for Advanced Research Computing sits just west of the main campus on historic Route 66 and is among the buildings with locked front doors.
Dealing with the homeless is a constant issue to keep safe the students who come and go from the building. Planters and steps in front of the building provide an illusion of privacy from the traffic rushing by.
One person pitched a tent, complete with a mattress, on the front steps of the building between the planters. Another somehow lugged a recliner and set it up in front of the building. Some use the foliage cover to do drugs. Syringes and pipes tossed away around the building are a constant problem, as is the fact that some people use the steps as toilets. Others have broken windows and thrown rocks at passing vehicles. Occasionally, people can’t enter or leave the building at the front door because someone is passed out unconscious in front of it. CARC employees work with the campus police and have taken other measures to keep students and other visitors safe.
“CARC has recently experienced a fair amount of vandalism, and it has grown worse in the past two years. We added security film to windows that prevent entry even if the glass breaks, and card reader access so the building doors can remain locked at all times. UNM recently upgraded lighting around our entire building to further deter trespassers,” said Tracy Wenzl, CARC senior business manager.
Richard Schorr, manager of UNM Grounds & Landscaping, and his team have a major challenge keeping up with the trash, drug debris, discarded belongings, and excrement left behind by homeless people around campus. He noted that the cleanup staff deal with waste left by homeless people several times a week and when the campus is empty, such as during COVID and academic breaks, the campus populations of displaced persons increase dramatically, and with it the need for cleanups.
“It is an issue and a rather large one for us. We receive multiple calls each week for cleanups. The items of most concern and highest difficulty are the urine and feces left behind. These areas must be treated with a high level of safety and disinfected. These bodily deposits are present throughout the campus and make certain areas of campus unpleasant and unsanitary. Needles and other items are often left behind. The needles are easier to deal with, but there is also the possibility of encountering dangerous diseases. The cleanups are not pleasant, and they are hazardous. It is a large problem that takes away from the regularly assigned duties that we still need to provide, and it puts my employees and the campus at risk,” Schorr said.
Some of the trash requires special handling. Cleanup staff use gloves or use a pick stick to grab syringes and place in a sharps container for disposal.
The areas around the Humanities building near Smith Plaza, Mesa Vista Hall on the east side of the campus, the Art building near Popejoy Hall, as well as Communication and Journalism, CARC, the surrounding area of Central and University, and the area around the John and June Perovich building at Lomas and University, are hot spots for trash and using the area as a toilet, and sometimes present medical and physical danger to cleanup staff.
“The possibility of diseases such as hepatitis and MRSA are a risk and the threat of violence is always present,” Schorr explained. “This is not just fear, it has presented itself many times. Providing services to the campus when individuals are sleeping usually disturbs them and the individuals are not always calm or in the right frame of mind, often putting our employees at risk. There is also the issue of people camping inside of buildings. Our staff is often first on campus, and therefore first to interact with people making camps on campus.”
Schorr advises members of the UNM community to be aware of their surroundings on campus to stay safe, stay away from camps and areas used as bathrooms and report these areas to UNM police.
Campus Safety Series Related Stories
- ASUNM awarded funds for new campus safety escort program
- 'The Grey Area' training aims to make consent clear for students
- NOVA, UNM to announce new victim assistance group
- Not Quite 73 Questions with Sgt. Burk
- From spinning records to on-the-record: UNMPD's police chief
- UNM students advocate for sexual assault victim legislation
- Campus safety through architecture, landscape architecture and urban design
- UNM Continuing Education & Jackson Wink partnership packs a punch
- Campus collaboration to debut closed door resources
- Campus Safety: Lobos Come First