Stephanie Plummer remembers her brother Kee Thompson as an extremely nice person, quiet at first but talkative and outgoing once he got to know people.
“If there was anyone struggling and needed the shirt on their back, they would give it to them,” Plummer said during an interview with New Mexico In Depth.
Thompson and a friend, Allison Gorman, both members of the Navajo Nation, were murdered eight years ago today by three Albuquerque teenagers who beat them with cinder blocks as they slept in a vacant lot in the west side of town. Another man, Jérôme Eskeets, narrowly managed to escape.
The killings drew public attention to the dangers faced by homeless people, especially Native Americans.
Former mayor Richard Berry created a task force the following year that made 14 recommendationsincluding the appointment of a Tribal Liaison Officer, training in cultural humility, and expanding access to emergency shelter and transitional housing.
Current mayor Tim Keller, early in his term, proposed building a city-run center for emergency shelter and services to help people access housing. The gateway center is expected to open in phases starting this winter, with 50 beds for single women, said Cristina Parajón, gateway administrator for the Department of Family and Community Services.
But eight years after the Thompson and Gorman murders, Natives continue to make up a disproportionate share of Albuquerque’s homeless population, which has grown steadily over the past decade. And across the state, homeless Natives appear to be dying more frequently and at younger ages than any other group.
The violence has not stopped either. In December 2017, Audra Willis, a 39-year-old To’hajiilee woman who allegedly stayed with friends or family or slept on the streets while in town, was found stabbed to death and beheaded in southeast Albuquerque. A little over a year later, the body of Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old man from Shiprock, was found. He had been shot 12 times. Timothy Chavez, who was 15 at the time, pleaded guilty to first degree murder in 2021.
Native people make up 4.5% of Albuquerque’s overall population, but they represent 23.4% of the homeless homeless population and 14.7% of the homeless population living in emergency shelters, according to the annual report “spot countled by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
The count relies on volunteers who deploy one night in January to find and count people who are homeless. The results are limited to what volunteers can find and what those people are willing to share, so the numbers are inaccurate, said coalition executive director Hank Hughes, but it does at least give some idea of the scale of the crisis.
“I think it’s fair to say there’s a disproportionate number of Native Americans who are homeless and that’s always been true, in recent years where we’ve even tracked that,” Hughes said, noting that black people are also disproportionately homeless in the city.
Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless reports similar results, based in part on data collected through intake forms. Anita Córdova said that in her 16 years with the organization, the trend has remained.
Using statewide data from the Office of the Physician Investigator, the health care organization has been conducting an ongoing mortality review for three years. Data shows that from 2014 to 2018, Indigenous people accounted for 22% of homeless deaths, proportionally the highest rate among all racial groups. In 2020, it rose to 26%.
The study, Córdova said, found that the average age of death for homeless Anglos is 45.6. For homeless aboriginals, it’s 37.5. For aboriginal women, it’s 35.3.
“[This data] demonstrates that whatever is done or not done continues to leave homeless Native Americans vulnerable to the worst outcome, which is premature mortality,” Córdova said.
Hughes — who pointed to systemic racism and poverty as key factors behind the high rates — and Córdova both pointed to the urgent need for affordable housing.
“Unless we lead with housing first, these challenges, these illnesses, this exposure to violent victimization, all of these things, as long as people are forced to live in an unprotected situation, or even a protected situation like a shelter or a motel, the vulnerability remains,” Córdova said. “So what we really need is affordable, culturally appropriate and accessible housing, and that’s housing first, which means people have their own homes and dictate how they live in this house.”
If such accommodation had been available for her brother, Plummer said she thinks it would have made a difference.
Thompson – who was in his 40s when he was murdered – was adopted as a teenager by his aunt, who is Plummer’s mother. Growing up in Sundance, a small Navajo community near Gallup, Thompson watched over Plummer, who was about six years younger, when their mother was at work. He was a caring and caring brother, Plummer said, despite a traumatic childhood marked by the death of his birth mother and his father’s abuse.
When a nephew he was close with died in the mid-2000s, he left for Albuquerque. Plummer and other family members made frequent trips to check on Thompson and give him food and other essentials, but he preferred to stay in Albuquerque. The trauma of losing his nephew and alcoholism, combined with the close bonds he had forged with other homeless people, whom he considered his second family, kept him in the city, a- she declared.
She recalled a memorial service for Thompson where a friend of hers left her monthly pass under a picture of Thompson.
“He was standing there like he was praying and then he started crying and he put his bus pass and a flower on it,” Plummer said. “Later I asked him, I said, ‘My name is Stephanie, I’m Kee’s little sister. I just have a question for you. Why did you put your bus pass there? And he said, ‘So he can take a ride to heaven.'”
Plummer said she felt that since her brother’s death the native homelessness crisis had not improved significantly and that she was concerned about the poor treatment that people living without housing are facing. facing Albuquerque.
During one of the family visits before Thompson’s death, he told his sister that he had done garden work for a local man. When he finished, the man called the police instead of paying him and denied hiring him. The responding officer told Thompson he would be charged with trespassing if he returned.
On numerous other occasions, he spoke of having trouble finding places to sleep and having personal belongings stolen while staying in shelters, Plummer said.
“Homeless people are human too,” Plummer said. “They are someone’s brother, uncle, sister, mother. They just hit the bad times or addiction. But you don’t know what they’ve been through or what they’re going through. Even living on the streets is difficult. A lot of people who are homeless, they’re really strong people. »
Changes at the town hall
The task force Berry created has informed much of the city’s efforts since Keller became mayor, city officials said.
One of the task force’s recommendations was to expand access to emergency shelters. The long-awaited Gateway Center, envisioned by the city as a “health center,” is set to open in phases from the end of this year. The center, which received $10.6 million of the city’s $1.4 billion budget for this fiscal year, will eventually have space for 100 single adults and 25 families.
The design of the center was informed in part by feedback from homeless people, with a focus on the Indigenous population who, according to point data, access shelters at a lower rate than any other demographic group. (Homeless homeless people surveyed in this year’s point-in-time count listed staffing concerns, fear of contracting COVID-19, and overcrowding as some of the reasons they don’t use shelters.)
“When we saw this data, we thought, ‘Well, we have to close this gap in the service,'” Parajón said. “Shelters are often places where people can connect to housing and resources, to treatment, and the Native American population doesn’t have access to those resources.”
City staff, in partnership with First Nations Community Healthsource and several other community organizations, held design workshops with people experiencing homelessness.
The workshop results were released earlier this year. Suggestions included a communal grill, an outdoor sweat lodge, and the ability for people staying at the shelter to rearrange furniture as they please.
Another recommendation from the task force was to appoint a Tribal Liaison Officer, which the city did in 2015 with the hiring of Dawn Begay, Native American Affairs Coordinator in the Office of Equity and Inclusion. In 2019, Begay’s position became full-time, and the city also added an inter-jurisdictional tribal liaison.
“We are focused on working with our Native constituents here in Albuquerque as well as tribal engagement with surrounding tribes on several issues,” Begay said.
As part of this work, the city signed a memorandum of understanding with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission in August 2019 to address racial equity and discrimination and foster increased communication.
Lauren Bernally, policy analyst for the commission, said the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly interfered with those efforts, but the commission is now returning to full-time work.
Just before the pandemic began, Keller agreed to host a summit in Albuquerque with other border town mayors, Bernally said. The plan was to address issues such as Navajo homelessness and the commission’s “concern about excessive force and unlawful arrests of our homeless people”.
The city is “open to revisiting” the idea of a mayors’ summit, Begay said.
Asked if she thinks the outlook for Native American homelessness has improved in the eight years since the Thompson and Gorman murders, Bernally said, “I think, yeah, there’s a some improvement because at least we have a dialogue and a direct line to the town hall. In the past, this has been cut completely.