Josh Glass, Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery manager, shows the cut chainlink fence Tuesday, August 9, 2022, on the corner of the cemetery where people have been cutting the fence to gain access to the memorial park. Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery is experiencing issues with homeless people coming into the park, bathing and defecating in the fountains, using the electrical outlets and leaving drug needles on the property. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

 

The homeless people … use some of the smaller fountains throughout the park to wash themselves and we have caught them bathing, sometimes naked, in the larger fountains — Josh Glass, Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery manager

 

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

There’s nothing new about homeless people seeking temporary refuge in cemeteries, but one cemetery along the Menaul corridor, a regular walking route for Albuquerque’s homeless population, says enough is enough.

At Sunset Memorial Park, workers daily patrol the grounds, monitoring the activity of homeless people who have taken to lounging in the various meditative shelters provided for grieving families.

The homeless people “use some of the smaller fountains throughout the park to wash themselves and we have caught them bathing, sometimes naked, in the larger fountains,” said Sunset’s executive director Josh Glass. Worse, they have used the fountains as a toilet, despite there being an easy-to-find portable toilet located at the northeast end of the park, he said.

Each of the fountains throughout the park is wired to an electric outlet. “They use the electrical outlets to charge their cellphones and to plug in electric cooking skillets and other electric cookware,” Glass said. In addition, there are numerous water spigots throughout the lush grounds that homeless people tap into, he said.

Along with food wrappers, paper and discarded clothing, the detritus left behind by the homeless population also includes hypodermic needles and the occasional mound of human feces, Glass said.

Cemetery workers treat these items as hazardous waste. They place the needles in a sharps container, dispose of the feces and spray the ground with a disinfectant.

Many of the needles, he said, are found in an area where babies are buried because the area is adjacent to a spot on the south side of the property where homeless people repeatedly cut through a chain-link fence to gain access to the cemetery, he said.

“The burden is on us to try to make sure we get ahead of it before families arrive for the day,” he said.

And for the most part, cemetery workers have been successful, although families still report that items placed on graves have gone missing.

“We do have decoration policies about what can be placed on graves because we need to be able to safely mow the grounds, so some things are restricted, but families often disregard that,” Glass said. Cemetery workers occasionally remove noncompliant items, but many others have simply disappeared – things like ornate crosses, decorative mementoes and solar lights – which Glass says are often taken by homeless individuals wandering about the property.

Further, the grounds staff have had to cut back landscape features, including vines and overhanging bushes, to remove hiding places where homeless people are known to conceal themselves, Glass said.

Depending on location, Sunset is not alone among cemeteries where homeless people tread.

Mount Calvary Cemetery, at 1900 Edith NE, is just down the block from Sunset, on the other side of I-40. It has similar issues as Sunset.

So does Fairview Memorial Park, at 700 Yale SE. Located south of the University of New Mexico’s main campus, the neighborhood is home to a large number of homeless people. In addition, Fairview is close to a homeless service provider and has a bus stop located in front of the cemetery, said office administrator Jazlin Ziamarie.

“Quite a few homeless people come into the cemetery. Mostly, they just roam around and sometimes they’ll camp out and we’ll have to call somebody to remove them,” said Ziamarie. “We do have fountains here and they have used them to clean up, and we do get complaints about things missing from graves.” At least once that she could recall, a fire believed to have been set by homeless people wound up destroying a landscape bush.

Sandia Memory Gardens at 9500 San Pedro NE, is starting to see more frequent visits from homeless people, despite its location in the far Northeast Heights, said an office administrator for Daniels Family Funeral Services. Daniels owns and operates Sandia, as well as Fairview and Vista Verde Memorial Park in Rio Rancho.

Just this week, grounds crews at Sandia were sent to remove some homeless people who had been sleeping in the cemetery, she said, noting that homeless visitors have left behind random items, like clothing, cellphones, tablets, even bicycles.

Vista Verde Memorial Park, because of its location in Rio Rancho, only interacts with homeless people “every once in a while,” the office administrator said.

Sunset Memorial Park’s location at Edith, along the Menaul corridor, has made it an attractive locale for the homeless population. The cemetery’s southern boundary is adjacent to an Interstate 40 frontage road, where homeless encampments are frequently established, and Coronado Park, on the other side of I-40 at Third Street, is a 15-minute walk away.

The cemetery’s heavily treed and manicured 40 acres also attract locals who are not attending funeral services during the day, said Glass. “And many people come here to walk because it’s beautiful and it feels safe,” he said. Most of the perimeter fences are decorative and purposely short “because we really don’t want to make the property look like a prison.”

The gates are closed about 30 minutes before sunset, and the park pays “tens of thousands of dollars each year” to have private security regularly patrol the grounds, Glass said. Sunset is now looking at the additional expense of a new security camera system, he said.

Despite the presence of security, homeless people continue to access the grounds, particularly after it is closed for the night.

Dealing with homeless people and the problems that accompany them “is barely manageable now,” Glass said. But with the announcement that the city will close down Coronado Park later this month, his concern is many more homeless people will wind up at Sunset. In the weeks since the announcement was made, Glass said he’s seen an increase in homeless activity at the cemetery.

Adding to that feeling of trepidation is the possibility that a property that butts up against the eastern boundary of Sunset is now being considered for establishment of a “safe outdoor space” for homeless people.

These situations “will increase our burden of responsibility,” Glass said. “It’s businesses in Albuquerque, like mine, that are managing the homeless problem – not city government, not the mayor. Businesses are bearing the brunt of this problem.”