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City homelessness examined at forum; Participants debate over a location for possible shelter

City Manager Joe Neeb speaks to members from the community in a public forum Wednesday evening at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center. Neeb asked for perspective and ideas from citizens and members of the city council on how to address Roswell's homelessness issue. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo)

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City Manager Joe Neeb held a public forum on homelessness at the Civic Center Thursday. More than 80 people were there. Mayor Dennis Kintigh, representatives of the Homeless Coalition, Rivers Of Life homeless shelter, other community organizations, churches and half of the city council were in attendance. Neeb opened the proceedings with a frank statement of his qualifications and focus.

Harvest Ministries volunteer Terri Carassco, right, listens intently on the discussion unfolding from Thursday evening’s public forum on homelessness. Carassco made it a point that the members of the community she often helps and works with come from areas other than northern Roswell. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo)

“I am not an expert on homelessness,” Neeb said. “I did some research to create these slides, but I need to hear from you all because together we are smarter and we can do a lot more things when we work together and that’s why we’re here tonight.”
Neeb introduced the city leaders who were present, and let them speak briefly before moving into the public forum. Kintigh was first to speak.
“The homeless coalition came to me a year and a half ago and said, ‘We need to deal with it,’” Kintigh said. “We haven’t progressed near as fast or as far as they or I would like. We cannot kick this can down the road anymore. We cannot keep putting this off anymore. We must act.
“I’m hoping that when we leave here tonight, Mr. Neeb and the governing body members that are here will leave with a sense of what the community will support. I hope the community will be bold and embracing because the final issue is this, where.”
City councilor Juan Oropesa spoke next.
“I was disappointed when I went to a meeting a couple of weeks ago,” Oropesa said, “and found out about this particular project. The sketches that were drawn, were drawn to be placed on the east side, on Alameda. I’m against it. I’m not against a homeless shelter if it is placed in the right place. But as far as I’m concerned I think it is a mistake to put this in a residential area. I will hear what you all have to say.”
Councilor Natasha Mackey took her turn.
“One of the backlashes we hear in the city council is that we don’t speak to the community openly and hear feedback before we make decisions,” Mackey said. “So I am grateful that we are all together and that we are all able to come together from all different walks of life. We have some issues in Roswell and it’s not all for the city government to solve. It’s going to take all of us in our respective positions.”
Councilor Jason Perry talked about the experiences his church is having.
“I am a Baptist minister at Tabernacle Baptist Church,” Perry said. “Usually we have one or two people come in a week. We are at the point now where we have up to 10 people come in in one day. We, as a congregation, have come to the point of recognition that this is more than one church, a group of churches, Harvest Ministries or Rivers of Life or the Salvation Army can take care of. This is something that the city will have to come together to resolve.”
Councilor Jeanine Corn-Best kept her message brief.
“I’m here to listen to you,” Best said. “It’s about a hand up, not a hand out. We need to help these people to move up.”
Councilor Barry Foster also expressed his desire to know what the community wants.
“We, as a city, need to stand together and help our citizens,” Foster said. “I echo what was said before. I’m here to listen. I’m here to learn what we can do as a city.”

Neeb assured the room that the remaining five city councilors, Caleb Grant, Steve Henderson, Art Sandoval, Savino Sanchez and Tabitha Denny were otherwise committed, but had wanted to attend. He then established a foundation for the conversation.
“I want to make sure we do this the right way,” Neeb said. “The goal for this evening is to discuss and consider solutions to the issue of any homelessness in Roswell. I don’t think we want to reduce it, I think we want to try to find a way to help these individuals get back up on their feet, no matter what it is that they need help with.”
He addressed potential conflicts with concise clarity.
“Every time we create sides it is very difficult to get things done,” Neeb said. “We are all one community, we need to get things done.”
Jeanette Schaffer, representing Rivers of Life, talked about the shelter being one of Roswell’s best kept secrets. She also addressed the reputation it has, and expressed a desire for greater community involvement.
“What I’d like to see,” Schaffer said, “is support for our existing homeless shelter. There are needed changes. We’re working on those changes, but we really need the support of the community.
“I’d love to see the Homeless Coalition and Rivers of Life working together because we all have the same goal.”
Virginia Garcia brought up the fact that the homeless tend to choose to remain on the extreme north end of town for the most part.
“There’s a lot of talk about moving them to the east side of town,” she said, “but they can’t walk from there. The homeless congregate out by the mall, on the north end of town. I think it would be a perfect location. Why don’t we take a poverty-based problem for our community up to the north end of town. That’s where they’re at.”
Richard Garcia echoed councilor Oropesa’s concerns, and called the situation as he sees it.
“This has been one big Band-Aid and we’re not going to pray ourselves out of this,” Garcia said. “My family owned the land where Rivers of Life is, I know the East side. I agree with Juan Oropesa. If you bring them to the east side, these people aren’t going to get help.”
Neeb continued to bring the conversation toward a consensus of opposing views and encouraged everyone to think about the community as a whole, including the homeless.
“What you’re starting to hear is, ‘How do we bring the community together,’” Neeb said. “I’m not the one who’s going to say one area is better than another, I’m hoping all of you will help us with that.”
Neeb then addressed some of the harsher realities of running a city in this context.
“Let’s address the city responsibilities,” he said. “We do have to enforce the laws and maintain order. We have some conflicts with some surrounding neighborhoods near where they camp in the Berrendo river bed. A river bed is not a good place for people to live during monsoon season.
“By a tentative date of Oct. 14, I’m going to have to move them all out of the river bed. My problem is we can’t just take these people, and put them on the sidewalk after taking them out of the river bed, and say, ‘Good luck.’ That will not work.”
He established that to simply force the homeless out of one area solves no problems.
“We need a long-term fix,” he said. “All we’re going to do is eliminate that issue and create new problems. So that’s the difficult part of my job. I cannot just set those people on the sidewalk and say ‘Good luck.’ That doesn’t fix anything.”
Reverend Mark Green of Harvest Ministries addressed one of the most pressing issues the homeless face.
“Without an ID they can’t get a job, they can’t get a house, and they’re just stuck,” Green said. “If they don’t have any money they can’t get an ID. We’ve got to help these people get out of this situation. We’ve got to help them get an address.”
Jeneva Martinez quoted from the Point In Time Survey taken earlier this year.
“The youngest person surveyed was 13 years old, the oldest was in his 80’s,” Martinez said. “Out of the 300 we surveyed, 145 were homeless at that moment. One hundred and twenty-five of those were unsheltered. Twenty were sheltered.”
This brought Neeb to statistics from the National Alliance for Homelessness.
“There are 17.7 people per 10,000 population in 2015 that are homeless. At 50,000 people within the city we should have 88.5 people that are homeless in the city.”
Many more people had points to make, and the discussion was rife with respectful disagreement in which people of opposing views sincerely sought to find common ground.
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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