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Dropping temperatures, Rivers of Life closure of growing concern to local homeless advocates

When the cook who usually prepares a hot meal for 75 homeless people every week was unable to help, an anonymous donor stepped up and paid for hamburgers, chips, fruit and water for them. Brandon Hebert, his son Remy and longtime homeless advocate Jeneva Martinez were among the people filling lunch sacks for distribution Wednesday. (Curtis Michaels Photo)

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There is a great deal of fear and misinformation surrounding the subject of helping homeless people with temporary housing and getting back on their feet. Jeneva Martinez and Laura Weathers addressed some of these concerns.

“The phrase ‘tent city’ has a lot of fear attached to it,” Martinez said.” There is a lot of fear of the unknown. Some residents don’t have enough information. They fear a higher crime rate in the area where we would have shelters.”

“They perceive crime to be worse when it’s already happening,” Weathers said, “and not just with the homeless. They talk about vandalism to the railroad cars. That’s done by kids and gangs mostly.”

Martinez said it’s common for people to lump homeless people in with gangs and other troubling groups.

“To group the homeless into that population is frustrating to hear,” Martinez said, “and then to not be able to address those fears is even harder to deal with.”

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Weathers addressed the perception that there is no organization involved in caring for homeless people.

“People think we’re going to tell homeless people to go into this fenced area and do whatever they want, and we’ll just walk away,” Weathers said. “There is organization. There are rules.”

Martinez brought up the point that the current project is only the beginning.

“This is phase one of three,” she said. “Phase two includes tiny homes. Phase three includes a shelter and permanent homes.

“Our goal is to end homelessness. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so we’re bringing the resources that are already available to these individuals; services such as social work services, veterans services and behavioral health services.”

Weathers said one important aspect, child care, is not going to be a problem.

“I have talked with Working Mother’s Day Nursery and they will do emergency child care for us,” Weathers said. “If parents have a job interview, if they need to go to a doctor’s appointment, if they need to go to the MVD to get their ID straightened out, that’s emergency child care. If the parent gets a job, then they will gladly keep the child there as a client.”

Del Jurney, executive director of Family Resource and Referral, confirmed this.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that every family’s situation is different,” Jurney said. “We do whatever we can to make it easier for the parents and more comfortable for the child as they’re transitioning. We have kids whose mothers are in shelters now.”

Jurney said their motive comes from taking a broad view.

“A lot of that is because we want to be community minded,” he said, “but also, parents do better in interviews and on the job when they know their children are safe. Being a United Way agency, Laura had that information right. We’ll always do what we can to help them out.”

Martinez said that the homeless coalition is a diverse cross-section of the community.

“People keep asking, ‘Who is this Homeless Coalition and how come we’ve never heard of them?’” she said. “We are religious groups, agencies and community members working together as volunteers. We have partnerships with local agencies, we are prepared to make this transition with experts in a variety of related fields.”

Weathers said many homeless people haven’t been out of the system all that long, and related a personal experience.

“Many homeless people have not been homeless that long,” she said. “They remember how to take care of themselves, how to do laundry, how to take care of a home. When I was newly divorced I had nowhere to go. Thank goodness my mother lived in town or I would have been homeless. We are all one paycheck away from homelessness.”

Weathers said when she gets calls for help, it’s frustrating that she can’t do much.

“Being in the non-profit world myself I was getting phone calls,” she said. “Anyone in Chaves County can call 211 and I have referrals for them to non-profit services available in the area. I was getting calls from people saying, ‘We have no place to stay. We came to Roswell. We thought we had a house to rent. The landlord fell through. We only had enough money for the first two months’ rent, which got us two weeks in a motel. We’re waiting for a job to call back. Our car won’t get us back to where we came from,’ and I have no place to send them.”

While their goal is to end homelessness, Martinez and Weathers acknowledge that it can only be ended for those who don’t want it.

“We understand that there will always be some people who choose to be homeless,” Martinez said. “Those people don’t want to be in shelters. They won’t be in the areas where people trying to get back on their feet are being sheltered.”

A common misconception she addressed is the idea that any level of care will bring more homeless people into Roswell.

“People said we would attract more homeless people with these facilities,” she said. “That has not been the case in Las Cruces or in Carlsbad. Homelessness in both communities has declined with these facilities in place.”

The Homeless Coalition is as focused and determined as ever.

“We are going to continue doing whatever outreach we can do,” Martinez said. “We won’t be deterred or derailed. We will continue making homeless bags and getting socks and gloves and hats together for them. We have to continually reapply the Band-Aid until we have a permanent solution.”

Martinez offered a chance for the public to get better informed about the problem and potential solutions.

“The average person can make a difference by educating themselves,” she said. “I encourage people to come to the public meeting on Oct. 10, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Waymaker Church (202 S. Sunset). They can learn what we’re doing, how we’re organized and how they can make a difference.”

Martinez said a crisis is brewing.

“We are in the middle of a homeless crisis,” she said. “The numbers are rising and the temperatures are dropping. On Oct.14, they start enforcing the city ordinance for no tenting within city limits. Rivers of Life is shutting down on the 15th, so our numbers are close to doubling and that is a crisis.”

Martinez addressed the unintended consequence of leaving things as they are.

“As of Oct. 14, homelessness will be criminalized in Roswell,” she said. “If helping them is a crime, then Roswell will have a lot of new criminals. We can’t just let them die of exposure.”

Martinez noted that the city has never considered the need to address homelessness, and its laws reflect that.

“We have to have a working relationship with the city because of rezoning and what we’re asking to change, but we will always be seeking help from private individuals and businesses,” she said. “Once we have a primary location I can start working on grants to help, but without that primary location we can’t move forward with our goal and our vision.

“We have the passion. We have the desire. We need the green light from the city.”

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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