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Homeless coalition eyeing private properties; City’s homeless have until Friday to vacate riverbed area

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Joel Wood of the Roswell Homeless Coalition explains the coalition’s proposal to utilize the shuttered Rivers of Life men’s and women’s facilities to house some of the city’s homeless. About 25 people attended Monday’s meeting at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center, the latest in a flurry of public forums in recent months regarding homelessness. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo)

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After proposals for homeless camps on different city properties fell through, the Roswell Homeless Coalition is offering a new idea to set up homeless sites on private properties formerly operated by Rivers of Life.

Operating the two sites will cost about $5,000 a month in public and/or private funding, and will provide existing facilities for heated restrooms and laundry facilities, with space for a community garden and outdoor cooking area, homeless advocates told the Roswell City Council’s Infrastructure Committee Monday afternoon.

Utilizing the Rivers of Life buildings within six months of their closure will also provide an easier path for zoning approval, city engineer Louis Najar said at the meeting at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center attended by about 25 people.

The larger of the two Rivers of Life buildings, at 400 E. Bland St., can be utilized as an all-indoor facility for homeless women and children, said Joel Wood of the Roswell Homeless Coalition. The Rivers to Life building was formerly a faith-based food pantry and shelter for homeless women and children until it closed in mid-October.

A second Rivers of Life building, a men’s shelter at East Albuquerque Street and South Virginia Avenue that’s smaller than the East Bland Street building, also closed last month. It could be utilized as both an indoor and outdoor site to house the homeless, said Mark Green of the homeless coalition.

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The Infrastructure Committee voted 3-1 Monday in support of the homeless coalition’s latest proposal. City Councilor Juan Oropesa cast the dissenting vote, again expressing his opposition to any homeless site in or close to a residential area.

“I’m all for this,” said city councilor Jeanine Corn Best, chair of the Infrastructure Committee. “I’m so happy the Rivers of Life have decided to team up with the homeless coalition.”

The City Council voted 6-3 last month to table a proposal that would have allowed the Roswell Homeless Coalition to operate an outdoor homeless camp for up to 30 months on city property at South Grand Avenue and East Alameda Street, the third such site to run into stiff opposition from nearby property owners.

“I think this is the best plan we’ve seen so far,” city councilor Caleb Grant said Monday.

The City Council in September approved proposed homeless sites at a city Parks and Recreation Department office and equipment yard near North Virginia Avenue and East 12th Street, and a secondary site near Grand Avenue and East College Boulevard, directly south of the Wool Bowl. However the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously to deny the necessary zoning variances for both of those locations. Living in tents is not legal under city zoning law.

Wood and Green said the long-term goal remains transitioning the homeless into traditional housing and helping them obtain needed services and skills.

“We want this to be more than a homeless center,” Wood said.

Wood said the homeless coalition needs to reach a memorandum of understanding with Rivers of Life to operate its facilities independently of the Rivers of Life board of directors. He said both buildings need repairs, and the homeless coalition is hoping to raise the funding necessary — estimated at $5,000 a month — to operate the the facilities. Possible funding sources include individual donors, churches, state and federal grants and funding from the state Legislature, Wood said.

Wood said a special-use permit would be needed to have tents outside the men’s facility, which would require a privacy fence. He said the need for tents outdoor is expected as the men’s site expands beyond the small structure. Wood said there are no plans for tents at the building for women and children.

Najar said if the homeless coalition takes over the Rivers of Life buildings within six months of their Oct. 15 closure, the properties could continue to use a non-conforming use zoning exception that was made for Rivers of Life.

“I think this is the best solution that’s come around,” Najar said.

Others, including Ron Biggers, agreed.

“This is the best place I’ve seen so far,” Biggers said.

“I’d like to see it go forward,” added Tom Jordan.

“I’m all for this,” said Peggy Robertson. “Something has to be done before someone freezes to death. Please get these people off the street before the weather gets bad.”

Wood said with the closure of the Rivers of Life facilities, there currently are no homeless shelters in Roswell. Meanwhile, notices have been posted by the city in the Berrendo River bed instructing the homeless to vacate the area by 5 p.m. Friday, or face possible fines or arrests.

“Right now, we’re just giving out sleeping bags. We’re still looking for a long-term solution for this,” Green said. “We need the ability to get those people immediately off the streets.”

In other business, the Infrastructure Committee voted 4-0 to table proposed amendments to city code pertaining to homeless facilities. The amendments would allow conditional-use permits for transitional housing in industrial-zoned areas, with stipulations on site size, separation from residential areas, and requirements for operations and liability insurance.

“I’m not willing to support this the way it is written,” Oropesa said, referencing the residential separation language.

Green expressed opposition to the restrictions.

“Are they going to be so restrictive on us that we’re not going to be able to find a place in town?” Green asked.

The Infrastructure Committee agreed to revisit the proposed amendments next month.

Editor Jeff Tucker can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 303, or at editor@rdrnews.com.