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City urged to reconsider zoning ordinances


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The City of Roswell received a letter via email urging the City to reject proposed zoning changes that would impact the local homeless population.

The letter was from New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP), American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) and Disability Rights New Mexico (DRNM). The letter said Articles 19 and 20 in the zoning code would restrict homeless shelters to two acres, which NMCLP said is not present in specified zones in the zoning maps, which require an eight-foot fence, and with zoning 500 feet from residential areas. The letter also says this means the city intends to prevent homeless shelters from operating in Roswell. The letter can be read on the website nmpovertylaw.org.

“The fact that the City would propose such an exclusionary ordinance is really troubling because it leaves no way to meet the need,” Sovereign Hager, the managing attorney with NMCLP, said. “At the same time, they are being expelled from areas where they are camping and sleeping in public places.”

Coalition and City responses

Jeneva Martinez, former president of the Roswell Homeless Coalition and current member on the board of directors, said the NMCLP knew more about the legal aspects behind the ordinance and that the letter to the City was a collaborative process. To citizens, Martinez said it is their job to express personal opinions on what should be done about homelessness to their City Councilors.

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“We are more of the advocacy and hands-on,” Martinez said. “We want to just make sure that we have space when we outgrow the two shelters — which will happen very quickly. We had a vision that we passed to the City previously. In regards to that, yes — it did start off as a tent city. That was phase one that went on to phase two and phase three. Phase three would be our community center and our shelter that would actually be able to provide space for families and for couples. That’s our ultimate goal.”

Mayor Dennis Kintigh said he was surprised to receive the letter and wished the Roswell Homeless Coalition would have continued the conversation with the City staff. Mayor Kintigh said this item was up for authorization to advertise for a future public meeting and action, not a vote at this month’s City Council meeting.

Planning Manager Bill Morris said the item has been pulled from the agenda for Thursday’s meeting. Morris said the City will take time to assess the ordinances and see what will need to be done. If there are significant changes that need to be made in the language, Morris said the process will start over.

The letter said the following statement:

“Instead of addressing the severe lack of housing and shelter in Roswell, the City chose instead to make the status of being unhoused a crime for the large number of people sleeping outside within the city limits, particularly the Berrendo riverbed. The City of Roswell’s continued efforts to criminalize homelessness by issuing citations to people who sleep or otherwise occupy public places violates the First, Eighth, and 14th Amendments.”

Impact of ordinance

Mayor Kintigh said the intention of this ordinance was not to exclude the homeless and that the City Attorney will examine the letter, share and discuss his conclusion with the City Manager, and subsequently the governing body will explore future courses of action.

“I think that there are some differences of opinion,” Morris said regarding the impact of the ordinance. “But I don’t know for sure until we sit down and go through it. We’ve been looking at this language for a long time. They’ve raised some issues and we’ll do our due diligence — and then we’ll reassess where we are at. If it requires revisions to the proposed text, so be it.”

NMCLP is a statewide advocacy center for residents with the lowest income and is extremely worried about the impact of this ordinance, according to Hager. She said the organization has found data that two-thirds of the homeless in Roswell have mental and/or physical impairments and these disabilities are part of the reason for homelessness, which adds to the importance of transitional housing. The letter said last year’s Chaves County Point-In-Time Report listed 120 individuals experiencing homelessness, 85 of which reported a mental or physical disability. The data was provided by the Roswell Homeless Coalition and utilized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For a city to exclude or restrict transitional housing through an ordinance is highly illegal, according to Hager, because the City is not offering an alternative and this action is discriminatory in nature against people with disabilities. Hager said it is well known that the current shelters do not meet the needs of the current homeless population.

“While it (the ordinance) does not say ‘people with disabilities shall not have housing,’ that is the impact it has,” Hager said. “Courts have been very clear that when the ordinance has an impact that is disproportionately (against) the disabled, that is discriminatory and it violates the Fair Housing Act. It violates our state and federal constitution.”

City’s backyard

“Roswell has had the whole ‘not in our backyard’ mentality,” Martinez said. “When we are not addressing this issue and not sheltering people, it is in everyone’s backyard.”

Hager said it is a shared responsibility to help those in the community that are facing homelessness and the community must look to their city, state and federal government to assist in providing solutions for transitional housing and programs. Hager said such a facility in Roswell would benefit the whole community by providing for these basic needs.

“(The) thing we are most concerned about, which I think is the same thing that the community in Roswell is concerned about, is making sure that people are not homeless and that there is a path for reducing homelessness in Roswell,” Hager said. “The ordinance prevents that from happening. Despite the fact it is illegal for many different reasons — the bottom line is it prevents the City from meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness and will prevent the City from reducing homelessness.

“This does not answer the problem that the community is grappling with and I know the people of Roswell want to address it. That’s why we wrote the letter. We really hope that the City Council and City Attorney will be able to consider what we have written and work with the community to come up with real solutions.”

Working together

“What we are striving to do is to create an environment where we could work with the Homeless Coalition — because there is currently nowhere in the city that you could have the temporary structures that the homeless coalition is advocating (for),” Kintigh said. “This was an attempt to carve that out. That’s what is disappointing. The City has strived diligently for two years trying to work on this issue. I have a lot of respect for the staff who worked so hard, but unfortunately, there are individuals not interested in that dialogue and that is sad.”

Morris confirmed there is no zoning for a transitional housing project, which is why the City worked hard to provide the industrial district to be an appropriate location at this time for the homeless shelter. Morris said the Rivers of Life location on Bland Street a nonconforming use, which means that the location can provide the original services prior to the zoning codes. This nonconforming use allows the Homeless Coalition to operate, but the shelter can only remain closed for six months or the preexisting purpose is no longer valid. Morris said the City informed the Homeless Coalition of the nonconforming use, which is why the City was pushing the coalition to have reconstruction plans in motion and on track.

Recognizing the City needs time to review the letter, Hager said the best case scenario would be sparking dialogue between the community and the City, which would lead to a new course of action by the City Council and answers for transitional housing. Hager said the next step would be helping the people within the shelter exit homelessness by providing a place to sleep, eat and use the restroom, which could lead to employment, benefits and more.

“As the Coalition, we want to work with the City,” Martinez said. “We don’t want to work against the City. We know this is new for the City also with new zoning ordinances because we really haven’t tried to address it as a whole. So over the last few years, we have been able to sit at the table and discuss it. We just want to make sure that the options are open for the future plans.”

City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com. 

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