Home News Local News Roswell city staff suggest code amendments affecting homeless

Roswell city staff suggest code amendments affecting homeless

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Homeless issues
Suggested city code changes would have banned sleeping in public areas and given city officials the right to remove and impound belongings. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Changes would allow removal of possessions, prohibit public sleeping or resting

Jose Vega has been without a permanent place to live for about 10 years.

Since then, he has lived in motels, shelters and outdoors around Roswell, which is where he lives now.

He said during a brief interview Saturday that police know where he lives and that he tried to work with homeless shelter employees at various points in the past, but he said they told him they couldn’t find him a permanent home. He said he prefers living outdoors to staying in a shelter.

“They get information from you,” he said. “They know more about you.”

The city of Roswell is considering some changes to the city code that could affect Vega and other people staying or living in public spaces, if the amendments are approved by the Roswell City Council.

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A city employee involved in drafting the changes said the code needs to be updated to provide guidance to code enforcement as they address current needs. He said public spaces have intended uses and that people resting or living in them prevent them from being used as needed.

“There is shelter space that is available to those that want it, but public space is meant for use by the entire community or for a specific number of community needs,” said Community Development Manager Bill Morris.

The Roswell City Council is scheduled to decide during its Thursday meeting whether it wants to hold a public hearing at some point in the future to consider and vote on the changes, which are just portions of many other amendments suggested for two chapters of the city code. Chapter 16 deals with “nuisances,” while Chapter 8 deals with camping and campgrounds.

The changes involving camping and campgrounds would ban tents within the city limits, except on private property by permission, and sleeping or resting in public areas, including streets, arroyos, bus stops and public benches.

“The portion of the text amendments concerning outdoor camping is targeted to public property, which has specific intended uses, such as arroyo to carry away stormwater, sidewalks which need to be clear so that folks can walk safely or traverse using wheelchairs, or street benches meant to accommodate multiple people sitting instead of one person sleeping,” Morris said.

He explained that, while city officials regularly talk to people involved with the Roswell Homeless Coalition, which runs the men’s and women’s shelter and helps to coordinate services for people in need, he did not consult them when developing the suggested city code changes.

Members of the coalition chose not to respond to requests for comment.

Chapter 16 changes deal with many things the city is calling nuisances, such as parked vehicles, weeds and tall grass, and noise. But it also would give city officials the right to remove and impound shelter materials and people’s possessions, after proper notice and procedures have been followed. Disposal of the items would be permitted after 15 days if the items were not claimed, with fees required in some instances to cover city costs.

Morris told city councilors during an Aug. 27 Legal Committee meeting that the portions having to do with removing shelter structures or possessions from public spaces is modeled after codes established by the city of Honolulu.

The posted ordinances of the city and county of Honolulu — which had 4,453 homeless and 2,401 unsheltered people during a 2019 “point-in-time” survey — indicate that loitering and sleeping on sidewalks or other public areas is prohibited, with people receiving warnings and then possible misdemeanor citations. The codes also allow for the removal, storage and disposal of personal belongings after prior notification and other procedures are followed.

But the codes also designate some areas of the city and some parks where resting or sleeping is allowed overnight after 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. According to the city of Honolulu webpage, the government bodies also has instituted government-run initiatives to assist the homeless.

The measures include the Honolulu Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons, a state-funded but locally run program that lifts prohibitions against sleeping in parks for a time while the government sets up pop-up shelters for up to 100 families and 80 individuals for 60 to 90 days. Screening services are provided during that time to address needs and try to get people into housing. The police also have a Crisis Intervention Team, with officers trained in “mental health first aid” when responding to calls involving the homeless.

Morris noted that Honolulu is much bigger than Roswell, so its programs and city ordinances are different.

The men’s shelter on East Albuquerque Street run by the Roswell Homeless Coalition can house about 16 people, with tents allowed by city permit within a fenced area of the property. The coalition-run women’s shelter on East Bland Street can hold about 20 women and children.

A January 2017 point-in-time homeless survey for Roswell interviewed 322 people, finding that 182 ranging in age from 13 to 84 were homeless, with 106 of those unsheltered. An update of that information was not available by press time.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has weighed in on prior attempts by the city of Roswell to ban sleeping, resting or living in public spaces by the homeless. In an April 2018 letter to city officials, representatives with the center and other civil rights agencies stated, “Enforcing the city’s anti-camping ordinance when the city has nowhere near the space needed to provide adequate and appropriate shelter for all of the people experiencing homelessness is unconstitutional.”

Morris, however, told city councilors at the Legal Committee meeting that the changes to city code being suggested are meant to “hold up in court.”

The Thursday meeting is set for 6 p.m. at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center, although the public is encouraged during the pandemic to participate online or by phone.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.