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City Council holds off on changes about homeless issues

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Jeneva Martinez, a homeless advocate shown in this photo at the women’s shelter on East Bland Street in December 2017, says that the shelters are not open to all people. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The Roswell City Council decided Thursday night to postpone decisions on city codes affecting the homeless.

The meeting lasted more than four hours and covered many different topics. Two items would have arranged for future public hearings on numerous city code changes that, among other things, would ban tents in the city and sleeping in public areas and would allow removal of belongings and shelter materials from city property.

Councilors hear from residents

Four people from Roswell — Jo Hicks, Michaela Puckett-Robertson, Jeneva Martinez and Matt Klipstine — appeared at the meeting in the Roswell Convention & Civic Center to speak against the suggested changes impacting the homeless.

Hicks, Puckett-Robertson and Martinez, as well as about four other people, sent in messages to the city prior to the meeting. Another person, Whitney Bain of Roswell, spoke by phone to the city councilors.

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Martinez, an 11-year advocate for the homeless and one of the key volunteers in the formation of the Roswell Homeless Coalition, said the city should not be trying to “criminalize homelessness” but should be preparing for an impending crisis due to cold winter temperatures, COVID-related hardships and the expected lift of a ban on rental evictions in coming months.

“The city does not fund the local faith-based shelters,” she said. “In fact, the shelters do not receive any local, state or federal funding. The shelters are not open doors to all Roswell citizens, and if you don’t qualify, you can’t stay there, leaving many that have no choice but to live in a field, ditch or park.”

The men’s and women’s shelters in Roswell are limited to about 40 people, while a 2017 point-in-time survey found about 106 people in the city without shelter. Martinez said the shelters do not allow single fathers, moms with teenage sons and those with substance abuse issues or severe mental health problems.

Some of the speakers also said that the items the homeless leave in parks or in other public areas are often their only belongings and that impounding and disposing of them can mean that people would be without the needed identification to obtain food or income benefits, or enter shelters or government buildings.

A person not able to be heard by phone during the meeting, in spite of repeated attempts, was Maria Griego of Albuquerque, a lawyer with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The group had sent a letter to city officials in April 2018 to indicate that it considered city laws banning camping in public areas unconstitutional if adequate shelter space is not available for those in need.

In an interview after the meetings, Griego said, “The city of Roswell unfortunately just relies on nonprofits and religious groups to provide shelter for families and individuals experiencing homelessness, and we would really encourage them to divert resources toward providing citywide solutions.”

Another Roswell resident, Brad McFadden, spoke in support of changing city codes. He said two homeless people with a machete and a claw hammer living under a bridge near his home on Bandolina Avenue once threatened him and his young son. According to McFadden, the homeless couple said that the area was their home and they were tired of people bothering it.

City Manager Joe Neeb told city councilors that the city wants to help people into housing.

“Even with the homeless, if they want help, we are willing to help get them back on their feet and get them out of what they are in and we will work with anyone,” he said. “I think when you are talking about the homeless population, you have to find out what that core problem is and then get them the help at that point, and I think that is the challenge.”

Two ordinances deferred

The two ordinances that had portions affecting the homeless were 20-11, which covered Chapter 8 of the Roswell City Code, and Ordinance 20-12 about Chapter 16.

Chapter 8 deals with camping and campgrounds. Suggested amendments would ban sleeping in public areas or tents for living purposes anywhere within the city limits without a variance. It also would restrict uses of recreational vehicles within the city.

Chapter 16 is about what are termed nuisances, and includes many items such as weeds, noise, offensive conduct, parked vehicles, and unsanitary or hazardous objects. But some of the changes also would allow the city to remove people’s belongings or shelter structures left in public areas. The city could impound the items for a time, after proper notices were given and procedures followed. Then the city could dispose of items if they were not reclaimed and if appropriate fees were not paid.

Rather than agreeing to hold the public hearings in October, city councilors voted instead to send both resolutions back to the council’s Public Safety Committee for further consideration.

Councilor Judy Stubbs said the city’s public safety employees would most likely be the ones having to enforce any adopted changes to the city code.

Councilor Jacob Roebuck said the number and scope of changes to Chapter 16 were too much to consider at one time.

“You have multiple issues in this ordinance, all kinds of issues, all kinds of stuff,” he said, “and it is too big to process. I am not sure how it got out of any of the committees, but staff needs to do a better job of not letting this stuff get through.”

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