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City requires Berrendo Creek homeless to leave

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A man picks up items along the Berrendo Creek bed Tuesday. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Homeless advocates question action

The Roswell city manager said that health and safety concerns are prompting officials to once again require people sheltering in the Berrendo Creek bed to leave and take their possessions.

The benefits of such an action was questioned by an officer with a state homeless coalition. He said that cold weather, the coronavirus outbreak and the lack of well-developed plans to help those who are displaced could create difficult situations for those in need without resolving problems for the city on a long-term basis.

The city posted written “cease and desist” notices in early October informing people to leave the creek area and other city properties by today.

The notice cites two existing sections of city code, 8-1, which prohibits tents or other types of temporary shelter materials to be used for living purposes within the city limits, and 10-61, which prohibits criminal trespass.

Provisions that would have expanded prohibitions on the homeless were delayed by the Roswell City Council on Oct. 13, with seven people speaking or writing in opposition to them and one expressing support for them. Some changes would have prohibited sleeping or resting on city property, and others would have created more formal procedures for the city to impound or dispose of items removed from public property.

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The city “was working to improve its existing codes to provide additional guidance for staff and the public,” City Manager Joe Neeb said about the suggested changes. “As those efforts were tabled for further discussions, the city is left with enforcing of the current laws.”

He said that people living on city property were notified earlier this month that they will need to leave by today. City code enforcement officers will ensure their vacating of city property, Neeb said, with police called in if problems arise. City workers and area flood control staff will remove debris and trash left in the Berrendo Creek area at a later time.

Neeb said people are not being cited for being homeless, only if they violate other laws or codes.

“No one has been cited for illegal camping,” he said. “We are also not telling anyone that they cannot be homeless, but there are areas that are unsafe, inappropriate or off limits for various reasons.”

Sheriff Mike Herrington also has said at public meetings that the homeless are not allowed on county property.

Neeb explained that, in fall 2018, the city cleared the creek bed and other public areas, spending $20,000 to remove debris. He said the action was due not only to complaints from residents, but also for the safety of the homeless, as the creek bed has flooded in the past.

“Based upon current citizen complaints about harassing behavior from the homeless, the city toured the Berrendo riverbed, found that all the previous work had been destroyed and that the homeless had returned to the riverbed,” Neeb said. “One of the complaints received was about the homeless chasing neighborhood children with machetes and hammers. Our decision for them to leave this area is for their safety as much as the surrounding neighborhoods.”

A man did speak at the Oct. 13 City Council meeting about such an incident. He said that a man and a woman chased his son while brandishing weapons because they thought the boy was intruding on what they considered to be their home under a bridge.

Neeb said the city talks at least once every three months with the Roswell Homeless Coalition, a Christian nonprofit that runs the only two homeless shelters in the city.

“They remain diligent in assisting where they can,” he said.

He added that the city has worked in the past with social workers to assist the homeless and said, “If they wish to help with this situation, they should already be doing so.”

But he also added that the shelters have ongoing efforts to help those in need, including a program to help people reenter the workforce.

“There is no one that deserves to be homeless, but one size does not fit all. Any assistance must be tailored to resolve the underlying issues that affect the individual,” Neeb said. “Roswell has some incredible service providers that can help with any of those needs. The challenge is whether the individual is willing to take personal responsibility to make the changes necessary. Addictions and mental health are the worst conditions to overcome, and, if the needed services are not available here, then the individuals need to go to where the services are.”

But a couple of homeless advocates said that moving the homeless around is not solving the issue.

“I stand where I always have stood, that we need to provide some place in the city for camping for the homeless,” said Jeneva Martinez.

Martinez has been a homeless advocate in the area for 11 years and was one of the founding organizers and fundraisers of the Roswell Homeless Coalition. But she is no longer active with that group and said the situation now is similar to what existed in 2017, with a few available spaces in shelters but without a lot of other community resources to address problems.

“We won’t have a solution without the city coming to the table,” she said. “The community is not going to solve homelessness by making people leave public property. They aren’t going to leave the city. They will just move from place to place.”

The coalition runs a shelter for men and a shelter for women and children. They can accommodate about 40 people, but the most recent publicly available data for unsheltered people in Roswell in 2017 found 106 people had no place to stay. Requests for information were not responded to by press time.

Facebook postings about the city notices indicate that people have seen the homeless at various spots in the city. A man who spoke with the Roswell Daily Record Tuesday who has to find somewhere to sleep on weekends because he has no other shelter said quite a few homeless live in north Roswell near the mall area.

Although shelter volunteers have said in prior interviews that they have helped more than 20 people into their own housing or reunited them with family, they also acknowledge that the shelters do not serve everyone. As Martinez has explained, people with significant mental health issues or drug use problems are not allowed. The shelters also do not allow single fathers and moms with teenage sons, and married couples with families would have to separate rather than live in one place.

Mark Oldknow, associate director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, which operates in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, said a comprehensive solution to address homelessness depends on long-term planning and community involvement and includes “rapid rehousing” to shelter those with immediate needs, as well as permanent housing for those with long-term needs.

“Southeast New Mexico does not have a lot developed” in terms of homeless facilities, Oldknow said. “It is not just Roswell.”

He said that he thinks that areas lacking well-developed plans are facing some coinciding challenges that could mean increased hardship for the homeless and the community in coming months, including COVID outbreaks and cold weather.

He added that the state coalition does not have frequent contact with the Roswell Homeless Coalition, but is open to working with local groups or individuals interested in developing projects to address homelessness.

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