As city leaders and homeless advocates grapple with the location of a proposed homeless camp, the Daily Record reached out Thursday to those living in the Berrendo Riverbed for their thoughts.
Winding down beside the Roswell Mall, Elwood Harpazo lives in “The Wash” — the name the homeless community gives to the riverbed.
“I’ve been here a couple of years now,” Harpazo said. “My mother grew up here so I ain’t got nowhere to be, and the rest of my life to get there.”
A pink warning notice from the city of Roswell was stapled to boards of wood where Harpazo has been living.
“This notice is to inform all persons camping in the Berrendo Riverbed to cease and desist this activity,” the notice stated. “Erecting tents or structures on city property is unlawful and trespassing per city code 8-1 and 10-1. You hereby have 30 days to vacate the premises or face additional actions, which could include jail time, fines, physical removal or the use of any other legal enforcement mechanism.”
The notice drafted for those living illegally in the riverbed informed them that the deadline to clear the area is by 5 p.m. on Nov. 17, with “no exceptions.”
Roswell city manager Joe Neeb said the Homeless Coalition has been trying to help relocate the homeless people residing within the areas.
“I think some of them have just kind of dispersed, so that’s all moving OK,” Neeb said. “The immediate impact to the city is kind of less, and that’ll give everybody a bit of a breather where they can come up with that plan to resolve this issue in a better manner.”
Harpazo said, to him, it looks like the city is trying to outlaw the homeless.
While he’s planning to move out into the county before the November deadline, Harpazo’s response to the eviction was clear.
“Leave us alone, man,” he said. “We’ve got enough problems. Go pick on somebody else.”
Neeb said while the language of the notice isn’t exactly friendly, it’s necessary.
“I mean, it is to the letter of the law as to what you have to do,” Neeb said. “We can’t leave them with question as to what the enforcement of those laws and rules are, and so — they do come across kind of rough at times, but they’re all written in a way that if we have to take the harder action, then we have that process in place.”
Another local, Jack Wright, said he has lived in The Wash on and off for a few years. He tries to help the incoming homeless where he can.
“Homelessness is growing,” Wright said. “I used to help people get their tents and stuff, but now there’s other people doing that.”
He told the newspaper that he had learned of the intended eviction directly.
“The city just told me,” Wright said. “They didn’t give me a sign.”
In response to the eviction, Wright said he is looking to find nearby shelter.
“I guess I’ll have to go out to the truck stop,” he said. “In my opinion, it would be more efficient for everybody if they just helped us clean it up and we stayed here. Some people have been here for so long — this is all they got.”
Rodney A. Lara, of Artesia, also lives in the area. He said he hasn’t appreciated how he and the homeless community had been perceived.
“We’re not animals,” Lara said. “We all have our own ways. We don’t like to be told what to do. That’s one of the main problems, (but) some of these people have psychological problems.”
Lara, who said the amount of people living there was incorrect, was able to list the names of others living within the community.
“I’ve seen people come and go — and it’s not true that there’s 20 people here,” Lara said. “The one’s that I know are Elwood, Marlin — John used to be over there — I don’t know where he went.”
Harpazo added that incorrect information has been spread about the area. He and other occupants feel singled out.
“They only targeted The Wash,” Harpazo said. “They keep saying there are 20 people down here. I’ve never seen more than nine. Right now, there’s three. We’ve been looking for the others, we think they’re hungry.”
Lara, noting his divorce and the loss of his mother, sister and home, said he went through a lot of loss all at once.
“When I was going through all these problems, I kind of lost it,” Lara said. “I got arrested for shoplifting when my mom had died. I was going into Wal-Mart, taking bottles of whiskey — I just flipped, it was too much to handle. But it was OK down here.”
After being on his own, Lara said a homeless man had offered him help.
“I met Paul when I was out here behind the McDonald’s,” Lara said. “He invited me to come down into The Wash. I got to know these people. Me and Paul have spent two or three winters out here and it is hard.”
Lara was also notified of the city’s eviction plans.
“It’s discrimination straight-out,” he said. “I know there are drug addicts and killers that have homes. If a homeless person bothers someone else — there’s a jail for that, just like anybody else.”
Lara said he’s been thinking on how to respond to the notice.
“I’m debating what I’m going to do when they kick us out of here,” he said. “I’m trying to make my life right but I have my problems.”
Lara said it feels like his years of work, military service and raising a family have come to nothing.
“They say we’re drinking and doing drugs,” Lara said. “People all over Roswell and Artesia drink, so why are they picking on us? Having us removed from here is not right. We’re not bothering anybody. It’s not right. I have a CDL, I was in the United States Army from ‘83 to ‘93 — I’m not stupid.”
City leaders have been unable to decide on the location of homeless camp after three proposed sites encountered opposition from nearby property owners, or ran into zoning issues since living in tents is not legal under city zoning law.
Harpazo said he isn’t interested in the idea of living at a tent city run by the city, or any organization.
“It’s an internment camp,” Harpazo said. “That fence isn’t there for me. I just see it as I’m a second-class citizen and their best interest is somebody else.”
Neeb said he understands the diversity within the homeless population.
“We’re going to be able to help some of them,” Neeb said. “(But,) we’re not going to be able to help all of them — they don’t want our help.
“Whatever solution we come up with has to fit their needs as well, too. I mean, and so, that’s where it’s difficult.”
At an Oct. 12 meeting, the Roswell City Council voted 6-3 to table the latest proposal to allow 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 proposed site at 300 E. Alameda St. followed the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission’s unanimous rejection of two other sites — one 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.
Neeb said the Homeless Coalition is performing the background work in trying to figure out how the organization can build something.
“The city is ready to partner with them as well,” Neeb said. “And so, we’re just trying to find that mix. I think the site seems to have been the biggest challenge we’ve had, because we can’t find that right area where they’re close enough to the services, but it (also) doesn’t interrupt all the other businesses, or the residential side.
“A lot of different places are out there. I know there’s a way we can do it, and I know that we got the people in the community that will help us find that solution. I don’t think it’s the city’s responsibility by itself to find that out. We have to partner with whoever it is that can help do this, and I think that’s where the council’s committed to try and find that way.”
Neeb said he wants to find a way for the city to co-exist with the homeless community.
“I think that’s probably the thing that I would tell them,” he said. “We don’t want to disrupt their way of life necessarily if that’s how they want to live. I think they need to understand the impact they have on the community as well.
“I think most of them probably understand that.”
Neeb said the city has been struggling with the issue in trying to find the correct model to help with the issue, but has come to find out that there are many within the city that continue to show their care on the issue.
“Finding that model is challenging, but we’ll get there,” Neeb said. “We’re Roswell. We’ll figure it out.”
Editor Jeff Tucker and Features reporter Curtis Michaels contributed to this report.