Santa Fe considers establishing organized homeless camps to provide better services

Mar. 25—It's a matter of public safety and security to some; to others, it's a collection of eyesores.

For the city of Santa Fe, illegal encampments of homeless people is a more than $3 million-per-year problem. There are about 70 such camps around the city. Officials want to prevent them from growing and help people living in them find permanent housing.

One solution under consideration is approval of up to four city-approved camps, each limited to about 25 people. The plan includes offering wraparound services and trash pickup at the sites, installing portable toilets and hiring camp supervisors to monitor residents' behavior and encourage enrollment in social services.

The City Council's Quality of Life Committee discussed the proposal at a recent meeting. Several members voiced support for it.

Kyra Ochoa, the city's director of community health and safety, said the proposal could help cut down on the number of illegal encampments that are spread throughout Santa Fe. It also could save the city an estimated $3.4 million annually to clear out and clean up camps, she added.

Ochoa said the estimated annual budget of the homeless camp program is about $130,000.

City law enforcement, park and fire officials put a lot of time into addressing illegal campsites, Ochoa said, and the effort does little good in the long run.

"People are asked to move on, only to pop up 10 or 20 yards down the road from where they had been," she said. "It was a revolving door and pretty ineffective."

The new proposal is based on similar programs operating in other cities, like the City of Hope camp run by the nonprofit Mesilla Valley Community of Hope near Las Cruces.

Ochoa said the city of Santa Fe likely would partner with a local nonprofit that provides services and support to the homeless population. Along with preventing illegal camps and improving outcomes for homeless people, establishing approved camps with close oversight would help the city develop connections with members of the homeless community and increase the likelihood of moving them into more permanent housing, she said.

While the city has not yet identified sites where it could set up encampments, one idea is to establish them on undeveloped city park property.

Santa Fe is one of many cities dealing with homeless encampments. A 2017 report by the National law Center on Homelessness and Poverty said homeless encampments are "becoming a semi-permanent fixture in cities" across the nation. The situation has increased in many areas since then, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Three-quarters of encampments were categorized as illegal, the report said. Two-thirds were in place for at least one year, and more than a quarter had been established for more than five years.

One "thorny" issue, Ochoa told Quality of Life Committee members, would be whether to allow campers to use drugs or alcohol if they do not do so openly and follow behavioral guidelines put in place at the campsites.

"It's really about people agreeing to maintain a certain level of cleanliness of the camp, peacefulness of the camp," she said in an interview this week. "Whether or not they are using drugs is not the deciding factor in terms of whether they can be there."

Councilors on the committee stressed the need to inform the public about the proposal being considered.

"I think some people will have a hard time comprehending because they haven't experienced homelessness," City Councilor Renee Villarreal said. "They don't have to deal with a substance abuse disorder or mental illness."

She added: "It's not a crime to be homeless."

Some illegal homeless encampments in the city are somewhat out of site, in wooded areas and arroyos, and under bridges, pedestrian walkways and roadways.

Others — like one that sprung up in recent years at Franklin E. Miles Park — draw public attention. Campers at the park vandalized a building and trashed the fields where Little League baseball games were often held.

Ochoa told city councilors on the committee many homeless people prefer to camp outdoors rather than stay in a shelter, particularly if they fear contracting coronavirus.

The city might be able to approve the plan without City Council support, she added, but she hoped the council would vet and discuss the plan, and engage the public in the process.

City-authorized encampments have been growing in popularity. A November report commissioned by the city of Santa Fe said Eugene, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; Modesto, Calif.; Denver; and other cities are sanctioning some sort of outdoor shelter program for the homeless community.

Nicole Martinez, executive director of the La Mesilla Community of Hope, said in an interview Wednesday the Camp Hope site now houses 44 men and women. The program has been running for over a decade and has so far been successful in helping many people get back on their feet and into permanent housing, she said.

Camp Hope has an outdoor kitchen, bathroom and shower facilities, internet access and social services, including care at a nearby health clinic.

Martinez said there have been fewer complaints from local business owners about homeless people sleeping outside their facilities since the project began.

"You are going to have encampments anyway," she said. "It's a good idea to look at ways to formalize that and tie it to offering services in the best way you can."