Proposed ordinance blocks homeless shelter in Roswell

ROSWELL, NM — A proposed Roswell City Council ordinance blocking the construction or operation of a new or expanded homeless shelter in Roswell violates the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions and the Fair Housing Act, charged the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in a letter sent yesterday to the Roswell Mayor and City Council. The City of Roswell would be unable to meet vital housing needs and reduce homelessness if the proposed ordinance is passed because it imposes excessive zoning restrictions that exclude any new or expanded shelter from operating in the city.

“Everyone benefits when all community members have a safe place to sleep at night, access to running water, and bathrooms,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the Center. “There is a vital need for a bigger shelter in Roswell that can accommodate more individuals and families. Unfortunately, the ordinance would leave the city with no options for locating a much needed transitional housing facility, leaving people to sleep outdoors. Each night without shelter brings new threats of violence, malnutrition, and sickness.”

The proposed ordinance would restrict any new or expanded homeless shelter to two industrial zones in Roswell and impose, among other excessive requirements, that any transitional housing be on a plot of at least two acres and have an eight-foot fence. Zoning maps for the City of Roswell show that there are no plots in the restricted zones that are large enough.

There has been an exponential rise in homelessness in Roswell over the last few years. Instead of addressing the severe lack of housing and shelter in Roswell, the city began enforcing anti-camping ordinances that criminalize homelessness without providing access to shelter.

Not only is there a severe shortage of space in Roswell’s homeless shelters for the large numbers of people who need them, there is no current facility in Roswell that can take families. If, for example, a family made up of a mother and teenage boys is lucky enough to find a shelter, the children must be separated from their mother.

The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in Roswell have mental and physical disabilities. Banning a new or expanded homeless shelter in the city violates the Fair Housing Act because it would discriminate against people with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny access to housing on the basis of disability. The equal protection clauses of the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions also prohibit laws that discriminate against people with disabilities.

The City of Roswell’s continued efforts to criminalize homelessness by issuing citations to people who sleep or otherwise occupy public places also violate the First, Eighth, and 14th Amendments. This is particularly true when the city knowingly fails to provide alternative housing options for people who are homeless.

The letter from the Center explains: “Individuals in this country have significant liberty interests in standing on sidewalks and in other public places, and in traveling, moving, and associating with others and that liberty is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Punishing unhoused residents of Roswell for sleeping and possessing property outdoors violates the Eighth amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because these actions are unavoidable for people who are homeless.”

The Center urges the City Council to table the proposed amendments to the Roswell Zoning Ordinance and instead, work in collaboration with community members to set up a task force of stakeholders to find an appropriate location for permanent supportive housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.

“Transitional housing is proven to increase community health and safety,” said Hager. “Research shows that housing stability improves physical and behavioral health outcomes and reduces the use of crisis services such as emergency departments, hospitals, and jails for individuals experiencing homelessness. Adequate transitional housing would improve the health and safety of both people experiencing homelessness and the surrounding community.”

A copy of the letter the Center sent to the mayor and city council can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Letter_Roswell-City-Attny_2018_04_04.pdf