Brooks briefs business leaders on city’s strategy addressing homelessness

Photo by Priscilla Waggoner Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks speaks about the city’s strategy for addressing homelessness during a lunch meeting on Wednesday of the Alamosa County Chamber of Commerce.

ALAMOSA — Heather Brooks, Alamosa’s city manager, took the stage at a larger-than-usual luncheon gathering of the Alamosa County Chamber of Commerce this week to brief business owners and leaders on the city’s strategy in mitigating homelessness — a controversial topic not just in Alamosa but municipalities across the state and parts of the nation.

Brooks laid out the scope of the issue, making it clear that homelessness is not unique to the city. Except Mineral County, all the other counties have a homeless population, but Alamosa is the only municipality with a strategy to address the situation.

As a result, the city’s strategy is one that addresses the entire San Luis Valley.

She ticked off the myriad of situations that contribute to people being homeless, ranging from issues with substance abuse, physical and mental health issues and domestic violence to low wages, recent eviction, or recent exit from the judicial or foster system. In some cases, individuals may be experiencing multiple challenges at once.

And, she says, for some, being homeless is a choice.

“We have to tell the whole story here,” Brooks said. “And people can’t be told that they have to take medication, or they have to have a job. I can’t prevent people from coming to Alamosa. We don’t ‘lure’ people to come to the city — it’ not in our interest to do that. And when people exit a program — like jail — and are asked where they want to go, they’re shown a list of cities with shelters and our name is on the list. We wish they would tell them we don’t have the money for a lot of services, but we can’t tell them not to come here.” 

For perspective on the city’s actions, Brooks gave a brief rundown of city involvement, which started about five years ago.

A growing number of people were camping along the river, in parks and an area known locally as Devil’s Playground that led to city officials realizing that homelessness had evolved from something relegated to a single non-profit to an issue impacting the community. As a result, in 2019, the Homeless Coalition was formed, bringing a diverse group of perspectives and experiences to the table.

But it was the COVID-19 pandemic, she says, that prompted the city to create St. Benedict’s, a homeless encampment that cast the city into a leadership role and Brooks, as the primary architect of the plan who presented it to council, as the face and voice of the city’s decision.

“When COVID hit, businesses closed down, the shelter closed down, the buses closed down, and we had a huge group of people with no access to services like running water or rest rooms and nowhere to go,” she said.

The decision was controversial and sparked strong, sustained opposition among some members of the community — some who were in attendance on Wednesday — but, Brooks says, the “legal landscape” required St. Benedict’s be created if other issues were going to be mitigated.

As a result of a 2018 court case (Martin v. Boise) that was settled in the Supreme Court (and cost the City of Boise $1.8 million), cities can no longer enforce an ordinance that bans people who are homeless from sleeping in public places if there is no other place for them to go. Doing so, the court ruled, is a violation of the 8th amendment concerning cruel and unusual punishment.

In other words, with no alternative place for people who were homeless to sleep, officers with the Alamosa Police Department no longer had the legal authority to tell them to move from the public place where they were sleeping, whether it was a city park or city property elsewhere.

St. Benedict’s solved that problem.

The camp was built in the industrial sector of the city, Brooks says, where there is greater tolerance for nuisances, such as noise, and residential areas were less likely to have potential “negative interactions.” Fifteen huts — “like a shed you build in your backyard” — provide shelter in harsh weather, locks on the doors to protect possessions when people were away and safeguards like fire and carbon monoxide detectors. Potable water is available for drinking and bathing, and both Wi-Fi and electricity are available.

The services are not provided as amenities. During the pandemic, she says, they were necessities for people with mobile phones or iPads to keep informed about the virus and, since then, allow those looking for a job or already employed to stay in communication with employers. Wi-Fi and electricity at St. Benedict’s also provide an alternative to congregating near businesses and using their services, as was common before the camp was built.

Private property owners have the legal right to trespass anyone sleeping on their property, Brooks says, as has happened with several businesses. But the reality is that the police department is not going to arrest someone for trespassing.

Brooks also addressed the frequent complaints from those who take issue with volunteers picking up trash at the camp. Referring to practicalities, Brooks says the city has three choices — do nothing and let the trash accumulate, use tax dollars to pay someone to clean or have volunteer days to clean it themselves. The third option makes the most sense, she says.

“We want to provide services that people need so that they can transition to a job and a place to live. That’s what everybody wants, right? But we don’t want to attract people from other places by providing too many services. It’s a balancing act, and we’re learning as we go,” she said.

At Mayor Ty Coleman’s suggestion, Brooks will be presenting to the city council the summary given to the Alamosa County Chamber of Commerce at their regularly scheduled meeting on April 19 in council chambers.

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