The bottomless debate around sanctioned encampments for homeless people swallowed a significant chunk of the Santa Fe City Council meeting on Wednesday.
A presentation on a proposal to create a supported camp for unsheltered people at the Midtown Campus sparked debate, but no final decisions. The plan, presented by Department of Community Health and Safety director Kyra Ochoa, would expand services through Consuelo’s Place to provide a framework for managed camping in designated areas, including infrastructure for warming, hygiene, safety and other services.
Ochoa framed the proposal as one that would allow the city to enforce cleanup of encampments on city property. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ochoa said, the city’s policy of clearing encampments only to have them pop back up again nearby cost Santa Fe $3.4 million annually and was “legally problematic.” Without providing an alternative to camping in public spaces, she said, the city is not legally justified in clearing encampments.
“Essentially we were kicking the can down the road with that policy,” Ochoa said. “We’ve really seen a proliferation of encampments, which is concerning.”
When the pandemic hit, Mayor Alan Webber’s administration issued an emergency proclamation de-prioritizing the clearing of encampments—but it ended on June 6, leaving the city with a hard choice about how to move forward. Ochoa said the fire danger unsanctioned encampments pose is motivating a quick decision about a safer solution.
But finding that solution is a catch-22.
Many Santa Feans at the council meeting cited safety concerns. Among them, Maria Bautista resisted Ochoa’s solution, saying that the proposed location at the Midtown Campus is too close to schools and parks and would endanger residents and children.
According to Ochoa’s presentation, 291 encampments have been reported into the CIty’s Constituent Relationship Management system since April 2020. The presentation cited a study the city commissioned last year on unsanctioned encampments, which “indicated that many unsheltered people in Santa Fe are frustrated by the current options available and would be open to a supported camp.”
For some, though, the rules associated with such an encampment are a deterrent.
“It’s like an outdoor prison,” says an unhoused woman who asked SFR not to identify her on Monday. She cites curfews and rules surrounding entry as reasons she would not be interested in a supported camp such as the one Ochoa has proposed.
Ochoa acknowledged that the proposal would not be an end-all, be-all solution.
“There’s no perfect site,” she told the governing body Wednesday night “No one wants this…The hardest part of all of this is where, where, where?”
She left the council with these options, as outlined in the slides she showed at Wednesday’s meeting:
- Do nothing. Maintain our current policy on encampment response and work to ensure that adequate in-door shelter options are provided to those we direct to leave. If no such options exist we cannot clear that camp. Confusing for unsheltered people, outreach workers and staff.
- Revert to the pre-COVID policy of breaking up encampments when they become unsafe, unsightly, or dangerous. This risks lawsuit.
- Sponsor one or more safe encampment sites. That would provide structure, oversight, and safety and, at the same time, provide the basis for more enforcement. The location or locations of the sites and the provision of services, as well as the time to create the sites are the critical decisions.
- Put out an RFP for a coordinated, consolidated site for a new shelter and a safe encampment facility. That is a longer-term solution and also involves site selection and coordinated wrap-around services.
- Seek to purchase one or more hotels/motels to provide more housing, like the Santa Fe Suites property. That will require funding and also involve coordinated management of the housing and wrap-around services.
Ochoa emphasized that the city has yet to formally choose a strategy. Councilor Chris Rivera urged public involvement in the decision-making process, recommending a neighborhood meeting where residents could voice their concerns. No such meeting has yet been scheduled.