No Middle Ground

Despite amendments, critics say Santa Fe’s proposed median safety bill criminalizes homelessness

(SOURCE: City of Santa Fe)

To help Santa Fe achieve “functional zero” for homelessness in various populations, city officials and partner providers will need to increase access to safe and affordable housing; streamline access to wraparound services; expand education around efforts; and establish a quality by-name list of the unhoused, experts told the City of Santa Fe’s Quality of Life Committee on July 3.

“In general, functional zero means we are housing people at a higher rate than the people that are incoming into our homelessness systems,” New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness Data Manager Vianney Campos said.

The Built for Zero team, an initiative from Community Solutions and the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, provided the latest figures and established two-year goals based on conversations with partner providers and stakeholders. The City of Santa Fe joined the Built for Zero efforts in March 2019.

While the city has unveiled several efforts geared at helping unhoused residents, advocates say a proposed new law criminalizes homelessness.

A bill slated for a vote by the City of Santa Fe governing body on July 10 and sponsored by Mayor Alan Webber seeks to make it illegal to stand on medians less than 36 inches in width for time periods “longer than needed.” New amendments removed a former potential jail penalty and lowered the maximum fine from $500 to $25 for violations. The revised bill also carves out exceptions to the law, such as: people who are crossing the roadway; injured or disabled people who are “unexpectedly incapacitated” while crossing; law enforcement; and those with car trouble.

“I hope we’ll get a vote on it,” Webber tells SFR. “I think the ability to reassure people that the real intent of the bill is safety and only safety has been made clearer by these amendments.”

However, American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico Policing Policy Advocate Daniel Williams tells SFR none of the tweaks “have changed our legal director’s assessment of the constitutionality of the bill,” which advocates say violates the right to free speech activities, whether those include protesting, selling newspapers or soliciting donations.

Williams cites concerns regarding enforcement also come into play. Violation of the proposed median law now carries the same penalty as jaywalking, he notes.

“We know there are huge racial disparities in the way these kinds of things are enforced. Black and brown people are significantly more likely to get ticketed for jaywalking, and enforcement can become a fig leaf for harassing unhoused people,” Williams says. “That heightens our concern that this will lead to unnecessary and dangerous contact with law enforcement for some of the most vulnerable people in Santa Fe.”

Rebecca Netta, a social worker for 10 years in Santa Fe, agrees with ACLU-NM’s assessment and tells SFR the proposed law is “unfair” and places more burden on law enforcement.

“These people aren’t just going to go away, and with all the problems that we have in our country and how expensive everything is and the increasing issues with drugs and lack of mental health resources that creates the issue of homelessness, these numbers will increase. So what is the end game?” Netta says. “If we’re going to take away a valid way to raise money for themselves, what’s going to happen once people become super desperate? That also puts them in a situation where they can be victims of violence from people, too.”

The latest count of unhoused individuals could be anywhere from 279 to 471 based on various data collecting systems. Campos said during last week’s presentation the organization relies most heavily on coordinated entry system data, which captures unhoused individuals accessing services—even informal ones like grabbing a lunch. That number, provided in partnership with various service providers, found 163 single adults; 23 youth; 27 families and 10 veterans experiencing homelessness in Santa Fe—an increase from 244 to 279 between May and June. The group is working to get more inflow and outflow data to help establish a more accurate estimation, she added.

“This coding system acts almost as our point-in-time count in the community on a monthly basis,” she said, noting a more traditional approach is an annual count. “While we have made gains in community collaboration and goal setting, creating a solid data foundation will continue to be a priority for the team.”

City officials have already signed off on efforts to address homelessness, including approving contracts to establish and operate a “Safe Outdoor Space” in December 2023. Since April, Christ Lutheran Church has hosted 10 pallet shelters that include electricity, heating and cooling which The Life Link helps operate and connects individuals to case management services. Partner providers have also stepped up. In March, the Interfaith Community Shelter, which runs the Pete’s Place shelter off Cerrillos Road in a city-owned building, established a twice-weekly mobile hygiene unit where unhoused folks can go to get showers.

Santa Fe Police Chief Paul Joye tells SFR via text that the department supports the proposed median bill. Captain Thomas Grundler, who oversees the traffic unit, disputes concerns of increased unnecessary and dangerous contact with officers.

“If it’s an ordinance that we are charged with enforcing then for me it’s not necessarily unnecessary police contact,” Grundler tells SFR. “With body cameras, police nowadays are more accountable than they ever have been, so as long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing then I don’t see an issue.”

He adds that any reason a person stands out there—not just panhandling—presents a traffic safety issue, and it won’t take long for officers to learn which medians the bill addresses.

Police noted 113 instances involving a median in 2023 and 55 so far in 2024. Those instances range from fights on medians to people throwing water bottles at passing cars. Only one, however, relates to a person standing on a median being hit by a vehicle. While the data may not be able to directly correlate, Grundler says he still believes the bill will bring increased safety.

“Anytime you’ve got somebody in the middle of the road, in my personal professional opinion, it’s just a matter of time before they step off at an inopportune time,” Grundler says. “Medians really are not meant for somebody to be camped out there.”

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