Council votes to remove huts at St. Benedict

Photo by Priscilla Waggoner Brett Phillips, director of La Puente Street Outreach, (left) and APD Captain Maestas (right) describe to city council members the challenges with the huts at St. Benedict Encampment.

ALAMOSA — Members of the Alamosa City Council approved by unanimous vote to authorize the removal of the 12 remaining huts at St. Benedict Encampment in Alamosa.

The vote was held following a lengthy conversation with Brett Phillips, director of La Puente Street Outreach, and Alamosa Police Department (APD) Capt. Samuel Maestas, who oversees the Community Services Officers (CSO) who are stationed at the encampment. 

The recommendation was generated by La Puente based on data Phillips had collected. That data was then confirmed by APD Co-responders (who are on the site almost daily) and supported by Capt. Maestas and APD CSOs.

Heather Sanchez, Alamosa city manager, provided a brief background on the rationale for the huts, stating that La Puente has had concerns for about a year and a half that “the huts weren’t working the way they were supposed to. We’re learning as we go,” she said.

Phillips then summarized the situation for the council.

With propane used for heat, huts aren’t necessarily warmer than tents, they just “stay warmer longer.” People who went through the selection process for a hut have been “strong-armed” out by some of the more powerful people in the camp and, even when CSOs intervened, the situation has reverted back as soon as CSOs were gone. People in the huts have not been engaging with programming and services. Positive outcomes, such as obtaining long-term housing, among people living in the tents is twice that of the people living in the huts. Health and safety concerns are significant, including huts with human and animal waste, food, dead animals rotting and, in some of the huts where there has been drug use, residue of methamphetamine.

“Those things aren’t necessarily uncommon,” Phillips said.

“My suggestion,” he said, “is based on what people staying in the huts have told me, and I wouldn’t feel morally right recommending anything other than removing the huts. I don’t like to think of it as taking anything away from people who have so little but doing this in the interest of the health and safety of people staying there. I have a vested interest in the well-being of those people.”

“If La Puente, CSOs and co-responders who are on the front lines are saying this is what needs to be done for a plethora of reasons, then I think we need to do that,” Councilor Vigil said. He reiterated that position later on in the conversation, saying, “We were trying to help people. People do need 30-45 days to be prepared and there will be tents available. Now that I know that will happen, I’m 100% in support of this decision.”

After asking questions about timing of the hut removal and provision of tents for those being removed from the huts, Councilor Krebs supported the motion. Krebs also emphasized that removing the huts is a separate action from the housing at Horizon Heights, and “it’s not one to the other.”

Councilor Dominguez confirmed that the recommendation was from La Puente, CSOs and co-responders and city staff versus just one entity and all were in agreement that removal was the right action.

Dominguez went on to say that, after the huts are removed, “I think there needs to be a conversation about accountability, not just receiving services but accountability and consequences for actions – not just for the people who are living there but for other people living in the community.”

Dominguez volunteered to be part of that conversation as he feels that, “the city council needs to be part of that conversation about accountability. That helps information to be disseminated to the people in the community who live around there but also people in the camp so they understand there are consequences for not taking APD or La Puente seriously.”

“I can’t remember a time when people weren’t disregarding the rules,” Phillips said. “But it’s kind of tough for us because we want people to work with us and to not perceive us as part of law enforcement. But that makes it tough for law enforcement, too.”

Phillips added that La Puente staff hasn’t spoken to anyone about the specifics of taking down the huts but they have seen the one hut taken away.

Sanchez talked about how the city has been raising the bar for keeping an area clean with incentives for people who keep their space clean and help on volunteer days. For more serious violations, people have been trespassed and others have been cited for municipal court.

“There’s a fine line between dancing around something and enabling because we want to keep a good relationship with people,” Dominguez said, “and people being accountable for what they’re doing as part of a community.”

Coleman asked questions “not for us but for the public”, which Sanchez answered. Specifically, the huts were purchased entirely with Covid grant funding, but staff time was involved in the set up.

The huts are not going to be moved to Horizon Heights. If the city does not allow some of the huts to be donated (an idea proposed which Councilor Hensley disagreed with due to health concerns), they will be disposed of.

Finally, the decision to remove the huts was “100% a recommendation from those people with boots on the ground,” and it was council’s decision to authorize — or not — their removal.

When asked about the timing of the removal, Sanchez told the Valley Courier, "The city attorney will review the agreement that the resident signs when they get placed in a hut.  This would be applicable only for those residents who are rightfully in the hut.  We want to make sure we are 100% legal for notices in that situation.  

"We’re also cognizant of the disruption we are causing for people and to allow an appropriate amount of time to move. Making sure they have the right supplies when temperatures are still getting low is important. 

"Removal of the huts will be fit into the Street Department's schedule.  Preparing people will likely take a few months. I'm not sure a few months works for streets."

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