ALAMOSA — “The city has heard from a lot of people. We’ve heard from people who have homes, people who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness. And we’ve heard from service providers and businesses.”
Those words were spoken by Kristina Daniel, Councilor at Large for the Alamosa City Council, during a video produced by Daniel and City Manager Heather Brooks to provide residents with background information and answers to questions about homelessness in Alamosa.
But even as a standalone statement, Daniel’s words provide a snapshot of the breadth, depth and complexity of the issue and, likewise, perspectives in the community that run the gamut.
“Homelessness” – a deceptively simple word that actually encompasses a broad range of circumstances -- is a multi-layered issue, both caused and impacted by a multitude of societal and individual factors. Yet, when it comes to discussing the scope of the situation and associated funding, it often boils down to a matter of numbers. And the numbers show that homelessness is neither new to Colorado nor unique to Alamosa.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness, nationwide, was on the decline from 2011 to 2016. Since 2016, the numbers have been steadily increasing.
The latest numbers, collected in January of 2020 and published in March of 2021, show that Colorado ranks 11th out of 50 states in the number of people who are homeless. That was before the pandemic. Analysts predict that economic fallout from COVID-19 will cause the 2021 numbers to be significantly higher.
Homelessness, which has only become more visible, was a reality in a number of rural communities prior to the pandemic, including Alamosa. Dating back to 2018, the city was receiving phone calls from community members who expressed concerns – and complaints -- about where unsheltered people were camping.
“We were hearing a lot of concerns from the neighborhood,” states Brooks., “We were having lots of conversations and holding neighborhood meetings to better understand their concerns. At the same time, we were trying to grow our relationship with La Puente to be a voice of balance and to be a voice that carried some of these concerns.”
This ongoing dialogue prompted the August, 2019 formation of Alamosa’s Homeless Coalition Board, comprised of representatives from La Puente, health care, mental health, law enforcement and the city of Alamosa charged with thinking about long-term solutions to a long-term problem.
And from the beginning, the Homeless Coalition knew they were going to have to take major steps to address unsheltered people camping in public spaces.
“Even before COVID, we knew that we weren’t going to be able to enforce our no camping ordinance unless we had a location [where unsheltered people were allowed to camp]. Even before the pandemic, we knew that.”
Brooks is referring to the 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the case of City of Boise v. Martin, et al. Basically, seven people who were unsheltered sued the city of Boise, Idaho for the city’s no-camping ordinance. The court ruled that the city could not prohibit camping in public spaces when there was no other space available for unsheltered people to sleep, citing the 8th Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Put more simply, the court ruled that homeless people have a right to sleep on the sidewalks if no shelter is available. While the case applied to sidewalks, it is also applicable to all public rights of way and property. In order to keep unsheltered individuals in Alamosa from camping throughout the community in alleys, trails, parks, sidewalks, open space or other public lands, it is legally necessary for the city to have a location where people who are homeless can camp.
And that is the origin of the “homeless encampment”, otherwise known as the St. Benedict Campsite.
In May of 2020, when the pandemic was in full force, businesses and bus lines were shut down, and non-profits who had provided services to unsheltered people were severely restricted on how many people they could serve, the decision was made to create a (legally necessary) alternative to camping in public places, which was a certainty with the approach of summer. The additional decision was made to locate St. Benedict in a non-residential area that was still inside city limits yet large enough to accommodate the roughly 75 people who had been stranded in Alamosa since the onset of COVID-19.
Just as necessity gave birth to St. Benedict, common sense paved the path to installing features at St. Benedict that have also caused some community members to ask questions.
The coalition felt that it was prudent to provide water, electricity, wifi, portajohns and a dumpster at St. Benedict because, if those basic necessities were not available there, people would, understandably, go in search of places where they were. And those places would, most likely, be the same local businesses where some of the greatest concerns were, understandably, voiced.
The decision also made financial sense.
Funding from the CARES Act was available for creating a site like St. Benedict. The city’s only expenditure was a portion of the cost of building a fence – which was necessary for a multitude of reasons.
If there was ever a time for a long-term solution to be implemented, the time was during the pandemic. The money was already allocated and not taking advantage only meant the advantage would go to someone else.
Financially, there is another motivator for creating St. Benedict. Numerous studies have shown that towns that simply ignore the challenges faced by unsheltered people as a cost-saving measure end up suffering significant costs anyway, specifically related to increased costs in healthcare, increased interactions with law enforcement and increased census in local jails.
But, as is clearly evident in the video posted on the City of Alamosa’s Facebook page, there is a larger, more humanitarian picture at play.
In the opening minutes, Kristen Daniel speaks about the importance of remembering that anyone could end up being homeless. Put a different way, “there but for the grace of God…”.
She explains that unsheltered people are not, by any means, monolithic. They are children. They are elderly. They are veterans. They are families. They are college-educated. They are victims of violence or abuse. 75% of the people are working, and 85% come from the San Luis Valley. They are fellow members of the community.
While seeking a balance between what may seem like competing needs and philosophies, Daniel also makes the statement that is a pretty good takeaway. Everyone in Alamosa has value.
The video, which is just 17 minutes long, can be viewed on the City of Alamosa’s Facebook page.