LAS CRUCES, New Mexico - On Monday afternoon, city leaders, non-profits and lawmakers discussed how to meet the needs of the growing homeless population in Las Cruces.
“We think that success is keeping people safe and secure and close to services," said Nicole Martinez, executive director of the Community of Hope.
She told councilors that over the past decade, 1,500 people have found shelter at Camp Hope in west Las Cruces.
According to the Las Cruces Police Department, homeless populations frequent certain areas of the city, to include the El Paseo corridor, Burn Lake, Lohman and west Amador.
“Some people just prefer to be on the street," said Officer Brian Klimeck. "It might not make sense and I don’t understand everything there is about mental illness, but I can think of two dozen people that I’ve known over the last two years who prefer to be on the streets."
"Maybe they are okay with that lifestyle, but what's not okay is when they come into a business and harass the employees," said Mayor Ken Miyagishima, adding that "homeless people that have total disregard for another person's property - that's not right."
"It's a complicated issue," admitted city attorney Jennifer Vega.
She said in recent cases, courts have sided against governments that penalized people for sleeping in public places, urinating in public and public intoxication.
"These... have been determined to be (punishment) for the condition of homelessness," Vega said. "We have to be very careful in how we treat that and how we treat people."
Councilwoman Johana Bencomo stressed that she did not want to criminalize homelessness in the city.
"I think it's important that we talk about the systemic failures in our community that have led to increased homelessness," Bencomo said. "I think it's incredibly important that we maintain a level of dignity and respect toward people who are experiencing homelessness in our community."
According to the city, between 15,000 and 20,000 people experience homelessness in New Mexico every year. According to the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, more than 6,500 people do not have the assistance they need to escape homelessness.
Last September, the mayor of Las Cruces witnessed the challenges of homeless people in the area and heard their 'eye-opening' stories.
"It was really a great experience to understand exactly what some of our residents are going through," Miyagishima said.