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Police at Shelter Could Drive Away Those in Need

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Española pathways shelter police patrols Ralph Martinez

“We would have to coordinate it to where it’s a safety zone, where officers can’t go over there just to go look for individuals that might have warrants, unless it’s something major,” Ralph Martinez (right) said.

When Ralph Martinez went to Hoy Recovery in 2012, he had nine outstanding citations and warrants from three different jurisdictions throughout New Mexico.

They included failures to appear in court and failures to pay court fees and fines.

“I didn’t know how to get out of that hole, I was drowning in that pool,” Martinez said. “So I would be careful with what I would do, or who saw me on the streets. I feared for them to run my name, and I was gonna have these different warrants.”

That same fear, advocates say, could undermine the mission of the Española Pathways Shelter, a homeless shelter planned to be built in the city of Española. Martinez, now recovered from a substance abuse disorder, is likely to play a role in the shelter’s operations.

The presence of police is a crucial question for how the Española Pathways Shelter will serve the city’s unsheltered residents.

It will be up to the shelter’s operators to decide whether to allow police to make regular patrols or enter the building to search for people accused of crimes.

At issue are two different sets of interests: those of the unsheltered people who may be accused of criminal activity, and those of landlords and tenants who may believe that a homeless shelter increases crime.

“If this site is placed in the community next to a daycare center, or a school, or houses that don’t want that in their backyard, how do we give assurances that this won’t be a problem?” United Way of Northern New Mexico Rio Arriba Community Liaison Roger Montoya, the shelter’s lead organizer, asked a group of people gathered April 8 at the Española Library.

Police patrols

Shelter organizers have already spoken with law enforcement officials and Española Mayor Javier Sanchez about having police patrols “or even an on-site officer or law enforcement that could kind of manage that area,” Montoya said.

“To give assurances to the public that break-ins won’t be an issue, that it’s not a hangout where they’re gonna be coalescing and just kind of hanging out,” he said.

Meanwhile, multiple members of the Española City Council have called for an increased budget for the Police Department to pay for more patrols throughout the city. The Public Safety Department, which includes police and firefighters, makes up about 40 percent of the city's budget, not including actual costs like overtime payments.

Montoya has also considered hiring private security, Martinez said in an April 19 interview.

“We would have to coordinate it to where it’s a safety zone, where officers can’t go over there just to go look for individuals that might have warrants, unless it’s something major,” Martinez said.

Adán Baca, who used to head Hoy Recovery in Velarde and now works for The Life Link, a community mental health center, said some of the people that need to go to the shelter may not have a good history with police.

If shelter officials decide to have police present at the shelter, the people who need help may not want to go there, he said.

“On the one hand, it might give some reassurances to the community, but at the same time, it might drive away some of the patrons,” he said at the April 8 meeting.

There are no police present at the Hoy Recovery Program, Inc. facility in Velarde. When Baca was still director there, he said he would reassure neighbors by employing “all-night awake staff.”

“That’s something that would provide safety, not only for us, but for the rest of the community,” he said. “One of the things that happens with Pete’s (in Santa Fe), which is not a dry shelter, so anybody that shows up, they can stay there, but there is an issue with violence, a lot of drugs and things like that, so I think addressing these things ahead of time is really good.”

While Martinez was doing the 90-day program at Hoy Recovery, he said he never once felt unsafe.

Northern New Mexico College President Rick Bailey said people who have lived in Española for a long time know that these are the same arguments that were made about Hoy Recovery and Delancey Street Foundation, which proved to be wrong.

“And now, they have become such beautiful parts of those communities ... that it’s not an issue at all, it’s actually completely flipped,” he said. “When you look at what those organizations have done for those larger communities.”

But he still sees police as a necessary part of operating the shelter.

“So I think we should be ready for those conversations, but in the interim, until the shelter can prove itself the way Hoy and Delancey Street and others have, then the only way, I think, to mitigate the concern is the police department doin’ routine- I don’t know how to make it happen,” Bailey said. “There has to be some mechanism so that the community feels- and it’s sad, but I think that’s the reality that we have to face.”

Angelo Guisado, a New York-based civil rights attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said conservative people and communities tend to conflate the idea of security with the idea of public safety, especially after the September 11 attacks.

“If you ask affected communities, the responses from law enforcement were mass surveillance and invasive police tactics that didn’t actually make or increase public safety,” he said. “Why? There’s this idea that if you remove certain bad actors from the community, and incarcerate them, that it actually increases public safety.”

But incarceration is not necessarily the best response to people who use drugs, he said, and the communities targeted by police are disproportionately black and brown people, even though research shows there is no evidence that they use drugs at higher rates.

“Individuals who are pushing for more police presence (in Española) need to carefully consider the history of the size of their police budget as compared to the city’s population,” Guisado said. “To see whether their solution, to overpolice and overincarcerate, has actually made anyone safer.”

He points to an alternative solution adopted in Utah, where the state’s “Housing First” policy starting in 2005 built 2,626 subsidized housing units reserved for homeless people and saw a drop in crime rates.

“If you take those drug-addicted individuals ... and don’t give them anywhere to live, you’ll see a crime spike, because those people will get super desperate,” he said.

Legal aid

Shelter organizers have also faced questions about whether they plan to provide legal services at the shelter to help people break out of cycles of poverty and incarceration.

At the April 8 gathering, Maurice Fleming, a counselor at the Española office of New Mexico Treatment Services, asked if any organizations offering legal services will be interested in the shelter.

“This is the problem with criminalizing homelessness, I mean it’s a growing problem, being homeless is a crime around this country,” he said.

Ralph Martinez said in an April 19 interview that he had not yet reached out to any legal aid services but he thought it was a good idea, given his own experience.

In the two years living on the streets leading up to his time at Hoy, he said Beatrice Valdez, a case manager with the Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Department, was the only reason he was able to overcome his legal problems.

He would call Valdez at a payphone near the Stop and Eat in Española, and she told him he needed to do the footwork to beat his addiction.

One day, Martinez told Valdez about all of his pending cases, and she started making phone calls, writing letters and booking appointments for him to sort them out.

A judge told him if he successfully completed the Hoy program, they would drop his charges. And they did.

“It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” Martinez said. “I understand the importance of having that legal aid as part of a pathway.”

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