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Future of Española homeless camp still unclear

In World
June 23, 2024

Jun. 22—ESPAÑOLA — A homeless encampment that Española city officials created in February but have since promised to take down is still standing, its future still unclear.

As of Friday, a few new tents had popped up at the site on the banks of the Rio Grande off of Fairview Avenue. Less than a mile away, off Riverside Drive, another homeless encampment has grown in the parking lot of Española Pathways Shelter, the city’s only homeless shelter.

The Fairview Avenue encampment was established in February after at least several dozen homeless people were evicted by tribal police from a camp on Ohkay Owingeh land behind Española Walmart.

People who work with the homeless have said the camp has made it easier to provide drug treatment and other services, but during a public safety forum in May, residents and business owners spoke out against the project, decrying open drug use and crime they said the camp allows.

Campers have said they have faced harassment from some local residents, with drivers on the bridge crossing Fairview Avenue honking at them or even throwing glass bottles and other trash at the camp.

Española City Manager Eric Lujan announced after the May forum the camp would be “disbanded” by June 1, but police Chief Mizel Garcia said at the time the city’s police force would not be involved in evicting campers, and the date came and went while campers stayed put. Lujan did not answer calls Friday seeking more information about the city’s plans for the site or its inhabitants.

In recent months, Lujan and other city officials have spoken about possibly moving the camp to another property in the city, but this has met with pushback from community members, and nothing further had been announced as of Friday.

City officials, including Lujan, have also expressed hope a newly hired city social services director will boost the city government’s capacity to coordinate programs to help Española’s homeless population and spur new efforts.

The city’s growing homeless population has been affected, advocates say, by a generational drug addiction crisis compounded by a lack of affordable housing in the Española Valley.

Case manager Sixto Aguirre is one of several outreach workers from Rio Arriba County and other nonprofit and health organizations who visit the camp daily to try to help its inhabitants find their way into drug rehabilitation, housing and food programs.

Aguirre said Friday he hopes collaboration with local government and service providers could yield a more viable alternative, potentially elsewhere in the city.

Outreach workers like Aguirre have said the site helps them find clients for case management services, and several have been helped into rehabilitation or on track for housing programs in recent months. Just recently, Aguirre said, he helped secure housing for 65-year-old Ysidro Longoria, a former railroad worker who was staying at the camp and who was interviewed by The New Mexican in recent months.

“If we start making changes now, maybe it won’t get out of control,” Aguirre said. “We need to collaborate more — not just the city and county, but the resources, treatment facilities and services we do have.”

Aguirre said he recently traveled to Harlem in New York City and to Ohio to see how organizations and local governments there have been organizing homelessness outreach with programs that offer, for example, semi-permanent structures for the unhoused along with case management services and job programs.

“When I come back, I just inform people in charge over here about what other places are doing and say, ‘Guys, let’s try it,’ because if not, things are going to get worse,” he said. “Nothing’s going to just get better here — it’s just not.”

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