Governor candidates could find tricky footing in homelessness debate - Albuquerque Journal

Governor candidates could find tricky footing in homelessness debate

Dave Schroeder holds a sign asking for cash in March 2020. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a recent debate she would push for legislation to restrict panhandling. (EDDIE MOORE/JOURNAL)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – There weren’t many surprises during Friday’s televised debate when it came to Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mark Ronchetti’s stances on abortion, crime and education.

But the incumbent Democratic governor and her Republican rival found some unexpected common ground on the issue of homelessness, with both saying they would crack down on certain activities while expanding services to those willing to utilize them.

Specifically, Lujan Grisham said she would push for legislation to restrict panhandling and criminal trespassing, while Ronchetti called for a ban on “tent cities.”

During the prime-time debate hosted by KOB-TV, Lujan Grisham said her administration was working to address an affordable housing shortage in the state, saying plans are underway to build 6,000 new houses around New Mexico.

She also said the state was working to expand substance abuse treatment programs in the state, but said some individuals are rejecting treatment options.

“We’re going to need to do a little tough love,” Lujan Grisham said. “And that’s going to mean probably more options for mandatory treatment and I plan to propose in the next legislative session restrictions on panhandling and trespass for this population.”

For his part, Ronchetti also said treatment programs should be expanded, but insisted bigger steps are needed, too.

“New Mexico cannot be allowed to be someone’s campground, and we’ve seen it here in the Albuquerque area,” Ronchetti said while touting his plan to ban “tent cities,” or large homeless encampments, in New Mexico.

He also said Albuquerque was following down the same path as other western cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

But attempts to restrict panhandling – or ban tent cities – could face legal challenges.

Peter Simonson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, pointed out a federal judge ruled in 2019 that an Albuquerque ordinance severely restricting panhandling was unconstitutional. That ruling was upheld last year by a federal appeals court.

“I think we have to remember that people are trying to survive,” Simonson told the Journal. “And the Constitution looks pretty unfavorably on attempts to curtail those methods of survival.”

And Simonson said laws criminalizing panhandling and homelessness can actually exacerbate the problems affected individuals face if they end up with a criminal record.

He also said some candidates running for elected office seek to tap into the frustration voters feel when seeing homeless people, but said solving underlying issues like a lack of affordable housing and decent-paying jobs is key to ultimately helping get individuals off the streets.

“This is a really complex problem and I think voters need to listen carefully at what solutions are being offered that would actually address the situation,” Simonson said Monday.

Albuquerque city officials, in particular, have grappled with how to deal with a visible homeless population and in August moved to close Coronado Park, one of the city’s largest unsanctioned homeless encampments.

Mayor Tim Keller, who has cited addressing homelessness as one of his top priorities, has described the move as part of a rethinking about the city’s approach to the issue.

He has supported a plan to create safe outdoor spaces in Albuquerque – or managed camps where people who are homeless can sleep in tents or cars, and access showers and toilets. But that plan has encountered political turbulence, as well as opposition from some business owners and neighborhood associations.

Some restaurant owners have also complained about homeless individuals trespassing onto their property during both evening and normal work hours.

Given that backdrop, proposals brought forward by Ronchetti and Lujan Grisham to address homelessness could receive backing from New Mexico’s business leaders.

A Ronchetti campaign spokesman said Monday the GOP candidate supports a robust homeless shelter system and service delivery centers to provide medical care, substance abuse treatment and other services.

“He believes we can be compassionate and protect our communities from the proliferation of homeless camps that give other cities/states a bad reputation, hurt economic development and make neighborhoods less safe,” Ronchetti spokesman Ryan Sabel said.

Meanwhile, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said the governor’s plan would be part of a comprehensive approach to homelessness, but did not provide additional details about the proposals to curb panhandling and trespassing.

“These proposals will seek to build on the work the governor has done to invest in housing and improve and increase access to behavioral health services throughout New Mexico,” said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett.

Lujan Grisham also said during the debate that more than half of New Mexico’s homeless population are teenagers.

Absentee voting begins next week for New Mexico’s general election, which is set for Nov. 8.

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