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SCOTUS allows harsher penalties for the unhoused. How will Las Cruces respond?


This story has been updated with more background on the Supreme Court ruling. 

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling could have drastic effects on how municipalities like Las Cruces treat unhoused residents who sleep in public spaces – eventually.

In the ruling, the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority upheld a ban on camping in public spaces in Grants Pass, Ore. The high court decided that laws that criminalize sleeping in public spaces do not violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Some local officials fear the ruling will give municipalities the green light to aggressively fine and jail homeless people for sleeping on the street – even when they have nowhere else to go.

Other officials described the ruling as unlocking another tool for municipalities to use in responding to public pressure to remove unhoused people from public view.

“I think that this ruling is sort of a systematic statement,” said Las Cruces City Councilor Becky Corran. “It creates a space where being inhumane is sanctioned collectively, and I think that makes it rhetorically harder to have meaningful conversations about what we can really do.”

Corran was not alone in criticizing the Grants Pass ruling. The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, a state interest group that advocates for more housing for the unhoused, also condemned it.

“Homelessness is not a crime, and treating homelessness as a criminal matter not only fails to address the root causes—such as lack of affordable housing, poverty, and mental illness—but also exacerbates the struggles of those affected,” said Monet Silva, NMCEH Executive Director in a statement, adding that local government should focus on support services, resources, and sustainable solutions to help people.

“This alarming decision also coincides with a surge in bills and ordinances being introduced statewide that aim to criminalize homelessness,” the statement said.

In the short term, however, officials said that little in Las Cruces will likely change following the Grants Pass ruling – even as the city considers ordinances that would directly affect the unhoused.

Most notably, Las Cruces Police Chief Jeremy Story said residents should not expect the ruling to change how local police approach unhoused residents sleeping in public spaces.

While the city has rules governing when parks open and close, it does not have the same prohibitions on camping that are at the heart of the SCOTUS ruling, as Story pointed out.

“When we have people camping on public property, we connect it to public health or public safety issues,” Story said, adding that officers typically assess if the person camping is in a safe space to do so or is presenting a danger to the area around them.

Still, Story said the ruling did provide some clarity for law enforcement, which he said was beneficial.

Unhoused residents in tough spot

Las Cruces’ public homeless shelter, Community of Hope, estimates there are around 288 people unhoused in Las Cruces on any given night. But that’s likely an undercount.

Point-in-time or PIT counts, like the one Community of Hope relies on, involve volunteers counting the number of unhoused people during the last week of January. Critics say that, despite the good will and effort involved, PIT counts are severely flawed and lead to a significant undercount.  

People experiencing homelessness in Las Cruces also endure harsh conditions, especially during sweltering summers. Those who cannot find stable housing suffer triple-digit day-time temperatures, sporadic monsoon rainstorms and winds that topple trees and tear up roofs.

Additionally, national studies show that being homeless makes a person more likely to witness or experience violent crime. A 2014 study titled “Violence and Victims” found that about 49 percent of people surveyed experienced a violent attack during their stint without housing.

And in fact, it’s not uncommon for LCPD to encounter the worst outcome for people in this space. In late June, the city confirmed to the Bulletin that police were working to identify a man who’d been found dead at an empty shopping complex of Amador Crossing on Amador Avenue and S. Esperanza Street.

Police told the Bulletin they did not believe the cause of the death was suspicious but said the man had been there for several days as a wind storm moved through the borderlands.

Research also shows that access to housing is a crucial indicator of the number of people experiencing homelessness in a given community. A landmark 2018 study sponsored by Zillow found that communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness.

According to a review of Las Cruces income data from the U.S. Census Bureau and available data about average rental and mortgage prices, more than half of all residents in Las Cruces could not afford over half of the available units.

The city, led by different councils over the last six years, has taken two notable steps in its response to this problem: investing in affordable housing to grow the supply and retooling zoning codes that limit the development of multi-family housing.

More recently, the city has also renewed its focus on its municipal court as a venue to connect unhoused people with services like drug and mental health treatment.

Parallel to the city’s efforts, two local conservative activist organizations have reacted,  including the Coalition of Concerned Conservatives in Action and Business for Safer Las Cruces. Leaders of both groups have called for stiffer penalties for people panhandling and using shopping carts to haul their belongings during city council public comment sessions and other forums.

Pressure from these groups, combined with some support on the Las Cruces Council, has led the city to consider implementing those proposals, although it’s unclear if they have majority support on the Council.

Mayor Eric Enriquez said those ordinances are scheduled to appear before council for a vote on August 5.

A looming possibility of change

Enriquez also said he doesn’t expect Las Cruces to see drastic change in the coming weeks and months.

“In the short term, we don’t have to react so quickly to this change. But it’s definitely a new tool,” Enriquez said.

When asked if he’d like to see Las Cruces enact stricter penalties on unhoused residents for sleeping in public, he said not necessarily.

“But definitely, we need to get some kind of assistance and treatment to these individuals because they're unhoused for a reason,” he said.

Other officials echoed his sentiment, but added that they fear future councils will yield to pressure from the groups calling for harsher punishments.

“I think we in Las Cruces have all the key pieces for addressing homelessness,” said Councilor Johana Bencomo. “We just need real solutions from the federal government and the state government, which is more resources. And so, I hope that this ruling doesn't actually have an impact on what we're trying to do here.”

Nicole Martinez, the executive director of Community of Hope, said she hopes the city and law enforcement will not impose harsher penalties for unhoused residents sleeping in public spaces.

“The real solution here is systemic solutions like having enough housing, not criminalizing homelessness,” Martinez said. “I think that that worsens homelessness. You're tacking on fines and background checks and criminalization of homeless people; it's also expensive. And it certainly doesn't address the root causes.”

Homeless, SCOTUS, penalties, inhumane, Grants Pass