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City plan to expand open container restrictions near homeless shelters raises concerns

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The El Paso City Council is debating whether to expand the areas where open containers of alcohol are prohibited around homeless shelters — a move some local lawmakers say could criminalize homelessness.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has statutory authority over where cities can enforce open-container restrictions. The city’s current ordinance that prohibits open containers around homeless shelters applies only to the boundaries of the central business district in Downtown El Paso in accordance with TABC regulations. The district encompasses parts of the city near the Paso del Norte Bridge to Missouri Avenue just south of Interstate 10. The district extends eastward toward Cotton and Delta streets.  

But an effort initiated by District 8 city Rep. Cissy Lizarraga aims to expand those boundaries. Lizarraga’s district stretches from South El Paso and Downtown to the Upper Valley.

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Lizarraga did not respond to El Paso Matters’ request for comment.

The city is considering expanding the ordinance to prohibit open containers within 1,000 feet of a homeless shelter, which would expand the boundaries outside of Downtown El Paso. The current penalty for violating the ordinance is a Class C misdemeanor and a $500 fine.

“If this is being done to target the homeless, you are targeting individuals that either have no ability to pay the fine and if by chance — which is a slim chance they have the funds to do so — they have no desire to pay the fine,” said John Martin, the director for the Opportunity Center for the Homeless.

Martin said the proposal has the potential to exacerbate the cycle and criminalization of the homeless.

The effort to change the ordinance stems from complaints Lizarraga and other elected officials received after an emergency homeless shelter was opened at the Hilos de Plata Senior Center and a welcome center at the Chalio Acosta Sports Center, on Delta Drive in Central El Paso, last April in response to the COVID-19  pandemic.

The city chose those sites because the centers had been closed to the public due to COVID-19. The locations had previously housed displaced people during Hurricane Rita and were already designated as emergency sites. They are also near the Salvation Army and Rescue Mission, which allows those organizations to provide additional support to the homeless population during the pandemic.

Dora Villanueva, Val Verde Neighborhood Association president, said there was an increase of homeless individuals drinking around the neighborhood and emergency shelter after it opened.

“What we wanted was for them to stop drinking out there in the streets because they would just sit anywhere, have a whole bunch of beer, cigarettes and everything,” Villanueva said.

The Hilos de Plata Senior Center on Delta Drive, which served as an emergency shelter for homeless people during the pandemic. Neighbors complained about increased public consumption of alcohol and asked the city to prohibit open containers within 1,000 feet of shelters like this one. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Villanueva said she and her neighbors would call the police for help, but would often be told that there was nothing they could do because it was not a violation to have open containers of alcohol in that area.

Martin said it is not unusual for pockets or encampments to form in the vicinity near emergency shelters.

“One of the reasons is that there are rules when you enter a shelter. With the Opportunity Center, we have an open door policy for all,” Martin said. “We want them in the door, so if they come in highly inebriated, that’s fine. But once they’re inside, there are rules.”

Martin said there’s no drinking or drug use allowed once an individual is inside the shelter. He said that is why encampments tend to form in the vicinity of shelters.

“They know that if they’re outside, they’re in a position where they can have a beer if they want to, but they can still take advantage of resources that are available within the shelter,” he said.

Villanueva said she and her neighbors began reaching out to elected officials and the city to try to find a resolution after frustrations began to mount.

City Council discussed the possible change to the ordinance on Oct. 12, but postponed the item after some members raised concerns about the potential targeting of the homeless population.

“You’re punishing people for being homeless,” said West-Central city Rep. Alexsandra Annello. “It’s not right.”

Annello said changing the ordinance will only criminalize the homeless and not solve the long-term problem. She said there needs to be an approach that connects homeless individuals to services.

Martin agreed and said the city should create a program similar to the El Paso police crisis intervention teams. Such teams pair a police officer with a mental health expert to respond to emergencies that involve an individual in a mental health crisis.

“In lieu of a CIT team that is focused on mental health at this point, it would be more focused on street outreach,” Martin said. “We would want to see something on the back end that focuses on providing resources to the individuals versus criminalizing them.”

City Rep. Peter Svarzbein said he is in favor of a more all-inclusive ban on open containers, but state law trumps the city’s ability to do so.

The TABC exclusively governs the manufacture, sale, distribution, transportation, and possession of alcoholic beverages and does not authorize municipal regulation of the possession of an open container or the public consumption of alcoholic beverages.

“What seems to be the most equitable and fair thing to do, as well as the most productive for El Paso, is to have an open container ordinance that bans open containers on any city streets in any part of the city,” Svarzbein said.

City Reps. Cassandra Hernandez and Joe Molinar do not think the change in the ordinance targets homeless individuals, but will instead serve as an enforcement tool.

“To me, it’s a tool that a police officer can use for some type of enforcement,” Molinar, a former police officer, said. “I’m not gonna say it’s the greatest solution.”

Hernandez said the change will be applicable to any person who has an open container within the 1,000-foot boundary.

“This is just one avenue where if there is a concern, it gives the opportunity for residents or business folks to be able to contact the police department and the police department be able to respond to evaluate if there is a violation of an ordinance,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez added there has to be a multifaceted approach where resources can be provided to homeless individuals as part of the response to calls to the police department.

“We don’t want to unfairly penalize with punitive measures (and) you don’t want to unfairly penalize the homeless population,” she said. “It has to come with other social services and other programs to make it successful.”

City Reps. Henry Rivera, Isabel Salcido, Claudia Rodriguez and Mayor Oscar Leeser did not respond to El Paso Matters request for comment.

City Council will resume discussing the possible ordinance change during its regular meeting Tuesday.

How to attend

The City Council meeting is scheduled at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26.

In person: at City Hall Council Chambers, 300 N. Campbell. Face coverings are recommended.

Virtually: Teleconference phone number: 1-915-213-4096; Toll free number: 1-833-664-9267 and Conference ID: 873-411-780#

Watch the livestream via the city’s website; via television on City15; or on YouTube

Members of the public may communicate with council during public comment, and regarding agenda items by calling (915) 213-4096 or Toll free 1 (833) 664-9267.

Cover photo: A pedestrian walks by the Willie Sanchez Rosales Family Center, an emergency shelter for homeless families, on South Oregon Street. The city is considering an ordinance that would prohibit open containers of alcohol within 1,000 feet of all homeless shelters, a move that opponents say criminalizes homelessness. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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