Update 3:35 p.m. Nov. 11: The story has been updated with additional information about the ordinance, and with comment from city Rep. Cissy Lizarraga.
The El Paso City Council voted to expand the areas where open containers of alcohol are prohibited near homeless shelters — a move that expands the existing boundaries to places outside of Downtown El Paso.
Under the current rules, open containers of alcohol are prohibited around homeless shelters that are within the boundaries of the central business district in Downtown El Paso, according to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission regulations.
City officials said the change went into effect immediately, but El Paso police officers will undergo training before any changes in enforcement occur. City officials did not say how long it would take to train officers, but that training would likely occur “quickly.”
The Downtown 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. The change to the ordinance now expands to within 1,000 feet of any homeless shelter anywhere in the city.
The penalty for violating the ordinance is a Class C misdemeanor and a $500 fine.
The expansion of the boundaries has raised concerns about criminalizing the homeless population.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, who cast the sole dissenting City Council vote against amending the ordinance, said she is disappointed.
“I think that this ordinance (change) is a step backwards,” Annello said.
Annello said the city should be looking at long-term solutions to help the homeless population as opposed to expanding the possibility of citations and fines that may not be paid. Non-payment could lead to arrests and incarceration, she said.
“This is just a cycle of recidivism that so many of us have worked so long to reverse,” Annello said.
The effort to change the ordinance stems from complaints city Rep. Cissy Lizzaraga said she received after emergency homeless shelters were 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 emergency shelters have since closed.
Lizarraga’s district stretches from South El Paso and Downtown to the Upper Valley.
“This change was driven by some of the neighborhood associations in my district. These neighborhoods have been incredibly supportive of the homeless during the very difficult times of the pandemic, during which the neighbors had to adapt to hosting the temporary shelters in their areas,” Lizarraga said in an email to El Paso Matters.
Lizarraga also said the ordinance falls in line with what state law allows and the change will give law enforcement a tool to prevent or stop some specific patterns of disturbances that have emerged around some of the shelters.
Lizarraga said the city created non-police street outreach teams in partnership with other homelessness service providers that provide the initial response to calls involving people who are homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For now, this ordinance change provides an additional tool in more complicated cases that the street outreach teams are not able to address. Police officers, as always, will be able to exercise discretion and not arrest or fine people who aren’t causing additional problems. This is for the more extreme cases,” Lizarraga said.
Cover photo: The Hilos de Plata Senior Center was used as an emergency homeless shelter in 2020 and earlier this year during the pandemic. Complaints of drinking outside the facility near a residential area led to an expansion of the city’s prohibition against open containers. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters)