During Wednesday’s Santa Fe City Council meeting, city officials lauded what they said were the many successes of the Midtown Emergency Shelter.
Announced to the public March 30, the shelter was created in order to give those experiencing homelessness a place to isolate from the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent an outbreak among Santa Fe’s homeless population, using part of the Midtown campus purchased by the city after the Santa Fe University of Art and Design closed in 2018.
The city recently hired a master developer for the 64-acre campus for what Mayor Alan Webber has called “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to build an urban center on the site that has the potential to change the City Different forever.
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Councilor Jamie Cassutt-Sanchez said during the meeting. “This is what this should be looking like, not just in a COVID world, but also when we’re looking at homelessness as a whole.”
As of last week, 60 people were living at the shelter, nine of whom are in a COVID-positive building.
Public Works Director Regina Wheeler, one of the shelter’s directors, said a reduction in traffic to local hospitals and providing housing for residents have been among the largest benefits of the shelter.
But for some staff members working on the front lines in the shelter, things aren’t so rosy. They say conditions at the shelter are unsafe and operations there suffer from poor management.
So far, shelter employees have filed two human resources complaints against Wheeler. Copies of the complaints obtained by the Journal detail unsafe working conditions in the shelter and allege Wheeler has inappropriately spent city funds while serving as director.
Multiple staff members at the shelter told the Journal drug use, theft and physical threats to employees have become all too common since the facility opened. They also said management has often ignored some of the issues they face.
“We’re at risk of a lot of things,” said Charlene Sandoval, an employee at the shelter.
Like many others working at the shelter, Sandoval worked previously at a different city department and was furloughed for 16 hours a week due to the city’s budget shortfall.
Workers were offered the opportunity to work at the shelter to decrease the number of furloughed hours. Nearly half the staff worked previously in city libraries, while others came from courts, parks, youth services and the fire department.
And while some have prior experience working with homeless people, every employee interviewed said they have not received any training since the shelter opened.
“They should’ve trained us better,” Sandoval said, adding some employees don’t know how to interact with homeless people in crisis.
The lack of training, Sandoval said, has also exacerbated the lack of security at the shelter. Employees said there is no security in the building during the day, only a guard in a car patrolling the entire Midtown campus.
On one occasion, they allege, two former residents came to the campus and physically attacked other residents. Another man – who had previously made threats to staff members – arrived with a knife in his waistband, employees said.
One of the complaints states that employees have been sexually harassed or stalked by residents, and had reported the incidents to Wheeler. Sandoval said one resident would repeatedly make inappropriate comments to her while drunk.
Wheeler said she was not aware of any instances of sexual harassment.
The lack of security also led to an increase in the presence of drugs at the campus, employees said. While Wheeler said illegal drugs have been found on one occasion, employees said the use, purchase and sale of drugs have become a regular feature of the shelter.
One employee said they had found multiple needles, small baggies of methamphetamine and other types of narcotics. A resident accidentally poked herself with a loaded heroin needle located in a donated jacket, multiple employees and Wheeler said.
Residents have also used cellphones, provided to them by the city, to purchase and sell drugs, employees said.
But while drug use has proliferated, employees say Wheeler has not allowed them to police the shelter for drugs. Wheeler denied this was the case.
Sandoval said the shelter lacks any supplies needed in the event of an overdose.
“Being that we do have these types of individuals here, we should have a defibrillator and Narcan,” she said. “We don’t have either here.”
Wheeler said naloxone, also known as Narcan, will be provided once staff are trained to use it.
Along with drugs, thefts have become increasingly common.
Employees and Wheeler said a television, a Mac laptop and multiple cellphones were stolen from the property. Staff members said the thefts initially went unreported, but Wheeler said she did report them.
Keys to the building were also stolen, according to employees who said Wheeler was initially hesitant to change locks.
“We did lose track of a set of keys and we don’t know what happened to them,” Wheeler said, adding locks were later changed for unrelated reasons.
Wheeler also acknowledged she initially purchased cigarettes for residents at the shelter so they would stay quarantined, but she is not buying them any more.
“They couldn’t leave the property to get cigarettes, so in order to succeed at reducing the COVID spread in the community, cigarettes were provided during the quarantine period,” she said.
She said she does not know how much money was spent on cigarettes, but some employees said it amounted to thousands of dollars.
Multiple staff members also alleged Wheeler purchased alcohol for residents, some of whom are alcoholics.
Wheeler said she never bought alcohol for residents, but she did once buy beer for herself while purchasing supplies for residents.
“There was beer on one of my receipts at one time, but it was an inadvertent purchase,” she said, adding she used her personal credit card.
One complaint sent to the city includes a letter to Wheeler found by staff. The letter was written by a former resident to Wheeler and includes $200 in cash.
“Here is something for the house,” the letter reads. “If I should obtain more in the future, I will be sure to help out.”
Wheeler said the man writing the letter had wanted to pay the city back for housing and food, and that the money was eventually returned. She said she received the letter only when the city’s human resources department gave it to her.
Staff members said some residents have benefitted from their time at the shelter, and have secured housing and job interviews.
But they also said the negatives greatly outweigh the positives, with one employee calling the shelter “the state’s largest trap house.”
Sandoval said they’ll be able to provide better services to those living in the shelter once conditions and management improve.
“I want it to be happy and safe for myself, my workers and some of these people deserve it, too,” Sandoval said.
The City Council is currently considering funding the shelter on a more permanent basis, partially using federal funds provided through the CARES Act.