Eating her lunch provided by the local shelter, Brenda Marcenaro stands next to her weathered Toyota Prius, where she lived on and off for nearly three years.
For Marcenaro, 65, the car gave her some form of shelter, but brought with it all other kinds of stressors. The daily struggle to survive on the streets of Santa Fe had started taking its toll – Marcenaro compares the feeling to clenching tightly every minute of every day.
“I didn’t realize how stressed I was until I wasn’t stressed as much,” she said.
That stress has dissipated since Marcenaro began living in a motel room at the GreenTree Inn, at least partly. The city of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County and various nonprofits all provide the funding to house Marcenaro and dozens of others experiencing homelessness in motels in and around Santa Fe.
It’s one of many efforts local officials have made to reduce transmission of the coronavirus among the homeless population, as has in other cities nationwide. Those in motel rooms are almost always elderly or have compromised immune systems, making them more susceptible to the deadly impact of the virus.
The rooms are not fancy, most of them featuring two beds, a television and laminate floors.
But Marcenaro said the conditions are the best she’s had in years and that she’s enjoying the relief the room provides her. Among other things, it’s allowed her the freedom to work on her art, one way she helps support herself.
“I feel that this is a gift,” she said.
Others living at the motel and officials agree that the rooms have benefitted a large number of people during a time of crisis, but it was not always that way.
Initially, homeless individuals were quickly placed in motels to lessen the numbers staying in shelters, and it became obvious that such an environment would not be conducive for some people, said Kyra Ochoa, director of community services for the city. Others told the Journal many residents with addictions had relapsed.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have that system set up well and everyone was scrambling,” Ochoa said. “We just learned pretty early on who could stay at a hotel and who could not.”
However, once local homeless shelters became involved in the process, the effectiveness of the motel rooms greatly increased as additional services were provided, she said.
What comes after the motels, though, remains uncertain.
Joe Jordan-Berenis, executive director of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place, said a solution is needed before funding for the motel rooms run out.
Currently, rooms are funded until the end of August, but Jordan-Berenis emphasized the need for a more permanent solution before October, when his shelter begins housing people during the freezing Santa Fe winters. He said shelter staff are examining how they would house people safely during that time.
“We don’t know what that’s going to look like,” he said. “If we have to bring people back to the shelter, that’s going to be traumatizing for them.”
That reality is not lost on those living in the motel rooms. While she’d prefer to focus on the benefits of her current situation, Marcenaro said she knew there was an expiration date.
“I can only assume that once this is over, I’m going to be back in the car,” she said. “I’m not so delusional that I think it’s going to go on forever.”
Dennis, another resident at the motel, said once he can no longer stay at the motel, he is hoping to move in with someone in California, but is not sure that will be possible.
“I’ve been scammed so many times – I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
Officials with the city, county and nonprofits have already begun planning for where residents will go when motels are no longer an option, so they do not end up on the streets again.
Ochoa said one big task has been securing CARES Act funding to ensure residents can stay through the end of summer.
However, exactly how much money has been spent to house the estimated 80 people living in the motels remains unknown. Ochoa said residents stay for around $49 per night, $25 a day spent on provided meals.
Those prices indicate a substantial amount of money has been spent so far.
“It could be in the hundreds of thousands (of dollars) by the time we’re done,” said Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, one of the organizations assisting in the effort.
Part of the CARES Act funding will go toward finding people permanent housing, Ochoa said. One way to achieve that could be purchasing property, such as a motel, using money pooled from all participating organizations.
The city has begun evaluating a couple of specific properties, although Ochoa said she could not say which ones.
“The money is a problem, it’s an issue, but it’s not the main problem,” she said. “The main problem is the will to say, ‘This is not a problem we have to live with.'”
Since the economy has largely contracted in the wake of pandemic-forced closures, many expect residents to need additional support to pay for permanent housing, especially for those who are elderly or have disabilities.
“I would expect people would need the assistance longer, because there may not be a lot of jobs until next spring,” Hughes said.
Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Marcenaro said she’s just grateful for what she’s been provided so far and that she hopes to have some form of permanent housing in the future.
“It’s a great opportunity to get away from the stressors,” she said, a look of optimism in her face. “This is an opportunity.”