Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The number of homeless people living in Santa Fe and seeking services is on the rise – something advocates say could be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s still unknown how much the homeless population has increased, but Joe Jordan-Berenis, executive director of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place, said the shelter saw 144 new people seeking services over the past three months.
“When I drive around the city, I see a lot of people I don’t recognize who have never been at the shelter,” Jordan-Berenis said. “And I’m not sure where they’re coming from.”
Shelter staff is currently interviewing new people to figure out where they’re from, he said, with some coming from out-of-state and Albuquerque.
Historically, though, the majority of homeless people in the area hail from the local area. Jordan-Berenis estimated about 87% of those at the shelter are from Santa Fe.
There are more than 300 homeless people living in Santa Fe, according to the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, but city Community Services Director Kyra Ochoa said that’s certainly an undercount of the actual total, which could be as high as 1,000.
“We’ve been working intensively with (the Coalition) to get better data,” Ochoa said.
She said all providers in their network say there’s an increase, although without more concrete data it’s difficult to say how much it is or what’s the cause.
That increase is not lost on those at the center of the discussion.
John Dalancy, 22, said he grew up in Santa Fe and has struggled with homelessness for seven years. He said since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit New Mexico in March, he’s seen the number of unhoused people in the area double, especially in the city’s busiest areas.
“Everybody just lost their house, their job, everything,” he said. “Especially down Cerrillos (Road), there’s a lot more homeless people down there.”
COVID-19 has ravaged much of the state’s economy, as people stay home longer and businesses face various occupancy restrictions, which advocates say can force those in fragile living situations onto the streets.
Hank Hughes, the Coalition’s executive director, said the city’s previous homeless peak came soon after the Great Recession in 2008, as many people lost their jobs and subsequently their homes.
“I suspect that it’s going to be just as bad as what we had in around 2009,” he said. “People who used to be able to hold things together … some of them are falling into homelessness.”
The city is now prepping to shelter its unhoused population before temperatures begin to fall. Pete’s Place’s 123-bed occupancy will be reduced to 36 to keep residents socially distanced.
Thirty others are currently sheltered at a local motel and the city is also housing people at the Midtown Campus. Mayor Alan Webber has also said the city plans on purchasing a motel to be used for transitional housing and that those discussions are already under way.
But Dalancy said he’s also noticed a change in how the general public perceives those who are homeless, with many others facing dire economic straits.
“People are more polite and respectful,” he said. “Everybody’s thought, ‘Well, that could be me tomorrow.’ ”