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SF homeless find refuge at Midtown site

A sign on a door at the emergency shelter on the Midtown Campus in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

When it comes to homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Fe has been fortunate compared to other parts of New Mexico.

Other areas in the state, such as Albuquerque and Gallup, have had outbreaks of the deadly virus among their homeless populations at different points since the pandemic started. In some cases, those outbreaks have occurred in shelters for unhoused individuals.

But, so far, Santa Fe has seen no such outbreak among the homeless, with many now staying in shelters, motels and the Midtown Emergency Shelter during the freezing winter nights. However, there is an awareness that the threat of an outbreak is always present.

“A good deal of it is absolutely luck-based,” said Abdullah Chudnoff, a case manager at Midtown. “We’ve been very fortunate that a lot of the people who are here have really understood the purpose of the shelter.”

Since the city of Santa Fe first opened the doors of the Midtown Emergency Shelter in April, it has held the shelter up as its shining example of assisting those with housing insecurities during the pandemic.

As of Thursday, 47 residents – including five families – were being housed in the shelters, in what used to be dormitories of the now-defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design, which closed in 2018.

The shelter, though, has been under new management since the end of summer.

The donations room houses clothing items donated by the community for residents of the Midtown Emergency Shelter in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Consuelo’s Place, a nonprofit entity started by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness in 2020, runs the day-to-day operations of the shelter after receiving a contract from the city in August.

Hank Hughes, the coalition’s executive director, said there were very technical reasons behind creating a new nonprofit to run the shelter.

“The insurance companies didn’t want to insure a shelter run by a city,” he said. “Or one that was run by a coalition like ours.”

The city, which owns the Midtown campus, has reimbursed the Coalition just under $100,000 for its management of the shelter since the start of September.

At first, the city manned the shelter with employees from various other departments, many of whom had seen their workloads evaporate due to COVID-19 restrictions. While some, such as librarians, had previous experience working with homeless individuals, no employees received training before taking their position at the shelter.

Workers at the shelter twice filed human resources complaints against the shelter’s management while it was being operated by the city. The city then signed an agreement with the Coalition to End Homelessness.

Hughes and city officials said it had been the original intention to hire a contractor to run the shelter.

“The city employees who got put there, that wasn’t their goal in life to run a shelter,” Hughes said. “That just makes it a little harder.”

City Health and Safety Director Kyra Ochoa told the Journal the work done by Public Works Director Regina Wheeler and shelter staff laid the groundwork for the success in sheltering homeless individuals over the past year.

“I think the community really owes a debt of gratitude to that effort – it was tremendous,” Ochoa said.

The shelter has provided more permanent housing for some residents, although it hasn’t been easy. Chudnoff said Santa Fe’s lack of affordable units for low-income individuals creates more difficulties.

“Since there’s so few of those units, there’s very high competition,” he said.

The city’s contract with Consuelo’s Place runs until the end of June. Hughes said that, if the pandemic hasn’t subsided by then, funding could become an issue since the shelter is currently supported by money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

“We would sort of hopefully be looking to the federal government to step in again,” Hughes said. “We don’t want to scare the city and suggest that they keep it open longer, until we have to.”

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