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SF’s pandemic-era efforts show how hard fighting homelessness can be

The former Santa Fe Suites at St. Francis Drive and Zia Road has been converted into housing for the homeless and those who can’t afford market rental rates. (Mark Oswald/For Journal North)

During the pandemic, Santa Fe has made a strong effort to help some of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 – the homeless.

When they’re not on the streets or camping in open spaces, homeless people can be housed in shelters. Like nursing homes, where early outbreaks of the novel coronavirus arose in the U.S. – and where COVID then continued to ravage older populations – homeless shelters are “congregate housing,” group living situations that can provide fertile ground for disease transmission.

Santa Fe city government partnered with nonprofit service providers quickly to get many homeless people into safer housing situations, such as local motels and dormitories on the former college campus that the city owns off St. Michael’s Drive. Homeless shelter capacity limits were being reduced to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

More recently, the city put $2 million into the $9 million purchase of the former Santa Fe Suites hotel off St. Francis, behind the Albertsons on Zia Road, for conversion into affordable and subsidized living units, and as housing for the homeless and people transitioning from recovery programs. Other groups and investors are involved, and St. Elizabeth’s shelter is expected to be the long-term owner/manager of the 123-unit facility.

But there have been problems despite the best intentions and good effort. At the GreenTree Inn on Cerrillos Road, a former Motel 6 where the management agreed to take in clients of homeless-services nonprofits that partnered with city government, there have been three homicides since the beginning of 2021. Two of the victims and one suspect in a killing were clients of the nonprofits.

Homeless advocates remain grateful to the GreenTree for being willing to take in homeless clients during the pandemic when other Santa Fe lodgings refused to step up.

Eighty percent of the GreenTree’s clientele is from homeless programs, manager Matt Dees recently told Journal North’s Isabella Alves, “under the condition and knowing that my staff aren’t caseworkers, (and) we are not trained for mental health issues.” Dees said he now plans to make renovations and intends to stop taking clients from the shelters as the pandemic is, apparently, winding down.

Three homicides over just six months at a single homeless housing site is a crushing outcome, despite one homeless advocate’s comment that a lot more than three had successful and safe stays at the GreenTree.

Two of the homeless service groups, St. Elizabeth’s and the Pete’s Place shelter, vetted guests at the GreenTree for sobriety. The third, the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, did not, on grounds that the main priority was to get people off the streets and into safe shelter during the cold winter months.

Another city program – allowing homeless people to camp in parks during the COVID emergency – didn’t pan out well in at least one case. Campers trashed and damaged facilities at Franklin Miles Park, including the park’s Little League baseball dugouts.

So, yes, many, many homeless people were able to get off the streets and into safe, new alternatives for housing in Santa Fe during the coronavirus outbreak. City government and the nonprofits deserve thanks, credit and praise for that.

But the problems that surfaced – particularly the motel homicides – serve as new reminders of just how intractable and difficult fighting homelessness, and caring for those without shelter, can be, even when city government, advocates, shelter operators and businesses get together to help.

When there’s an all-clear on the pandemic, city leaders from the public, nonprofit and business sectors need to revisit the idea of creating a homeless campus or “One Door” program with housing, medical care, and mental health and other services, all in one place.

Many other cities have taken this route. Such a facility could, on a long-term basis, provide the services and security that motels such as the GreenTree could not, and have not been expected to, provide during an emergency situation.

Caring Santa Feans have discussed the “One Door” model for years. There appears to be no consensus on whether it’s the best way to go. In Santa Fe, as elsewhere, the question of where a multi-service homeless center should be located would be one of the most difficult questions to answer.

The city, of course, has a vacant 60-acre college campus in Midtown and has struggled in its efforts to redevelop the property. But placing a permanent homeless facility there could affect the city’s grand schemes for commercial and residential development of the site, and likely would face the same debate over neighborhood impacts that any homeless shelter does.

The pandemic put a renewed focus on the issue of fighting homelessness in Santa Fe. The “One Door” concept is an option that needs to be discussed and seriously considered, as soon as possible.