Santa Fe’s homeless issues continue to simmer

William Brunson, left, an EMS Captain, and Ramos Tsosie, right, a mobile integrated health paramedic with the Santa Fe Fire Department’s new Alternative Response Unit, try to help homeless people relocate from under a St. Francis Drive bridge, Thursday July 22, 2021. Police had just told the people they had only a few hours to leave this spot. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe’s approach to homelessness keeps getting tweaked, even as some of the issue’s problems and symptoms seem to never change.

On the good news side is the Alternative Response Unit, a partnership of the Santa Fe police and fire departments. It screens dispatch calls to determine where and when services beyond a typical police response can be appropriate. The ARU team, which includes a caseworker, a paramedic and a police officer, can help in a variety of circumstances, including mental health issues and homelessness.

Andres Mercado of the Fire Department says the program shows “how to get out of the brick-and-mortar institutions and take care to where the people are,” and straddles the intersection of public health and public safety – the same space where most people find themselves when trying to settle on their own views and attitudes about the homeless.

On a recent day, the ARU team cleared out a homeless camp from beneath a St. Francis Drive overpass, but offered the campers help on how to find another place to live and access other services. They also tried to help a woman facing a trespassing charge for parking her motorhome on the lot at the Santa Fe Suites, the former hotel that’s been converted to affordable, rehab and homeless housing, and set up a medical appointment for a man camping along the Rail Trail near Second Street.

Mayor Alan Webber told the Journal North’s Isabella Alves that the city has spent $3.4 million a year chasing homeless encampments across the city. The ARU is an effort to get to the root causes of homelessness and “getting different outcomes,” Webber said.

The ARU, which went online in May, now operates three days a week, with plans to expand to a fourth, and the city departments are interviewing for a second team. The program also includes office-based caseworkers.

The ARU looks like a welcome addition to the city’s homelessness toolkit, joining other recent efforts, such as using former college dorms to take some people off the streets and the Santa Fe Suites project. It’s hard to know whether the ARU program can make a major dent in homelessness, but it does combine appropriate community values of enforcement and compassion.

Meanwhile, problems remain around Santa Fe’s ground zero for homeless issues – the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place on Cerrillos Road. In the latest public discussion about the shelter, neighborhood residents and businesses complained anew about such longstanding problems as drug dealing, sexual assault and overflow sidewalk camping. Probably nothing will change much in the near future, although leaders from the city and the shelter said they’ll work to make things better and that the Santa Fe community needs to come together if a better location is to be found.

That better location probably won’t be on the city schools-owned open space along Siringo Road between Santa Fe High School and the La Farge branch library, near Milagro Middle School. The school district, with the city providing police security, recently cleared out a major encampment in an arroyo that runs through the property, an unsafe spot during the monsoon season.

As the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up last year, the city eased restrictions on camping on public property, but now says it will respond to complaints from the public and remove encampments considered hazardous. This policy surely will be tested soon and often, as it appears that at least some campers from the school district property have already simply moved to other public spaces in Midtown, such as Southridge/Llano Street Park to the east.

As the homeless issue continues to simmer, the city is coincidentally reopening discussion of what to do with another, particularly large public space – its mostly vacant, 60-acre Midtown Campus property.

This time around, whether some segment of the campus should be used for a major homeless center has to be on the table, even if the vision of the campus becoming a gleaming mix of residential, retail, office, education and arts- or tech-based development remains.

Santa Fe needs a central location to provide the homeless population with shelter, and maybe camping space, along with such amenities as showers and services, including health care, counseling and job training. Some portion of the campus property could be the best option, particularly if the campus is expanded with the addition of adjacent state property. That would mean more land to provide a buffer between a homeless center, other development and nearby neighborhoods. Trying to push such a facility far out to the city’s edges is unrealistic – it’s not where the clients for the needed services congregate.

As we’ve said before, homelessness is an extremely difficult issue that can overwhelm even the best intentions of combined city/private efforts. Santa Fe needs to continue to try new options toward reaching the mayor’s goal of “different outcomes” on this issue that don’t include continuing to ask one particular group of residents or businesses to take the hit for all of us.

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