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Location, location, location.
Situated between a car dealership and a restaurant midway along Santa Fe’s main commercial road and route into town, the Interfaith Community Shelter has it.
But even though the city has invested more than $1 million in the “one-stop homeless services center” at 2801 Cerrillos Road and recently extended the lease with the ICS for another three years, whether the shelter remains at that location for the long term remains to be seen.
The City Council’s lease-extension resolution last month also called for the city staff to analyze the shelter operation and consider expansion or relocation. At least three public hearings are to be held and a memorandum of understanding between the ICS and the city will be developed.
The resolution also requires the shelter operators to meet with neighbors – some of whom have complained to the city about people using alcohol and drugs, trespassing and defecating on their property – once a year.
At the time of the council’s November vote, there was concern that the shelter was in jeopardy of being shut down. City Councilor Chris Rivera, whose district includes the shelter and who introduced the resolution, says that wasn’t the intent.
“Some people tied it to the lease when it was really about looking for opportunities to make things better,” he said. “I’m looking at the long term and what we need to do for the future.”
Rivera did admit, however, that he doesn’t believe the shelter’s future is at 2801 Cerrillos, at the Harrison Road intersection. “I think it’s too small right now,” he said. “There’s no room for parking. We’ve talked about making it a 24-hour operation, and I don’t think it’s equipped to do that.”
Rivera, and others, have suggested somewhere on Siler Road – away from residential neighborhoods – might be a better fit. The city owns several acres there in an industrial district.
There’s no question of the need for a shelter that provides a place for the city’s homeless to stay at night, especially during the winter months. Over a two-year period from 2005 to 2007, nearly 50 people died from the effects of hypothermia, prompting church leaders to form what became the ICS in 2009. Since then, no deaths attributed to hypothermia have been reported in the city.
The shelter originally opened for men at the Salvation Army building, with women and children rotated to different churches.
After a long search conducted by the shelter and fiscal agent Santa Fe Resource and Opportunity Center – which works with such groups as St. Elizabeth’s Shelter, Healthcare for the Homeless, and The LifeLink to coordinates services for the homeless – the former Pete’s Pets building was identified as a location that met the city’s requirements for an overnight shelter. It was centrally located in a commercial district on a bus line.
Between the purchase price and renovations to the interior, city government invested $1 million before the shelter opened in November 2011.
Now, the shelter provides services to more than 1,000 people per year, serving more than 33,000 meals and accommodating tens of thousands of overnight stays. And they do it with one full-time staff member.
“The problem we have is staffing,” said Joe Jordan-Berenis, the shelter’s only full-time employee. “Right now, there just isn’t enough money to do staffing.”
That’s particularly true during the winter. “As soon as it gets cold, we’ll get 100 people in here at night,” he said. The shelter only provides overnight accommodations seven months of the year.
Jordan-Berenis relies on volunteers to make it all work. ICS says altogether there are more than 2,000 volunteers from 43 faith communities and groups. Though the shelter is open just five days a week, these groups provide lunches on weekends in the shelter’s parking lot.
In addition to providing meals and beds to sleep in, the shelter offers other day services, such as haircuts, showers, a community closet where guests can pick out donated clothing, an open arts studio, and a telephone. “In today’s world, no one can get a job without a phone,” Jordan-Berenis said.
The shelter holds “resource days,” during which various groups that provide health care, counseling and veteran services are on site. At other times guests have access to food stamp and Medicaid enrollment, syringe exchange, and housing programs. A legal clinic is held twice a month and Municipal Court Judge Ann Yalman holds homeless court on a monthly basis.
“We’re also the only shelter in northern New Mexico who takes in everyone,” Jordan-Berenis said.
That means the inebriated too. On any given night, Jordan-Berenis said the shelter may house 15 to 20 intoxicated people who might otherwise be subject to freezing temperatures, vulnerable to crime or potentially stumbling into traffic.
“I’d prefer they be here than anywhere else,” Jordan-Berenis said.
Intoxicated individuals are segregated from the rest of the guests. And they must wait for meals and beds.
The shelter benefits people like Edward Arguello, a 63-year-old New Mexico native who has been wandering western states for decades. “I’ve probably been a functioning alcoholic all my life. I’ve been a street drunk for 15, 20 years,” he said.
Arguello said his life took a turn after his divorce. “I felt no need for responsibility anymore, so I just started wandering,” he said.
Arguello said he’s cut down on his drinking substantially in the past eight or nine years. “It’s a damage reduction concept,” he said. “I keep cutting down and cutting down.”
Arguello has been off the bottle four months now, he said, and it feels good.
“I prefer drinking, but the rewards for staying off it are too great,” he said.
He’s got a place to live at the Oxford House, a halfway house just down the street from the shelter. At the shelter, he’s got a place where he can get meals and socialize with others. And he’s got a new best friend, a service dog he named Eddie.
“There was a therapist at LifeLink who had a service dog and suggested I get one,” he said. The two have formed a bond and are now inseparable.
Asked if he was concerned about falling off the wagon again, Arguello looked down at his dog and said, “I couldn’t hurt him.” Still, he has taken precautions. “I’ve got sleeping bags stashed around town in case I lose my housing,” he said.
Then there’s 60-year-old Benjamin Medina, a Vietnam veteran who came to New Mexico from California 25 years ago. Most of that time he spent living out of a truck.
“I was living in an ’84 Ford pickup for about 10 years. When that broke down I got an ’81 Dodge pickup, and when that broke down I got a ’72 pickup,” he said.
Medina used to park at Walmart or by the Denny’s because police patrolled the area at night. “I knew I’d be safe there,” he said.
Medina is no longer living in a truck. On the straight and narrow, he was able to secure housing through the shelter at the Stage Coach Inn. “It’s cool. It’s quiet and peaceful. Nobody bothers me, and I don’t bother anybody,” he said.
“I’m trying to get a VA voucher for better living quarters,” he said, adding that he was never in touch with the Veterans Administration until he found the shelter. “I never used my benefits. I never thought about it.”
“We take care of each other a lot,” Arguello said, adding that many homeless people have lost touch with or been shunned by their families. “People are afraid to say they have mental illness in their families. There’s a stigma. It’s shameful … Here, you are accepted by the community.”
Neighbors not happy
But the community around them isn’t always so accepting. “They have done a complete disservice to this neighborhood,” said Julia Furry, who along with her husband, Brad, own Furry’s Buick GMC, the car dealership they bought about the time the shelter opened four years ago.
Furry says she’s not against having a homeless shelter next door, but she doesn’t like the way it’s being run. “I feel really bad for these people, I truly do,” she said. “But when I have to literally go out in the parking lot with a shovel to clean up people’s waste, and I have people laying under cars in the lot, maybe they need to go down to the St. Elizabeth’s shelter and see how they do it. Because this neighborhood is tired of it.”
Furry said there’s been plenty of talk with the city and shelter but she’s seen little improvement.”No one is holding anyone accountable,” she said.
Bryan and Karen George own Santa Fe Power Equipment Sales, right across a side street from the shelter, and they also have had issues with trash, people sleeping and loitering nearby, trespassing on their property and panhandling customers. Their complaints got some response.
“They did listen to us and they put up a fence, and they added an outdoor bathroom and dumpster,” Karen George said. “The people that are running it are trying. But I really think that Santa Fe being the ‘City Different’ they ought to build a state-of-the-art facility on Siler. It seems like an ideal location and the city owns a lot of property there.”
Her spouse, Bryan George, would also like to see the shelter moved. Aside from the problems they’ve had, he says it’s an eyesore and has lowered their property value. “Santa Fe is a town that lives off the tourism dollar and it’s horrible how it looks on the main drag into town,” he said.
Residents have also had problems with the shelter’s guests. “Harrison Road used to be a quiet neighborhood – with longtime residents and businesses, now it is close to being a slum, with vagrants sleeping in entryways and drug paraphernalia along the street,” wrote Melissa and Pilar Patterson-Kling in an email to the mayor and city council in October.
The couple also wanted the shelter moved. “Clearly, the Homeless Shelter was not a long-term solution to a long-term problem,” they wrote. “Santa Fe needs to come up with a comprehensive solution to the homeless problem, instead of the volunteer-based solution that has subjected the rest of us to the infamous purchase of Pete’s Pets.”
“This shelter has good intentions, unfortunately its becoming a liability to the people who live down the road,” wrote Fredrick Jones.
The emails were written prior to last month’s Council meeting at which a vote was taken to renew the shelter lease. They were the only two against keeping the shelter at its current location, while dozens of other emails, many from volunteers and church groups, urged the council to renew the lease.
Guy Gronquist is chairman of the Interfaith Community Shelter board of directors. “It’s hard for me to imagine a better location,” he said. “We have to have accessibility for guests and for volunteers.”
He said the questions over whether the lease would be extended has caused uncertainty. “The problem is people become concerned whenever there is a question mark,” he said. “The difficulty for us is whenever there is uncertainty over the operation it causes anxiety for guests and concern among our volunteers and donor base.”
Gronquist said right now there is a donor willing to contribute $20,000, which would be matched with another $20,000, to construct a warming station at the shelter. “But they are waiting to see what will happen next,” he said.
He said the shelter is doing its best to be responsive to neighbors’ concerns.
“The shelter board and staff want to work cooperatively with the neighbors to alleviate any concerns they have, but our first duty is to the homeless people of Santa Fe, so we put their concerns first,” he said.
Councilor Rivera has constituents to answer to and he agrees with them that 2801 Cerrillos is not the ideal spot. “I definitely support the Interfaith group,” he said. “It’s not that they are doing a bad job, but I think we can do better than what we are doing.”
Rivera said he’s open to ideas about moving the shelter elsewhere, so long as it meets everyone’s needs. There has been talk of selling the current property and using the money to build another one, whether it’s at Siler Road or somewhere else. “I’d be open to anything that meets the needs and provides more services,” said Rivera. “Once we get everyone together there would be more ideas, I hope.”
Gronquist recognizes that 2801 Cerrillos is city-owned property and the City Council can do what it wants with it. But the interfaith community would not stand for moving the shelter elsewhere if it weren’t to an enhanced facility in a suitable location.
“Since that building was bought we’ve had five new councilors and a new mayor, so I think in some respects people tend to forget how awful things were before and why these needs are so pressing,” he said. “We need the city, but we think the city needs us.”