Tensions around shelter highlight growing homelessness concerns
On Santa Fe's main Cerrillos Road, between car dealerships, Mexican restaurants and motels, the Interfaith Community Shelter has a big sign reading "Pete's Place" and, often, people out front with shopping carts of possessions, seeking help.
"We are considered either an extremely low or low-barrier shelter," says executive director Korina Lopez. "People can be intoxicated when they come in. They just can't use on site. But we open our doors to everyone."
The shelter was opened more than a decade ago because in the cold Santa Fe winters, people who were drunk or high and had nowhere to go could and did freeze to death. With a combination of funds from the city, donations and volunteers, it has likely saved many lives.
But over the course of the pandemic, Pete's Place has become a focus of frustration for some local residents and businesses, who say more people are living on the street outside the shelter, that their behavior is antisocial and they sometimes cause damage.
"There's no boundaries for the homeless people," says Mark Edwards, who has closed his pet boarding business on Harrison Street, off Cerrillos, because he says his customers were deterred by, "feces, needles, trash. You know, people passed out on the sidewalks, garbage everywhere."
He has joined other locals in a lawsuit against the shelter and the city, complaining of a lack of enforcement of vagrancy laws, which the city has filed a motion to dismiss.
Housing advocates, shelter workers and people living on the streets say the tensions speak to a much broader problem of people losing their housing as the pandemic's economic disruption continues and New Mexico rents soar.
"I lost my job in the pandemic," says Patricia Lynn Shields, 58, who slipped back into addiction and became homeless for the first time. She is eating lunch at a picnic table outside Pete's Place, with a little, bright-eyed dog perched on top of her possessions and her friend Patrick Lopez, 60, sitting opposite her.
"I met Patrick," she says. "And he showed me the ropes, how to be homeless, you know, because I didn't know how to do it. I was scared. I came here crying."
One man who gives his name just as Fred speaks to me after he chooses some clothes from a closet of donations and takes a shower. He says he's noticed more people living on the streets and competition for resources.
"There's not near as much trust as there used to be," he says. "There's an incredible amount of theft going around, you know, homeless stealing from the homeless." He also says he sees more elderly people becoming homeless, and many of the people at Pete's Place do seem to be in their sixties or over.
Devorah Robinson, 72, says she receives a Supplemental Security Income, a federal program designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income, but she can't afford rent.
"I get $815. But it doesn't do me any good. Because the rent is like, $800. And what are you going to live on?"
Homelessness is hard to measure because people with no fixed address are hard to track, and less likely to be registered with local authorities. But one metric is a Point-In-Time count, conducted annually in January nationwide. In 2019, New Mexico had the largest increase in homelessness in the country, according to that count. In January 2020, the number increased again, though much less. There was no count last year due to the pandemic, but the situation has likely deteriorated.
"We see a lot more folks that are rough-sleeping," says Brie Sillery from the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. She is based in Albuquerque but says the problem is statewide. "I've spoken with some folks in Gallup, and other parts of New Mexico, who - their best estimate, just looking - would say that that visible homelessness has increased at least three times."
The NMCEH now receives about 5,000 calls a month from people in need of shelter or on the verge of losing their homes, about double the number who called two years ago. The problem is not just financial instability.
"Increasing house rental rates is definitely a leading cause," says Sillery. "So a lot of folks who were stable are now facing either doubling up with family or having to find other options."
In Albuquerque, average rent has increased 28.2% since March 2020, according to the website Apartment List. Several cities in NM have increased in population during the pandemic, and housing stock is low.
Sillery also says that there has been an increase in elderly people seeking help, fearful of losing their homes because of a rent increase.
"Prior to the pandemic, there was a lot of inventiveness of our team to try to call the Aging & Long-Term Services Department to try to get assistance for people who don't have family," she says. "And now, just the scale of it is so huge. It's hard to know what to do."
Outside Pete's Place in Santa Fe, there are various efforts to resolve the problem of people gathering in Harrison Road. The shelter will no longer offer help like food or showers to people who camp outside its gates. Police have begun bike patrols in the area but also work with a recently-formed Office of Community Health and Safety, a body designed to improve coordination between agencies like the police and community services.
"Really, you can't arrest your way out of something like this," says Interim Chief of Police Paul Joye. "And it's not helpful to the community, it's not helpful to these people that are experiencing this. And it doesn't get to the root of what's going on."
The head of the new body, Kyra Ochoa, says, "we have people who have behavioral health issues, there are a lot of the people on Harrison Road who are active drug users or have mental health issues."
Addiction to fentanyl among the homeless community has intensified as the drug has become stronger, the highs shorter and overdoses harder to reverse. Access to recovery and detox services has been complicated during the pandemic, something Ochoa says she is keen to address.
There are other efforts to address the deeper roots of the problem. During the ongoing legislative session, lawmakers have proposed bills that would make eviction more difficult, and which would fund emergency housing.
Pete's Place executive director Korina Lopez says that kind of change is needed, rather than, as some local residents have proposed, moving the shelter further out of town.
"We're just putting up barriers for people to get help," she says. "I don't think it's a solution."
Lopez acknowledges the shelter may be "unsightly."
"But I feel like sometimes we forget that that's a human being. That's a mother, a father, an uncle, son, daughter, that's somebody too."