Advocates memorialize city's homeless.
Kerry Featheringill. Coba. Edgar Calderon.
Maurice Martin will read each of these names and more at St. Francis Cathedral on Dec. 15 at a candlelight ceremony during the Santa Fe Homeless Persons' Memorial Vigil.
"We had two people die over the weekend," Martin, manager of the resource center at St. Elizabeth's Shelter, says. "So now we're up to 25. And that's just the people we know about."
According to Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, that's the highest
rate of homeless deaths in Santa Fe in nearly a decade-and more than double what it was last year.
"Unfortunately, this is what it takes to get people's attention," Hughes says. "People die every year from causes related to homelessness, but it's events like [the memorial vigil] that encourage people to help us work toward solutions so that we can bring those numbers down."
The vigil is co-sponsored by local homeless organizations.
"We're ringing the bell to raise awareness that people are dying in the streets," Martin says. "And one of the saddest parts about this is that, in most cases, these deaths are preventable."
The vigil comes less than a month after a group of activists staged an all-night protest in November [Cover story, Nov. 22: "
"]. But even as advocates for the homeless raise the questions, they continue to struggle for answers of their own.
"I've been trying to figure out why the number is so high in Santa Fe," Hughes says. "I don't know at the moment. There has been a rise in homelessness in general, and that's the only thing that I know could be contributing to it. We're hoping that it's just a one-year thing."
But it might not be. Karen Rowell, executive director of Youth Shelters and Family Services, points out that homeless rates are climbing even as funding for programs that serve the homeless community are falling.
"The lack of resources is one of the biggest hurdles we face in terms of addressing this problem," Rowell says.
Youth Shelters and Family Services temporarily shuttered its street outreach program for homeless youth earlier this year when its funding ran out. Now, vigil organizers plan to deliver more than 1,000 postcards to Gov. Bill Richardson requesting an additional $500,000 for homeless programs in the next state budget.
"This funding is very critical," Hughes says. "What's happened is a lot of new agencies have started around the state to try and address this problem, and there's just not enough money to go around anymore."
The plea to the governor will come after an hourlong program at St. Francis Cathedral that will include music, poetry, prayers and remembrances for the deceased members of the Santa Fe homeless community. The memorial vigil will begin in the morning with a march from St. Elizabeth's Shelter to St. Francis Cathedral. Among those marching will be Mayor David Coss, who is in the process of launching a task force to address the issue. The mayor expects to have the task force in place by the first City Council meeting in January, with the group's recommendations expected by spring.
"The goal is to eliminate homelessness in Santa Fe in 10 years," Coss says. "Ten years is an ambitious goal, but my sense is that even having a little more resources and a little more focused effort will make a big difference."