Randal Peifer has been using St. Elizabeth Shelter for the past 20 years, about as long as he’s been homeless. He lives just feet away from the shelter near the back lot of a gas station. He sleeps under trees and bushes with a blanket and newspapers to keep him warm at night.
At his “condo,” Peifer takes a swig of the vodka tucked in his jacket. He has a beard, a cane and the ability to cite parts of William Shakespeare’s Richard II by heart.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he tells SFR. “I have PTSD. I’ve been in two wars. I have good days, and I have bad days.”
Peifer says he was in the Marines and served in US interventions in Lebanon and Libya. He used to do manual labor, but stopped after being hit by a car and injured in 2005, he says.
Peifer has also seen more action at St. Elizabeth Shelter, located a block away from the Railyard Park, than ever before.
“In the last two years, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it in my life,” he says. “It used to be just young college kids and hippies and hitchhikers and tramps like me. Now it’s the middle class, and you think, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”
Deborah Tang, the executive director of St. Elizabeth Shelter, says the bad economy has only made matters worse for area shelters.
“We’re seeing, more often now, people losing a minimum-wage job and not finding another,” Tang says.
Those types of financial troubles have led to a perceived increase in the number of homeless people loitering around the Railyard—and what many consider a related jump in crime.
Incidents of public urination, public defecation, public sex acts and “aggressive” panhandling are at an all-time high, Richard Czoski, executive director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation, says. He blames it on a segment of the “vagrants” who roam the area.
“We’re not trying to paint all homeless people with the same brush,” Czoski tells SFR. Still, much of the blame for crime and vagrancy has been directed toward the shelter, with a particular focus on its free lunch offerings on Tuesdays and Fridays.
At one of several recent meetings on the problem, a resident recalled witnessing a stabbing that happened just steps from the shelter last October. (Tang maintains the stabbing had nothing to do with the shelter.)
Joe Walkos, co-owner of clothing boutique Unity Fashion in the Railyard, says the problems have worsened over the years. Walkos supports helping the homeless, but doesn’t think the shelter should be located in an area so close to liquor stores and a public park.
“The park isn’t what it could be because of the people that hang out there,” Walkos tells SFR.
Tang says homeless people would wander in the Railyard area even if the shelter were located elsewhere.
She points out St. Elizabeth Shelter’s policy of turning away intoxicated people who want to spend a night there.
“The people they complain about are inebriants,” Tang tells SFR. “We’re a sober shelter.”
City Councilor Patti Bushee, whose district includes the Railyard, says the intoxicated people who are turned away are the ones causing problems.
“They hang in the area,” Bushee says. “This is when neighbors feel threatened and accosted.”
Bushee has responded by holding public meetings on the issue [briefs, Sept. 21: “Fed Up”], the most recent of which attracted about 40 people, half of them St. Elizabeth staff.
“Neighbors are losing their patience,” Bushee tells SFR.
For his part, Peifer says he’s “sick and tired of the blame game.” The shelter shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of those in the park, he says.
Shelters also “expect you to be sober,” Martinoni says—but when you’re homeless, “there’s nothing else to do.”
Like Peifer, Steve Martinoni has been homeless for two decades. He’s lived in Santa Fe for the past year and a half and says even being admitted to shelters is difficult.
“The last three days, I tried to get in, and they’re just full,” Martinoni tells SFR.
Shelters also “expect you to be sober,” he says—but when you’re homeless, “there’s nothing else to do.”
Martinoni says he served in Vietnam for 10 years and spent the following 13 years in prison (he wouldn’t say the reason). He’s also an alcoholic. He spends some of his days “flying a sign” on the street. “It gets me a few bucks,” he says.
Martinoni spends other days without food. He says homeless people like him are simply trying to survive rather than provoke violence.
Keith Townsend, who is also homeless, says blaming crime on the homeless amounts to nothing more than social discrimination.
“All you have to do is just sit around and look at the homeless people,” he tells SFR.
He says much of the crime is caused by home bums—those who have homes elsewhere, but come to the park to “rage it up” for a couple of nights. The public too often puts the homeless in the same category as the people raising hell, Townsend says.
Where he stays at night varies. “I can bust out a sleeping bag anywhere,” he says.
Townsend has been homeless on and off for more than a year and usually spends part of the day panhandling near the Plaza. He also makes jewelry and does landscaping work when he can.
Townsend says he has plans. Once he gets his disability check—Townsend suffers from spinal and nerve damage—he intends to buy land and start a farm.
As many as 1,500 people in Santa Fe are homeless, according to 2007 statistics from the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. St. Elizabeth’s five locations contain more than 100 beds and host approximately 2,000 people a year, Tang says. About three-quarters of them are male.
As for the Railyard’s crime, a more definitive answer to its source should soon emerge. Beginning Nov. 1, St. Elizabeth Shelter will host its free lunch program more than two miles away, at the new Interfaith Community Shelter on Cerrillos Road. Funded by the city, Interfaith will be able to host around 100 people each night and will have a place for intoxicated people.
In the meantime, Bushee is continuing to hold community meetings, the next of which is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 10. Peifer says he’s planning to attend.
“This place,” he says, pointing at the shelter, “they help a lot of people. My character flaws do not belong to them.”