A few years ago in Santa Fe, after drinking in the dead of winter, Bill Short says his homeless friends “had to pull me down a hill, because I was passed out and would freeze to death.” Life on the streets was hard, and “even though we were drinking, my friends always said, ‘Don’t give up.’”
Not everyone survived. Seven winters ago, Santa Fe lost 25 homeless people to hypothermia. Since then, however, that number has dipped to zero—in large part thanks to the efforts of the Interfaith Community Shelter. In 2010, the city purchased permanent housing for the shelter near the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Camino Carlos Rey.
Although the space was renovated in 2011, it still bears the old “Pete’s Pets” sign outside—and shelter veterans like Short still refer to it by that name.
Short, 43, has lived in Santa Fe all his life, and has been homeless for nearly a decade. Years ago, he started spending his days hanging out with friends on St. Michael’s Drive, near the old Vineyard shelter. Drinking was his “main job,” he says, and he often slept in a tent, trying to hide from the police. His arrest records date from the summer of 2008 to late 2011.
In 2010, life on the streets got tougher when the city began cracking down on panhandling. Short says one of his friends was arrested for solicitation on public property “for sitting on the curb, without a sign, just waving at people, and they took him to jail twice.” Short himself was arrested, sentenced to community service and put on probation for “just trying to make a few dollars,” he says. “I was holding a sign: ‘God Bless.’ How’s that hurting anybody?”
Eventually, he says, “I got tired of getting in trouble with the law,” and he decided to seek help.
About 1,500 people are homeless in Santa Fe. From the end of October until April, the Interfaith Community Shelter offers homeless people a place to sleep; breakfast, dinner, clothing and showers are available year-round. On any given night at the height of winter, usually in January and February, up to 110 homeless people spend the night at the shelter.
Like other shelters, the Interfaith shelter breathalyzes guests at the door, as they return for dinner and sleep. But the Interfaith shelter also admits inebriates from 9 pm until midnight. Inebriates sometimes account for up to 25 percent of the total guests and sleep in a separate room.
Knowing the shelter would admit him even if he’d had a rough day, Short began going there. At first, he continued drinking. In 2011, things got so bad that he was kicked out. But shelter staff gave him a second chance when he set some new goals, like attending Alcoholics Anonymous, and Short now regrets being a “jerk to a lot of the staff at Pete’s Pets.”
That kind of tough love was instrumental in helping Short turn his life around. But perhaps even more important was the shelter’s latest venture: a job-training program that has given Short access to a new future.
Darla Swanson, a warm, grandmotherly type who knows nearly every shelter guest by name, is the driving force behind the new program. For the past five years, Swanson has volunteered at the shelter, and helped manage it. Before that, she worked as a teacher, psychologist and administrator in the Chicago Public Schools, and volunteered at the homeless shelter there.
In June, Swanson came up with the idea of an enrichment center. She set aside a room with computers and dreamed of creating PowerPoint presentations and classes for homeless people who wanted to find work. But it wasn’t quite that easy, and instead, she learned to “meet them where they are.”
Swanson decided to start with a “résumé planning template,” in which participants list their work history and Swanson adds her name as the first reference. They get practice with interview skills, completing online applications and follow-up. Swanson says she wants them to approach employers feeling, “I’m worthy of this job.”
Short says he “didn’t know the first thing about making a résumé.” He credits Swanson with helping him make one and teaching him life skills. He tells other homeless people to “go to her—she’ll do the best she can to put you into a position, whatever you are qualified to do.”
Swanson says Short’s case was typical—while a few participants “already know what kind of job they want,” most don’t know what to do or where to start. Swanson begins by talking with participants about the kinds of challenges they’ve faced in the past. She sees the “need to build them up.”
In Short’s case, his previous work experience didn’t really help. “I don’t want to get back into waiting tables, because there’s alcohol in that,” he recently told his caseworker. But he says the years he spent at the Interfaith shelter “gave me the confidence to stay sober and [that] things would be all right.”
The enrichment center offers more than job training: From 10 am-1 pm on Tuesdays and Fridays, several local agencies visit the shelter to provide legal, social and health services. Swanson makes referrals and brings in tutors.
Not every participant finds a job. Of the nearly 70 people who have participated in Swanson’s jobs program since it started, only 21 have found employment so far.
“I believe in everybody,” she says. Some struggle with addiction and mental illness, but she can “still help improve self-esteem.”
Short, however, is a success story. For the past year, he’s been living in transitional housing at St. Elizabeth Shelter, where he’s been able to make progress with sobriety. About two months ago, he was ready to apply for a bell-ringer position with the Salvation Army.
Short says the Salvation Army could have said, “Oh, he’s just another bum.” Instead, they offered him a permanent, full-time position picking up furniture and sorting clothes for sale. The offer fueled his resolve: “They gave me a chance, so I’m not going to mess it up.”
Another surprise came when his sister, whom he hadn’t seen in 10 years, heard about Short’s job and showed up there one day. Short was in shock, and he says he felt bad for not being “a better brother.” But they went to lunch and are now reconnecting.
He is now saving up for an apartment and furniture. As he puts it, “I’m living proof that you can change.”