Santa Fe's homeless are on the move again.
Last month, church leaders and concerned Santa Feans were told they could not serve meals to the homeless in Ashbaugh Park. The situation, as reported by The Santa Fe New Mexican, was due to construction on a fire station that sits nearby.
The city subsequently offered a vacant lot near Fire Station 5 at the intersection of Siler Road and Agua Fria Street, but in the weeks since, due to concerns from the Santa Fe Church of Christ, Santa Fe Community Services, the Homeless Advocacy Project and others about the location and lack of facilities, the city's homeless and their caretakers are once again relocating.
SFR has learned this is the latest development in an emerging argument that has the City of Santa Fe at odds with both the homeless and those who feed them. Officials point to a long-term plan the city set up to end homelessness within five years, while those who host weekend lunches say help is needed immediately.
Mid-morning on Sept. 6, approximately 30 men and women lined up to eat hamburgers, hot dogs and pasta salad in an empty lot on Early Street, a temporary spot used for the meals before the group secures a more permanent and accessible spot in the Salvation Army parking lot on Alameda Street. The scene was reminiscent of a neighborhood picnic—a few folding tables, paper plates and a barbecue grill—though the scenery was more akin to a junkyard than a backyard. Meals were served in a dusty parking area, where folks sat in the grass, ate lunch and slowly dispersed. Robert was among them.
"I'm based in the downtown area," Robert, who declined to give his last name, tells SFR. Referring to the Siler Road location, he says, "It's over a three-mile walk and back. It would take too much effort and energy out of my body to walk down there and back, to compensate for the food I was eating."
Robert, a Boston native who has lived on the streets in Asheville, NC and Santa Cruz, Calif., says the Salvation Army's parking lot is more conveniently located, but believes the city should set up a permanent indoor location. The Salvation Army regularly serves weekday meals indoors.
"In some ways things are worse here," he says, comparing Santa Fe's treatment of the homeless with other towns'. "The more wealth there is in a community, the more tight they are with it…like, they're spending millions on development and a little fraction of that could be spent on a shelter building."
Preston Ellsworth agrees with both of Robert's assertion: The Siler location was problematic and the city is not doing enough.
Ellsworth runs Santa Fe International Hostel on Cerrillos Road. On the weekends, he picks up day-old bread from Whole Foods Market and hands it out to homeless people.
The Siler location suffered from a lack of infrastructure, he says and, as he learned firsthand, also is flood-prone when it rains. Ellsworth served bread there in ankle-deep water on Aug. 31 without the convenience of "Dumpsters, porta-potties or picnic tables," he says.
"It's wretched," Ellsworth adds.
But Ellsworth admits the lack of organization on weekends—anyone who wants to bring food is welcome—has become an obstacle to finding a new home.
"The group is so amorphous," he says. "We need to have a consensus and a plan. Organized? Hell, we're not. Concerned? Hell, we are."
By organizing, possibly as a nonprofit organization, Ellsworth believes the city might pay more attention to the workers and the homeless.
He may be right. Public Works Department Director Robert Romero tells SFR, "That's one thing that's been difficult for us. It seems like there are several groups working on the issue and they all have different thoughts."
Constituent Services Manager Sevastian Gurule adds that there must be "major control" over the weekend lunches, since the number of individuals sometimes exceeds 150. "There needs to be one person or group responsible, so we can in turn help them provide the services they do."
Romero says the city is willing to provide things like tables and chairs for the weekend meals, which would be stored in a shed during the week, but right now he has no idea who would be in charge of overseeing them.
Asked why the city won't allow the homeless in another park, Romero says, "The one big thing is safety. The police get called out there every Sunday" due to fights between people who show up for the afternoon lunches.
Fights are not as much of a concern at the Salvation Army, according to its director, Pastor Jerry Gattis.
"We haven't seen a tremendous problem with [security]," Gattis says. "The majority of the homeless see us as a help and obviously want to do the best they can."
Gattis agrees the Siler location was inconvenient because most of the homeless live downtown and already visit the Salvation Army (which serves an estimated 1,800 weekday meals per month). But he's hopeful the city will find a permanent solution soon, and points to the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Task Force to End Homelessness as an example of progress.
Last June, the task force, a collection of nonprofit workers, church administrators and city staff, created a plan to end homelessness within five years.
"The task force is taking the long view of how we end homelessness," Hank Hughes, chairman of the task force and executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, says. He admits there is tension between that long view and immediate problems.
"We don't want to give up working on the long-term solution by getting sucked into the emergency [of weekend meal delivery], because then we never get to the point of where we want to be," he says.
The five-year plan calls for permanently affordable rental housing, an overflow shelter and what Hughes calls a "one-stop shop" to provide job assistance, transportation and meals.
A central spot for social services is crucial, Hughes says, because the city's homeless population is running out of space. When he spoke with SFR earlier this summer [June 18: "Northwest Quandary"], Hughes said the city's Northwest Quadrant development, slated to include more than 700 homes, should include housing for the homeless already living in the hills. The Santa Fe Railyard, which officially opens Sept. 13, booted out many of the city's homeless, creating yet more need.
Hughes admits, "We would like things to be further along" with some of the task force's plans; city staff, he says, has looked at different locations in town, but so far has come up empty-handed.
Ellsworth dismisses the Blue Ribbon Task Force, saying that it "does a good job of lip service, but where the rubber hits the road, they've rolled themselves into a collective ball in their government sinecures and dropped it."
And while Ellsworth is thankful the Salvation Army is available, he adds, "It's a great location… until it gets cold. Then everyone will have to do their best to cope."