The rates of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Santa Fe County have steadily dropped over the last three years, according to data collected by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. Yet shelters say that over the same period of time, the number of people they serve has increased.

This conflicting data begs the question: What is really going on with homelessness in Santa Fe? The answer, it seems, may lie in how the affordable housing crisis and the opioid epidemic have affected homeless populations. But the numbers don't just reflect the problems; they also reflect what city and community groups are doing in response.

At a town hall on homelessness hosed at SITE Santa Fe last Saturday, the directors of the Interfaith Community Shelter, St. Elizabeth's Shelter, The Life Link and The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness asked community members in attendance to join in lively conversation on the issue.

A man in well-kept winter apparel approached the stage. Dressed in hiking boots, Carhartts and a colorful down puffer jacket, he looked like anyone enjoying a hike around the Santa Fe on a sunny winter day.

"Hello, thank you for your service. My name is Thomas," he told the assembly. "I don't consider myself homeless, but I have not paid rent in two and a half years. I am an artist and fairly nomadic. … I choose not to live in a square building."

According to the executive director of The Life Link, Carol Luna-Anderson, who spoke to SFR by phone after the event, Thomas is part of a rapidly growing demographic of people who do not spend the night on the street or in a shelter, and thus do not fit the traditional definitions of homelessness, but who are "unstably housed," meaning that they live in their cars, tents, double up with family members, or couch-surf to put a roof over their heads.

Luna-Anderson says that the lack of affordable housing and the rise in rental and property prices in Santa Fe and across the country is to blame.

"The vacancy rate for rentals in Santa Fe is 2 percent, creating a real problem of demand," she says.

According to data collected by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, rates of homelessness in New Mexico have seen an overall decline since 2010, but that the homeless population in the state rose 2.8 percent in 2018 from a year earlier.

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, tells SFR that at any one point in time throughout the year, between 200 and 500 homeless people stay at shelters or sleep out on the streets in Santa Fe County. Yet Luna-Anderson says that if one includes the unstably housed, that number may be closer to 1,500. These people are unlikely to spend the night at a shelter and may not self-identify as homeless if questioned by volunteers in the community, and so are unlikely to be included in the official point-in-time count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless. Many of these individuals regularly show up at homeless shelters for day services such as medical care, meals and clothing, which may be a significant factor in the number of people reported by shelters.

The city and community organizations have expended remarkable effort to create housing programs for the homeless over the last few years, and Hughes says that the success of these services is reflected in the decrease in the homeless people counted by his organization over the last three years. Currently, however, these programs are not applicable to the unstably housed.

Joe Jordan-Berenis, executive director of the Interfaith Community Shelter, says that in the last two years, the number of people served at the shelter spiked by about 20 percent. He attributes part of this increase to drug use. "I think we are seeing some of the effects of substance abuse, opioid and meth addiction in Santa Fe," he told the assembly on Saturday.

"Oh, the number of people we see has gone up for sure," Nancy McDonald tells SFR. She runs the Santa Fe Community Services out of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete's Place. Her organization focuses primarily on substance abuse harm reduction, including counseling services, a needle exchange and distribution of Narcan, a drug that reverses the lethal the effects of an overdose. She tells SFR the spike reflects both the severity of the crisis and the effort to increase accessibility to life-saving services. "There are definitely more people coming in, but we're also seeing a much higher success rate in keeping people safe."

Jordan-Berenis says that while there is no one solution to the issue of homelessness, "what people need are homes. We are really pushing for a housing-first model."

In an interview after the event, Hank Hughes tells SFR that ideas about building a new homeless shelter on the north side of the city have been put on the back burner. For now, the Interfaith Community Shelter is securely situated at Pete's Place on Cerrillos Road, and most of the panel members at Saturday's discussion prioritized the effort to find long-term solutions to the affordable housing shortage over the possibility of a new interim shelter.

Two initiatives on track to be implemented locally include Built for Zero, a national program aimed to provide housing options to the chronically homeless, and the Youth Homeless Demonstration Program, sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will look for housing solutions for homeless youth.

Yet Thomas voiced a concern that applies specifically to the unstably housed, and those who may be disinclined to accept traditional housing arrangements. "I've seen a lot of different systems in parks and cities and such, and my question is, how progressive is Santa Fe as far as hearing about an opportunity to dedicate a chunk of land and to establish camps that people can stay in either temporarily, or longer-term, for people such as myself?"

Luna-Anderson says Life Link and the Interfaith Shelter are working on identifying innovative building materials for non-traditional housing. Together they are looking into solutions that have been successfully employed by other cities around the country and are exploring options such as a community made up of tiny homes or permanent domes that are cheap, reliable, and easy to construct and dismantle. "What we would really love to have right now is a prototype," she says. "We are looking for someone who has a property or backyard where they would allow us to build a community like this and see how it goes."