New Mexicans have been told to stay home to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But this is a tall order for those without a permanent roof over their heads. This week, homeless shelters in Santa Fe began using city and county funds to rent hotel rooms for some of the most at-risk members of the homeless population.
On Wednesday, Santa Fe City Council approved a $500,000 COVID-19 emergency response fund. Kyra Ochoa, the director of the city's Community Services Department, explained to councilors via video conference that $250,000 from the fund will be dedicated toward meeting the basic needs of Santa Feans who have been most immediately impacted by the crisis.
"The clear needs that we're seeing are what we call social determinants of people's health—need for shelter and housing, need for food, need for transportation and childcare for essential workers such as healthcare providers," Ochoa said, adding that the funds could be used to pay directly for things such as utilities, rent and medical bills.
The city plans to distribute the funds through the Santa Fe Connects Program. In partnership with the county, the program is an initiative to create a network of organizations providing essential services to Santa Fe residents. This includes homeless shelters, mental health providers, and food distribution services among others.
At the top of the list of the most vulnerable is Santa Fe's homeless population. Homeless individuals are often in close contact with one another in shelters and on the streets, and a very high percentage of homeless people in Santa Fe are also elderly and have compromising health conditions.
Joseph Jordan-Berenis, executive director of Pete's Place Interfaith Community Shelter, tells SFR that the shelter already used flexible funds provided by the county to pay for hotel rooms at Green Tree Inn for about 26 people this week.
"The way they were chosen had to do with age and health conditions—those 60 years and older and those who are medically fragile. Most of our people in those categories are now at the hotel for their safety," he tells SFR.
He says that the shelter usually houses 100 people per night during the winter, but with the help of the county funds, he winnowed that number down to 55. He is hoping to reduce the number of people staying at the shelter to 43, at which point he would be able to better maintain social distancing by having guests sleep in every other bunk.
Every night, shelter staff check all the guests for COVID-19 symptoms and check their temperature. If an individual has a temperature over 100, the shelter does not let them enter and instead helps them contact Santa Fe's Healthcare for the Homeless program.
The shelter also decided to stop registering new guests, as well as ending its former practice of allowing people in just for dinner.
So far, says Berenis, three people staying at the shelter have displayed symptoms of the virus. One test has come back negative, while a second person is being held at Christus St. Vincent Hospital while they await results. He says the third person, who was tested Friday, is being housed at a hotel until they get the results of the test.
In addition to funds from the county, Berenis says the shelter has received funds from the Santa Fe Community Foundation to house people who must stay in isolation while they await test results.
Across town, St Elizabeth's shelters are still awaiting funds from the city to start finding hotel rooms for their guests. Executive Director Edward Archuleta breathes a sigh of relief as he tells SFR that so far, none of the people staying at either of the organization's two shelters have yet displayed symptoms of COVID-19. But without the ability to successfully practice social distancing, he worries it is only a matter of time.
"The government and all the experts are saying people should be isolated. But if you've ever spent any time in a dormitory, you know that's almost impossible to do," he tells SFR.
He says he has cut the shelter's capacity down by half in the attempt to comply with social distancing orders. Archuleta tells SFR the shelter wants to get guests into hotel rooms as soon as possible, but is still waiting for the city to commit to pay for the rooms first. At time of publication, the shelter is in the process of negotiating the details with the city.
At both Pete's Place and St. Elizabeth's shelters, the money for hotel rooms has and will continue to come through the Santa Fe Connects program.
On Wednesday, Ochoa told councilors the Connects program currently consists of 37 nonprofit agencies with 90 navigators serving upwards of 3,000 people. Navigators are the people working for these organizations, such as shelter staff, who interact directly with individuals in crisis to identify what they need and figure out how to provide a solution.
Through the Connects program, the city and county provide member organizations with flexible funds that can be used at the discretion of the navigators to meet the most pressing needs of the most vulnerable people they serve on an individual basis.
Rachel O'Connor, the Community Services Department director for Santa Fe County, tells SFR the county gave Pete's Place $20,000 in flexible funds through the Connects program and has allocated an additional $10,000 to go to the shelter's short-term housing needs.
O'Connor tells SFR the county is working with the city to identify more permanent housing solutions for the homeless during the duration of the crisis.
According to city spokeswoman Lilia Chacon, this could include purchasing and retrofitting old or abandoned buildings or buildings that are not currently in use, or retrofitting former University of Art and Design dorms at the Midtown Campus.