Even as staff at the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete's Place on Cerrillos Road launch into preparations for the coming cold and potential spikes in COVID-19 cases this winter, they have one more thing to worry about: whether the shelter will be able to stay in the building it currently occupies.
Santa Fe City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to postpone renewing the lease for Pete's Place after council members raised concerns about the lack of required safety inspections of the building and wondered why the issue had not been brought up in committee meetings prior to the City Council meeting.
"I would hate for something to happen there without those inspections being done," said Councilor Chris Rivera.
Councilor Renee Villarreal agreed, seconding Rivera's motion to send the proposal the back through the committee process for a thorough review.
"It's not that we don't want to support the homeless, it's just that we need to do this right," she said.
The nonprofit shelter's 10-year lease for the city-owned building was set to expire at the end of the day Sept. 30 and will automatically transfer to a month-to-month lease starting Thursday.
Shelter Executive Director Joe Jordan-Berenis tells SFR the organization had been in negotiations with the city to renew the lease since May, however, COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the process.
Rich Brown, the city's director of economic development, also cited the chaos caused by the pandemic as the reason for the delay at Wednesday's council meeting after Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler asked why the matter did not come before the governing body sooner.
The renewal of the shelter lease ended up on the backburner amidst the unexpected departure of key personnel in the department, budget shortfalls and other priority projects, said Brown.
City councilors also raised concerns about the police response to reports of increased disturbances in the neighborhood around the shelter.
Villareal said the city was "not sufficiently addressing health and safety" of shelter guests or other businesses in the neighborhood, while Vigil Coppler cited rumors "that the police department won't even respond to calls there anymore."
Jordan-Berenis tells SFR the city has not provided an adequate response to problems caused by people camping out on Harrison Road, one of the streets directly adjacent to the shelter.
"We need a more active sort of patrolling of that street," he says, adding that these people reflect a wider mental-health crisis that has left some of the people in most need of treatment to fend for themselves with nowhere to go. He says a community policing-based approach to the problem should be considered as the city examines the roles of policing and community health in coming months.
Police spokesman Greg Gurule did not respond to SFR's request for comment after the council meeting.
Pete's Place takes in many people who do not meet the requirements of other shelters in the city. For instance, Pete's Place does not have a sobriety requirement. However, the shelter disallows active drug use or violent behavior, and a handful of people who aren't welcome at the shelter for that reason have set up camp along Harrison Road and have been causing trouble for both the shelter and surrounding businesses, says Jordan-Berenis.
"We need support from the city to handle what's going on on Harrison because it's actually off our property and it's not our responsibility," he says, noting he worries the trouble from a small group sometimes obscures the critical work done by the shelter.
He says people often focus on these 10 to 15 people with serious untreated mental health problems, and overlook the more than 1,300 people who the shelter is able to help annually and who get the services they need.
In the past, these kinds of complaints from neighbors have led to proposals to move the shelter to properties at the outskirts of the city—initiatives the interfaith shelter board has opposed.
As winter approaches, the shelter is working harder to help keep people safe as it braces for a potential spike in the COVID-19 pandemic as temperatures drop.
Jordan-Berenis says the shelter is working with the St. Elizabeth's Shelter, Santa Fe Youth Shelter and Family Services, city staff and other organizations to try to safely house the city's homeless population while maintaining COVID-safe practices such as social distancing once temperatures get bellow freezing.
When the virus first began to surge in the spring, the shelter put up 46 at-risk individuals at a nearby motel to reduce the number of people congregating on-site at Pete's Place. Currently, he says, there are still about 30 people at the motel. Over the course of the summer he also sent about 25 people who exhibited symptoms of the virus to the emergency COVID-19 shelter at the Midtown Campus.
During most years, the shelter is only open to women and children during the summer and then reopens its coed winter shelter on Oct. 11. This year, due to the pandemic, the shelter stayed open to everyone all summer. But Jordan-Berenis is expecting a rise in people as temperatures drop, which could make social distancing a challenge.
The threat of infection stopped many of the shelter's volunteers from fulfilling their usual duties, says Jordan-Berenis, who notes that most of the volunteers are older and are members of various faith groups in town. However, he says the shelter is finding new ways to keep them involved at a distance.
Despite all of these challenges, Jordan-Berenis sees a silver lining to the chaos caused by COVID-19, including a renewed focus on the city's most vulnerable and under-served populations.
"In the end I think some really good things have come out his whole COVID pandemic," he says. "Homelessness was put right on the map quickly. And people are looking at it differently now, which is great."