Piling On

A still pending lawsuit over an existing homeless shelter highlights neighbors’ heartburn over centrally located services

Although a District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against both the City of Santa Fe and the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place earlier this spring, the attorney for a group of neighbors and business owners near the shelter has filed a notice of appeal.

First Judicial District Judge Bryan Biedscheid granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgement April 3, but Blair Dunn, who represents the plaintiffs, tells SFR he will ask the New Mexico Court of Appeals to take a second look because Biedscheid “got the law wrong.”

Dunn says his clients maintain the city and the shelter caused nuisances by inviting unhoused people to the area and that the lack of action had negative consequences on property values—effectively a “taking.” The 2020 case argued specifically that the shelter created an unsanitary environment wherein people congregated, openly used drugs and deposited human excrement. The city effectively took their property, the case says, when it passively allowed people to damage nearby property, causing values to go down.

“[Biedscheid] gets the law on taking and nuisances completely backwards,” Dunn says.

The litigation dates to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when Interfaith Community Shelter reduced its capacity, and it highlights the difficulty of providing centrally located services for unhoused people while also avoid ing the ire of neighbors.

Lawyers for the shelter did not respond to interview requests, but the nonprofit doesn’t plan to back down, according to a statement emailed to SFR.

“We were very pleased the judge granted the Shelter’s motion for summary judgment, and we are confident that the Shelter will prevail on appeal,” the statement reads. “We are doing our best, in cooperation with the Santa Fe Police Department, to be good neighbors and to provide life-saving services to this very vulnerable population.”

The court case stands against the backdrop of the city’s latest efforts to expand services for the unhoused, a pilot project for a new site or sites for up to 25 pop-up shelters and adjacent bathroom, shower and laundry areas.

Dunn tells SFR his clients have compassion and understanding about the need to provide shelter; nevertheless, they want the permanent group shelter moved to a different part of the city. He suggests the Midtown campus, already home to housing at the Consuelo’s Place converted dorms (but a locatio rejected by city officials considering additional shelter locations), and the shuttered Santa Fe County juvenile detention center on Airport Road.

“They really want to help these people,” Dunn says. “But this is a bad situation, this is the wrong solution, in the wrong place for actively helping these people.”

Plaintiffs include the owners of nearby businesses such as Kelly’s Liquor, the Silver Saddle Motel and Z Pet Hotel, as well as residential property owners who had owned property in the area for time periods of nine years or longer at the time of filing.

The nonprofit has rented the space for nearly two decades since the city bought the former pet store and converted it to a shelter. The organization offers a low-barrier place to stay for the night, but rules prohibit guests from using drugs or alcohol on site, according to Director Korina Lopez. That means the shelter sometimes asks people to leave for consuming those substances or people voluntarily leave during the night. The shelter remains off limits during the day, aside from the three days a week when it offers lunch, showers and case management appointments. The shelter does, however, allow some people to hang out on the shelter’s front patio if they “can be chill and relaxed,” Lopez says.

In a video documenting the transition of Pete’s Place to a homeless shelter and posted on its YouTube page, Interfaith Community Shelter co-founder Guy Gronquist says the city’s guidelines for a shelter eliminated any space near the Plaza or the Santa Fe Place Mall, but also required the shelter be in a commercially zoned area and also on a bus route.

“We knew that every year, we would face the same uphill battle: finding a landlord willing to let us rent from them,” Gronquist says in the video.

In the emailed statement issued to SFR, the Interfaith Community Shelter says those requirements “are the same today as they were a decade ago.”

The city and the shelter argued in their motions that Dunn refused to adequately spell out how—or by how much—homes and businesses around Pete’s Place decreased in value and to what extent the city and the shelter are responsible.

“When asked in discovery, Plaintiffs failed to identify any conduct on the part of Interfaith that they claim has caused them damage, aside from the mere existence of the shelter,” the motion from Interfaith attorneys Lisa Pullen and David Wesner reads.

The city presented a nearly identical argument.

“When asked in discovery for Plaintiffs damages and devaluation of their real property, they provided photographs of defecation, needles, damage to public property and mentioned a police complaint for a stolen motorcycle,” the motion filed by City Attorney Erin McSherry reads. “The response included statements that the request was overly-broad and intended to harass, and that they do not have any documents responsive.”

According to exhibits filed by both defendants, Dunn answered some questions about the level of the city’s and shelter’s culpability, but also cited a federal case he says set a precedent barring discovery questions that seek “each and every fact.”

On March 3, Biedscheid wrote that the city’s motion successfully showed plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that City officials, employees, or agents” either willingly attracted a nuisance to areas around Pete’s Place or took property by willingly allowing activity that devalued property in the area.

McSherry notes in an email to SFR that Biedscheid ruled Dunn’s claims “were without merit,” and until the group officially files an appeal, she would not comment.

“We’ll assess the merits of the appeal when/if Mr. Dunn identifies issues in his appellate brief,” McSherry says.

The city expects to soon send out a solicitation request for qualified organizations that want to host land or provide services for a planned shelter pilot project that will tap about $1 million in American Rescue Act funds. One requirement for that project is a “good neighbor agreement” that will purportedly include ongoing communication, clear expectations and homeless education outreach.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.