City Approves Contracts for First SOS Site

Officials predict an early 2024 launch, missing most of winter

News Christ Lutheran Church Pastor Joene Herr stands in the parking lot that will house 10 pallet home units as part of the City of Santa Fe's Safe Outdoor Spaces pilot project. (Evan Chandler)

Although city officials aimed to launch a pop-up shelter pilot project this winter, two new contracts approved Wednesday night lay the groundwork for people experiencing homelessness to access the first Safe Outdoor Space in late February.

The City Council and the mayor unanimously approved the contracts to create and operate the site, which will provide transitional housing in small stand-alone structures, along with hygiene services, case management and other support. The city entered into agreements with Christ Lutheran Church and The Life Link for a grand total of $828,368—$388,176 and $440,192 respectively.

“Basically, this project seeks to shelter people who are not using our current system. There are a variety of reasons that a group shelter setting doesn’t work for somebody, or a setting in which they can’t be with their partner or their pet doesn’t work for them,” Community Health and Safety Department Director Kyra Ochoa tells SFR. “So this is really just one more option for people that are out on the streets or in the arroyo that we hope will get them in forming good relationships with those who provide services including case management, and housing navigation to find out really what it is that each person who hasn’t been accessing our shelter system needs in order to get housed.”

The city approved a plan last March to purchase 25 pallet homes it planned to use on SOS sites using up to $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. Christ Lutheran Church will host 10 homes in its parking lot and will be responsible for maintenance, utilities, litter control and at least one meeting per week with a hired SOS operator, according to Michael Abernethy, church council president.

“We’ve been talking about this for over a year, and it’s really something that speaks to our mission and the heart of who we are as a church to reach out to the community and be of service to the community and those who are more vulnerable in our society,” he tells SFR.

News Pastor Joene Herr shows available stock in the church's food pantry. (Evan Chandler)

The pallet homes can each house up to two people at a time, along with pets they may have, and include electricity, as well as heating and cooling. Abernethy says the church is in talks with a local architect, Spears Horn Architects, to create a layout design for the structures in the church parking lot. He adds 10 units are the most the site can handle and still allow ample parking for church groups and other operations.

The contract with The Life Link requires it to handle day-to-day operations of the space, including the intake process, staffing and hired security. The organization’s Outreach Services Program Manager Janelle Bohannon tells SFR she is, in part, looking to recreate something similar to an emergency hotel shelter she ran during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Life Link jumped on the opportunity when the city sent sought proposals, she says.

Bohannon says her team hopes to offer psychosocial rehabilitation services, which aim to educate and coach individuals in various life skills to help them live more independently. She adds her team will introduce several of the organization’s support groups on modified schedules at the shelter site, including cooking groups that will provide breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday and art groups.

“It’s really just going to be trying to develop a whole community over there,” Bohannon says.

The projected timeline for launch is roughly two months behind a tentative schedule included in a presentation the Community Health and Safety Department gave to the governing body this fall, leaving people like Abernethy wishing it were different as colder temperatures emerge.

“If we had our way and could move mountains, then we would have had all of these shelters set up and operational before winter got here,” he says. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and it’s understandable. It’s a new thing for the city.”

Ochoa says the delay from the initially anticipated December launch of the first space came from wanting to “do it right.”

“I think when you’re trying to do something brand new and innovative in the context of the government, we need to make sure that we have a very compliant procurement for these services, that the contracts were clear and accurate, that the providers had what they needed to move forward and that the city had what it needed to move forward in terms of accountability—all of those pieces,” she says. “We are always aspirational when we give the date when we want to get things going. Obviously we would have loved to have it up and running for the very cold weather this winter, but it was important to get all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted.”

Ochoa notes several other city efforts to deal with the “increased need” in the winter that this project will be unable to address, adding this project is “one offering in the array of ways the city is working hard to solve this problem.”

If the pilot SOS site proves successful, however, Ochoa says she’s hopeful the city can put the remaining 15 pallet units to good use. Bohannon wants similar outcomes, and notes that only having the ability to help an estimated 40 people within the first year isn’t “really addressing the need in the community.”

“We’re hoping that if we kind of set the standard of how it should be run, then more people will step up and more properties will be available for shelters,” she says.

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