Despite shortcomings in Santa Fe's plan to end homelessness, shelter soldiers on

Michael Angelo Sanchez has been using the Santa Fe’s emergency homeless shelter for years now.

The shelter on Cerrillos Road beats sleeping outside in the winter, he says, although he does enjoy camping outside in the warmer season because of the solitude it affords him.

The 23-year-old projects an earnest attitude about the chance to sleep on a mattress, about the hot meal he's served and about the community the shelter provides.

"Look at the food, how wonderful it is! You've got Kool- Aid, water, coffee, tea," he says in the middle of a recent dinner. "I like this place."

The volunteer effort to feed and shelter the needy through the coldest months is looked upon as somewhat of a miracle.

On a recent December night, Tahlia Rainbolt serves as a volunteer coordinator for a team of about a dozen individuals who donate food, prepare it and help clean the kitchen afterwards. On this night, Dec. 27, two soups are available, prepared from scratch with a Progresso base: bacon-cheddar cheese and chicken soup. There's also bread, salad and cookies.

Inside the kitchen Gigi Griffo, a paid staffer for the shelter, delivers deadpan quips with a poker face. She's a hit with many of the guests who frequent the Santa Fe Resource Opportunity Center, housed in a former pet store that's been radically transformed into a modern shelter with separate rooms for sleeping, bathroom facilities, showers, and a full kitchen for the homeless.

Griffo beams of recent kitchen innovations financed through donations like the new dishwasher, plates and utensils that are making the shelter kitchen a little bit more like that of the commercial operations Griffo is familiar with (she runs Nile Café and Catering Co. with her husband). She's strict about health codes, making sure a reporter washes his hands before entering her space.

But in order to serve the meals, Griffo depends on a legion of volunteers like Rainbolt. Organizers estimate about 2,000 people from 45 different groups have a hand in keeping the operation running each winter.

Rainbolt says the motivations of each volunteer team differ. She's a member of Temple Beth Shalom, which she says encourages social justice projects that are meaningful to people. She calls the volunteer work a responsibility, an honor and holy.

Volunteers are encouraged, she says, to treat those using the shelter with respect. "Everybody that's here is called a guest. It's a philosophy of the shelter—that every person has dignity," Rainbolt says. "It's very easy to just not make eye contact. But here it's different."

In 2006, just after his election as mayor, David Coss met with Hank Hughes, the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.

At the time, Coss recalls, mayors across the nation were putting together 10-year plans to end homelessness in the cities they oversaw.

"Hank said we could do it in five," Coss says. "And I said, 'Really?'" There was good reason for concern in those days. In the winter of 2005-06, 25 people died in Santa Fe from hypothermia. The next winter, 24 perished on the streets from the effects of homelessness and hypothermia.

Coss named Hughes the chair of a blue ribbon task force to formulate the plan. The panel included civic leaders, such as representatives from nonprofits, the Santa Fe Police Department, businesses and the faith leaders. It sought input from the community at large, including from homeless persons, and declared it could end homelessness by 2012.

Its stated vision was that nobody would have to sleep outside unsheltered; that people at risk of losing their housing would have access to emergency assistance along with appropriate counseling to help them through a crisis, and that homeless families and individuals, including teens, would have opportunities for rapid relocation in safe and affordable housing with supportive services.

It took a "housing-first" approach, a philosophy that the homeless are better able to improve their lives if they are "first provided with safe, secure, affordable housing," then offered services such as help with addiction or getting a job. It was a departure from the previous so-called "continuum of care" model under which homeless households could stay in emergency shelters as long as they agreed to case management and sobriety. Afterward, individuals could move into transitional housing programs.

The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness then conducted what the task force called "probably the most comprehensive count to date of homeless people in Santa Fe." It was a point-in-time count that aimed to assess the population on or around one particular date. On Jan. 24, 2007, the coalition identified 917 homeless in Santa Fe.

Today, Hughes estimates there could be around 1,400 homeless in Santa Fe, noting such figures are never precise.

By that measure, Coss’ five-year plan didn’t reduce the number of people in the city who are homeless.

A second plan adopted two years ago targets families experiencing homelessness, the chronically homeless, veterans, youth and homeless prevention. "We envision a Santa Fe in five years where people who become homeless or are at risk of homelessness" the plan states, "can quickly find the right type of help for their situation so that they can quickly obtain permanent housing with the services they need and appropriate follow-up."

"Obviously we haven't ended homelessness yet," Hughes tells SFR.

One stark illustration of that is the emergency homeless shelter. Organizers say it's helped prevent hypothermic deaths resulting from homelessness that occurred in the beginning of Coss' administration.

But the fact that the emergency shelter might near capacity on any given night points to failure of the doomed policy of eradicating homelessness.

The building, now known as the Santa Fe Resource and Opportunity Center or ROC, is beginning to serve as the city envisions, a "one-stop shop" for services provided by a patchwork of nonprofits. The overnight shelter is open from 6 pm to 7:30 am between October and May and serves an average of 120 meals each night. It has space for about 58 overnight guests. Yet the homeless persons sitting outside the shelter last Thursday can attest that a void remains.

Members of an interfaith group formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit charitable organization in 2009 and a year later convinced the city to purchase and renovate the old Pete's Pets building for nearly $1 million in taxpayer money, with another $100,000 in 2012 through a measure passed by local senators and representatives to pay for rennovations. The city helps pay the nonprofit, the Interfaith Community Shelter Group Inc., to run the facility.

In the first two years, that payment was $50,000 annually. In 2011, it dropped to $25,000, but increased to $35,000 in 2012, according to city documents.

Those who use the shelter say they appreciate it, but one of their main complaints is that they must leave early each morning. It’s ironic, admits Guy Gronquist, chairman of the nonprofit that runs the shelter: A shelter from the cold kicks people out during the coldest part of the day, when much of Santa Fe isn’t yet open for business. Gronquist tells SFR that’s a financial and logistical issue. He says the staff who oversee the shelter on the night shift can’t extend their hours and he’s currently looking to for a way to pay for additional staff.

Changes like that at the shelter, located at 2801 Cerrillos Road, represent one of the most visible shifts of homelessness policy under Mayor David Coss' administration. And more changes are already set in motion.

Even as the city has been pumping money into the shelter, it's not always running smoothly.

At a February meeting of the city's Human Service's Committee, Terrie Rodriguez, youth and family services division director for the city, explained that the shelter "is currently not functioning as the envisioned seamless and welcoming one-stop provider of multi-faceted services," according to minutes of the meeting.

Rather than being open during weekday business hours on a consistent schedule, the building is only intermittently accessible during the daytime when certain providers are present.

So the city upped the ante in the amount of money it allocated to the project. Through a resolution it helped the shelter on its water bill. And it also contracted with the nonprofit for $70,000 for the fiscal year 2013-14 to pay for the partial salary of an executive administrator and a partial salary of an administrator. The contract mandates that nonprofit hire someone responsible for overhauling the priorities, finances and schedule of the shelter, and negotiating user agreements with existing partners that provide services at the shelter.

"Certainly helping people from freezing to death is necessary, but it's not sufficient."

Yet the nonprofit itself is experiencing some shakeups. The board of directors for Interfaith Community Shelter Inc., accepted the resignation of its executive director, Sandra Tompkins, on Dec. 30, says Gronquist.

Gronquist won't explain why she resigned. And Tompkins, who was paid $51,600 in 2011, according to the nonprofit's most recent tax documents available, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Also Gonquist says that St. Elizabeth Shelter, a nonprofit around for years, stopped providing services at the ROC. "My understanding is their focus is more on this transitional housing than this emergency housing and shelter," says Gronquist.

Gronquist tells SFR that the shelter is in line with the city's vision that the building would be a place where organizations provide services to Santa Fe's homeless population—open Monday through Friday and throughout the year—as a one-stop shop.

He argues that it's already moving in the right direction, now providing a community closet where free clothing is available; a barber a couple times a month, homeless court, lunches, showers, healthcare and other services like an open art studio. Gronquist says that last year, the job center at the shelter helped place 30 individuals in employment.

The building is open year-round, he says, adding that it's less busy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It's open 9 am to 1 pm on Tuesdays and Fridays, when services like the Santa Fe County Mobile Health Van might show up.

He says that in October, the board crafted a mission statement to state that the ROC be a place that "offers hope in a safe place for anyone who is homeless or vulnerable as they overcome adversity."

Faith groups that participate in the ROC— which include 45 Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations—have pressed the nonprofit from day one to go beyond its initial mission of helping prevent the homeless from freezing to death on the streets.

"Certainly helping people from freezing to death is necessary," he says, "but it's not sufficient."

Back at the shelter, Sanchez calls his fellow guests family. (The shelter helps him avoid conflict with his own family in Hernandez, he says). On this night, Dec. 11, a group of church children and teenagers sing Christmas carols inside the shelter as residents eat a hot meal that includes vegetable soup.

"The people here are wonderful," Sanchez says. "I get along with everybody. Never see fights. Never see arguments, you know, you've got an argument here and there, you know, but it's easily resolved. It's just a really friendly environment."

But if he is excited about the shelter, he's even more confident about a future without having to rely on it. Sanchez dreams of getting a home and living there with some friends—perhaps some folks he knows from the shelter.

After dinner, Sanchez waits to meet a representative from The LifeLink, which he heard helps connect shelter guests with doctors, and find permanent housing and jobs. Sanchez says he would attempt to apply for more permanent shelter, but the flexibility at the place he and others call "Pete's Pets" is more ideal for him right now because, for one, it allows him to maintain a flexible schedule.

And he shares a common refrain with other users: He wishes he could stay in the shelter longer each morning, in part because the mornings are cold and because there's nothing to do before everything opens.

On SFR's visits to the shelter throughout December, the number who were let inside before 9 pm outnumbered those who had to wait because they had been drinking. Men typically outnumbered women at the shelter on those nights, and often included travelers who were passing through the town.

Gerald Easterling, an Albuquerque resident who was contemplating heading to Arizona was among guests. Formerly a train hopper, Easterling says he has a home in Albuquerque where his wife lives.

But he says he doesn't like the home-life for too long—he gets the seven-year itch. "That's just the way I am. I don't care about that stuff," he says, referring to his laptops, TVs and clothes. "…I'm a survivor. I can live without nothing."

Joe King is a survivor, too, but he, like some homeless persons, doesn't use the shelter. Still, his other sleeping choices haven't been all that safe.

Take, for example, the unforgettable night of June 19, 2013, when he says he was sleeping in a tunnel near the railroad tracks. A cushion a friend gave him served as a mattress. It was monsoon season, and on this night, a roar of water woke him up. The torrent of cold water pushed him "just like a hand" about 600 feet for a few terrible moments.

King now spends cold winter nights camping out in the woods; he says he got kicked out of the ROC after getting into an argument with a woman who called King, a black man of 42, a racial slur last winter.

But he says he wouldn't return to the emergency shelter if he was able.

He's not comfortable with sleeping in a room full of strangers. He says he knows guns get into the shelter, despite the fact that all belongings of persons entering it are taken into inventory. King himself has brought a knife in the shelter, he says. (Gronquist notes the shelter has a basic security check during the intake process.)

"You're sleeping next to somebody that you don't know at all," King says. "And you're trusting to close your eyes and get a restful night sleep and this guy is not going to trip out on you or on anybody," he says. "People—you have mentally ill totally mixed in with people who are just on their bad luck. It just ends up being this mish-mash."

He enjoys the woods, but faces different kind of dangers. He claims to have been approached by a bear and worries about bobcats. But his biggest concern is people. Security guards, cops or other authorities might discover his encampment. More ominously, two homicides in the city in 2013 were that of men police identified as transients. The city also ran squatters out of a camp spot called Hobo Hill last year, and the Santa Fe Police Department has occasionally shut down other known encampments of transients.

King says two failure-to-appear warrants might be out in his name in two other New Mexico jurisdictions for misdemeanor violations, he says. ("Joe King" didn't want to use his real name because that might jeopardize the way he earns his living through equipment repair).

Santa Fe resident George Andrew Coffey is more optimistic about the shelter. He says that, "Without this place, more people would die."

Coffey, 39, who says he comes from a erudite family in Indiana, speaks eloquently of the role of the shelter.

"Pete's is here every single night," he says, pounding his fist on the table to emphasize every, single and night. "Groups of people with faith serving the poor. Something that all of us have been taught to do. Something that the Statute of Liberty, almost as a personal joke to me, has a poem on it that it's supposed to indicate that these immigrants that we hate are gifts to America and the poor are gifts to America. And only in Pete's Pets, and a few places, Emma Lazarus' poem, "Give me your tired, your poor," is genuinely believed on American soil. So I'm very lucky to witness this, and be inspired to volunteer in the future myself and to do construction for them and to give them money."

On any given night, people line up outside the shelter well before the 6 pm opening time. At intake, they may store two parcels, which are locked in a closet until check out the next morning. Once inside, guests eat a meal. There's a TV, books and board games in the community area. Separate sleeping areas serve men and women, and a third sleeping room, called the "inebrates" room, is set aside for anyone who's been drinking (and who has waited outside until 9 pm).

On Dec. 19, a man who gave his name as Chupa Destos says he blew a 0.02 on the breathalyzer. (That's likely not his real name, as "chupa" translates to the English verb "suck" in Spanish). He didn't mind waiting on account that it was a nice night, though, and ran into some familiar faces. A Santa Fe resident of 55, he tells SFR, he actually prefers the penitentiary to the shelter.

"Only in Pete's Pets, and a few places, Emma Lazarus' poem, "Give me your tired, your poor," is genuinely believed on American soil."

"Get thrown out and get thrown out to the streets again," he says. "What can you do? Just do drugs and do booze and shit like that. Get in trouble and shit like that. They don't help you get houses or work."

As of Dec. 10, the Santa Fe Police Department had visited the shelter 90 times throughout the year, according to records. (Not all of these calls represent incidents that occured at the shelter; cops might have been investigating incidents that happened elsewhere.) In 2012, SFPD paid 63 visits to the shelter, according to records.

The blue ribbon task force issued a second report in 2012—the same year homelessness was supposed to be eradicated.

It outlines the progress made toward eradicating homelessness.

Accomplishments included: -20 beds of transitional housing for homeless youth developed by Youth Shelters, with city, state and federal funding.

-The Santa Fe Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit, led an $12 million project, funded mostly by federal money, to coordinate the construction of The Village Sage Apartments, which has 15 apartments reserved for homeless households and other units at market value. (The Housing Trust also renovated a separate $11 million apartment project that turned an old hotel into The Stage Coach Apartments in 2013.)

-The LifeLink expanded its supply of permanent supportive housing vouchers for homeless people with disabilities through federal and state programs, making 120 total rental units offered through Life Link.

-St. Elizabeth Shelter developed a shelter, Casa Familia, with the capacity for 5 families and 16 single women.

-An interagency case management group was established to help manage clients who need to access services from several agencies.

"It is the intent of this task force to continue shifting the focus from bed nights and meals, which provide only enough support to sustain life," states the 2012 report, "to person-centered care that will catalyze viable and measurable change in the lives of persons who find themselves without a home."

Coss laments the days when he was a child and Santa Fe "didn't have this issue" of homelessness. He admits that he might not have been aware of everything that was happening when he was a kid, but that "I know that we didn't have the homelessness problem in the '60s and the '70s that we have now."

“You know we had the Great Society,” he says. “We had the New Deal. And it wasn’t until Regan became president that he almost overnight created a homelessness problem for us.”

Coss touts the Pete's Pets project as a success, a place where an emphasis on counseling and assistance is placed during the daytime—when the guests aren't staying at the shelter for food or beds.

"I ride the bus a lot and it's a great form of transportation, but man, if you have to hit Social Security, Medicare, Workforce Solutions, and the Community College all in the same day, you're going to have a hard time doing that on the bus," he says. "And so to have that as a one-stop where you can get that counseling and that assistance at the Resource Opportunity Center—that's a good accomplishment."

"There was actually this debate going on in the homelessness advocates community. Because St. Elizabeth's was like, you know, 'We don't want to just get them shelter, we want to get them out of homelessness.' But the Interfaith Alliance was like, 'We don't want them to die.' And it has always made sense to me to push housing first. And the other significant thing that we accomplished, and at least it's there now, is the one-stop."

For Coss, the city's failure to end homelessness needs to be put in that context and viewed in light of dwindling city, state and federal funds because of the recession and because of austerity policies like sequestration. He says the city needs more funding to tackle the problem.

Asked if the five-year plan was realistic or a PR gimmick, Coss responds that he thinks it's important for the city to set high goals.

"Nobody wants to hear that we're just going to struggle with homelessness forevermore," he says. "'We need a good program to struggle with homelessness forevermore.' That doesn't get you projects or votes. You know you want to set your sights on ending it."

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