Following the largest one-day count in a decade of people living on the streets of Santa Fe, advocates cite a long waiting list for housing for the homeless and a need for not only more beds but a facility with 24-hour care for those with severe mental health conditions.
The rise in homelessness in Santa Fe — the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness identified 330 people in its count this year, compared to 215 last year — comes as the city and local nonprofits are working on new initiatives to address the needs of those in the homeless community, a population that’s difficult to measure.
The coalition calls its annual poll a “snapshot” that vastly undercounts the problem. Other estimates are as high as 5,000 people and largely depend on an organization’s definition of homelessness, which could include people living in motel rooms or families doubling up in apartments.
Elizabeth Reynolds, director of La Familia Medical Center’s Health Care for the Homeless program, who estimates at least 4,000 people are insufficiently housed in the city, said officials and advocates are “always underestimating how many people are homeless.”
‘You can’t feel secure if you’re sleeping outside’
The No. 1 need for the homeless, before addressing any other issues, is getting people into housing, said Hank Hughes, executive director of the Coalition to End Homelessness.
“What we found is that people can’t work on their mental health, physical health or substance abuse without a house,” he said. “You need to feel secure, and you can’t feel secure if you’re sleeping outside or in a shelter.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Alan Webber brought the nationwide initiative Built for Zero to Santa Fe. Built for Zero seeks to eliminate all chronic and veteran homelessness. The first step of the program, still in its infancy, will be collecting reliable data on the homeless community, including an accurate count of how many people are affected and what their needs are.
Signing on to Built for Zero, Webber said, is a “big step” that shows Santa Fe’s commitment to solving the problem.
Recently, the city’s police and fire departments announced a joint diversion program called Thrive that will refer low-level offenders struggling with addiction — many of whom end up homeless — to the fire department’s mobile health team for case management. Organizers hope for a mid-November start of the program.
The city also will benefit from more than $3 million New Mexico received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a Youth Homelessness Demonstration program — a national initiative aimed at reducing the number of people 24 and under who are experiencing homelessness. The funds will add about 115 spaces for young homeless people in Santa Fe, Hughes said.
But there is still work to be done. The community needs “better coordinated outreach to make sure we’re reaching everybody,” Hughes said — and of course, more housing.
Hughes’ group works with local shelters and nonprofits to compile a list of chronically homeless people in the city, prioritized by their level of vulnerability: “Your mental health and if you’ve been subject to abuse at home or in the streets,” he said.
There are currently about 100 names on the list of people waiting for a home, he said, and “obviously we don’t have 100 units available.”
There are presently 438 beds in Santa Fe dedicated to housing people who previously were homeless: 12 at Casa Milagro, a group home for those with mental illness; 122 in apartments at least partially dedicated to housing the homeless; and 304 in other apartment complexes located throughout the city.
The city has no supportive housing facility with 24-hour care for those with greater needs, but Hughes said he hopes one will be built in Santa Fe within the next three years. This setting would provide space for those who cannot fully function independently because of mental health or behavioral health issues.
The city also falls short on the number of beds available in homeless shelters. Edward Archuleta, executive director of St. Elizabeth Shelters & Supportive Housing, said it’s not uncommon for his group’s men’s shelter to turn away at least five or six men every night.
At least eight women and four families are on a waiting list each night at St. Elizabeth’s shelter for women and children, said its director, Annie Riddle, adding this poses a huge safety concern for those forced to sleep in cars or on the streets.
As efforts to identify and serve the city’s homeless expand, the goal is to continue opening up residency spots by moving tenants from temporary housing into apartments subsidized with federal Section 8 rent vouchers or long-term public housing.
Sometimes preparing for that transition “can take years,” said Lara Yoder, housing manager at the nonprofit LifeLink, but eventually it creates room for others in need.
A big obstacle in this transition is also finding affordable housing options. Riddle and Archuleta said most rental homes in Santa Fe are too costly for their clients, who can obtain $1,000 monthly state vouchers to help pay for rent.
But, Archuleta said, housing under $1,000 “is nonexistent in Santa Fe right now.”
Is housing the homeless sustainable?
Reynolds, of La Familia, is the board president of One Door, a project that would fill the void by developing a campus offering housing for the homeless as well as counseling, health care and other services. The project, several years in the making, has faced delays.
While One Door has “kind of been put on a little bit of a back burner due to many factors” — Reynolds would not elaborate on those or provide a time frame for when she expects such a campus to open — there is still a group of committed organizers working on the effort, she said.
Archuleta said the city needs a one-stop shop for the homeless, like One Door, where support services are on-site.
“We get a lot of people housed, but because they don’t have that support, we see them right back at our door within a year,” he said.
There are many reasons why people’s lives get turned upside down, sending them to the streets: high medical bills, a disability, overwhelming student debt, an abusive relationship, to name a few.
“Once you fall into homelessness, climbing out is really hard,” said Joe Jordan-Berenis, executive director of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place.
But some advocates argue that keeping people in stable housing after they have experienced homelessness is far less challenging. Hughes said only about 10 percent of those who obtain housing end up falling back into homelessness — typically because of bad behavior that leads to eviction.
For most people, he said, “if we get them into the right kind of housing, they do pretty well.”
According to data from the coalition, 176 of the 225 people who found housing through The Lifelink last year remained in the housing unit or moved into Section 8 housing. That means closer to 22 percent might have returned to the streets.
At St. Elizabeth, about 25 percent of those who were housed in 2018 — 110 men and 227 women and children — 25 percent became homeless again and returned to the shelter within a two-year period, Archuleta said.
Overcoming stigmas and barriers
Successfully serving the homeless requires a shift in perspective, Jordan-Berenis said.
“These people are members of our community and they are no different than you or I,” he said. “There’s this idea that people who are homeless are something other than a member of the community. I would like people to see that there is no ‘other.’ ”
Mayor Webber agreed in a recent phone interview, saying it’s important “to talk about people as individuals, by their name.” He said this helps “push back against stereotypes and assumptions that are simply not true.”
But the task of finding a home for someone who has been living on the streets also requires a lot of paperwork, such as identification, and some type of transportation, as well as an array of services to address the problems behind their homelessness.
One woman in the homeless community pointed out a frustrating conundrum: You must have an ID and Social Security card to sign a lease, and to get an ID you must have proof of residency, she said.
Hughes said the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness has worked with the state Taxation and Revenue Department to streamline the process of obtaining an ID. Now, those unable to meet requirements for a federally approved driver’s license, or Real ID, can get a standard state driver’s license, which requires two documents showing New Mexico residency — Hughes said shelters write letters for this — and a single document proving identity and age. Fingerprints, immigration status and Social Security numbers are not required.
As for transportation, Hughes noted “it is a barrier.”
The coalition has considered starting an Uber or Lyft program, he said, or implementing an independent transportation system. But most services for the homeless are located along a public bus route or within walking distance of its stops, he said.
For example, The LifeLink is located near a bus stop on Cerrillos Road, Yoder said, and the organization assists with transportation.
To help keep people in homes, The LifeLink offers wraparound services such as counseling, medical assistance and help getting federal disability benefits and food assistance, child care, into recovery programs and job training. But most people experiencing chronic homelessness have disabilities that prohibit them from employment, Yoder said.
“A lot of people and agencies think that once you get someone into housing, the work is done,” she said, “but really it’s just the beginning.”