Several former guests of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place have transitioned from those being served to those who serve.
Seven employees at the shelter who were once homeless now work there full time, ranging from day shift supervisor to kitchen manager. While administrators said there is some risk involved in hiring a guest, it’s critical to provide people who are reliable and have initiative with an opportunity to turn their lives around.
“The way we do it here, it’s almost self-selecting,” said Joe Jordan-Berenis, the shelter’s executive director. “People start by volunteering here, and if they’re clean and sober and working on housing — and if they’re reliable in volunteering — and we have a position, we offer it to them.”
Ultimately, “it has to come from them,” added Sue Carr, assistant director. “Something inside of them wants to hit the reset button.”
Carr said all seven employees who were former guests hit that button the moment they began helping out at the shelter without being asked to do so, and without knowing there was any chance of being hired later on. For example, Ben Medina volunteered to help with construction and maintenance needs, Richard Sisneros did janitorial work and Andrea Quintana washed dishes in the kitchen. “What we see is that someone is really making an effort,” Jordan-Berenis said, noting this often includes recovering from substance abuse.
“Getting sober is a monumental task, and when they accomplish that and are volunteering here, it behooves us as an agency to support them and to reward them by keeping them employed,” he said.
Since the Interfaith Community Shelter opened in 2010, Jordan-Berenis said at least a dozen guests or former guests have been hired as employees.
At first, they might be a contracted employee, but as soon as they reach $600 in income, a limit set by the Internal Revenue Service before paying taxes is required, they become a full-time employee, he said.
Once someone is hired, they are treated equally and held to the same standard as other staff members. Income depends on the person’s role, ranging from Santa Fe’s minimum wage of $12.10 an hour for janitorial roles to $15 an hour for entry-level managerial positions. Every year, Jordan-Berenis said, he tries to give each employee a raise, noting that seven-year night shift supervisor Roque Lucero, for example, now earns $18 an hour.
Since the shelter is open seasonally — it’s open only to women and children from May to mid-October — Jordan-Berenis said he has to alter schedules during summer months. Still, “we try to make sure people can make a living year-round,” he said.
Although there are no current openings, when a job presents itself, Jordan-Berenis said, he already has a list of people he’d like to hire. At the top is James Griffin, a shelter guest who has filled in when staff members are absent.
Still, hiring someone experiencing homelessness can be tricky, Jordan-Berenis admitted.
“It gets very confusing for them because when they’re working, they’re employees. But when they’re not working, they have to obey the rules of the shelter as guests,” he said. For this reason, “boundaries get a little squishy.”
There are also challenges involved in helping an employee transition from being unemployed and homeless to maintaining responsibilities associated with a full-time job — especially since “those old behaviors are there at times,” Jordan-Berenis said.
For example, it may take time for a former guest to understand the importance of being on time and performing all responsibilities expected of them throughout their shift.
Others might relapse into substance abuse and need to take time off to go to rehab, and some even end up in jail, Jordan-Berenis said. In any situation, he said, it’s critical for administrators to work with each employee and show unconditional support.
“It’s always taking a chance,” he said of the decision to hire someone, “but I think frequently we believe in the person more than they believe in themself.”
Even when a guest asks to attend a recovery program or is sent to jail, “we hold their job,” Jordan-Berenis said.
Administrators said they have had to fire employees in the past, but only after several infractions.
“We have worked with people in the past saying, ‘Look, you really need to pay attention and clean up your act,’ or something to that effect. ‘You need to step it up if you want to keep working,’ ” Carr said.
If they don’t listen, she added, there’s no other option than to let them go.
“It’s incredibly sad,” Jordan-Berenis said. “Not everybody is a success story.”
For those who do sustain employment, however, it helps not only the individual but the staff. “It feels really proud seeing guests who used to come into your office and talk about their struggles, who become your colleagues, your co-workers,” said Carr.
“It’s really an investment in a person for the long haul,” said Jordan-Berenis. “I’m a firm believer in a clean slate. … I’m always trying to help each of our guests move on, at their own pace, in their own way.”