With chilly overnight temperatures beginning to drive Santa Fe’s homeless population to seek refuge indoors, the U.S. Postal Service is taking steps to keep the city’s downtown post office from becoming a seasonal sleeping spot for those who don’t want to go to a shelter.

A spokesman initially said a plan next month to restrict nighttime access to the lobby where renters of post office boxes pick up their mail was prompted by concerns about “increased and excessive vandalism.”

However, when pressed to detail the nature and dates of the vandalism, the Arizona-based spokesman, Peter Hass, indicated that vandalism was not the only factor.

“I’m told the decision did result from customers expressing concerns for their safety and multiple incidents of vagrants sleeping in the lobby and leaving behind damage and feces, etc.,” Hass said in an email.

With nighttime temperatures dipping below freezing, it’s again getting perilous for those living on the streets.

During the winter of 2006-07, 21 homeless men and women died from exposure to the elements in Santa Fe, according to the website for the Interfaith Community Shelter, a come-as-you-are emergency shelter on Cerrillos Road.

It’s one of the few places that any man, woman or child in need can find a bed.

Sue Carr, assistant director, said Friday the shelter’s overnight season started Oct. 15, when the shelter served a total of 65 guests, with 54 staying overnight. Guests who do not stay overnight are able to eat a free meal served by volunteers beginning at 6 p.m.

Carr said more guests have been arriving as the weather gets colder; on Thursday night, the shelter served 103 guests, with 83 staying overnight.

“Because it’s cold out — word is out that we’re open now,” Carr said.

The shelter’s overnight capacity is 123 people. It has 28 beds for women and 58 beds for men, she said, with sleeping mats also available.

Carr said shelter staff encourage women and children to use Casa Familia Urgent Transition Center, a transitional living program for women and families run by St. Elizabeth Shelter and Supportive Housing at 1604 Barry Ave. That’s a better environment for them, she said, because the Interfaith Shelter accepts people who have been drinking, but only three hours after the 6 p.m. free supper served by volunteers.

Carr said no drug or alcohol use is allowed on the shelter’s property, though.

Joe Garcia, 53, stood outside the Solana Center on West Alameda Street on a recent afternoon this week, asking passers-by for work so he could earn some cash. He said he had been spending recent days and nights walking the city just to stay warm, even at night. He said he was suffering from insomnia.

Asked why he did not want to stay at the emergency shelter on Cerrillos Road, Garcia cited his struggles with addiction.

“That’s only going to help me meet more connections,” Garcia said.

Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

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