For years, residents and businesses near the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place have complained that some members of the homeless community congregating in the area have been dealing drugs, trespassing, stealing, littering and acting menacing.
Their grievances grew louder last week when the Santa Fe City Council discussed renewing the shelter’s lease for four years. Councilors delayed taking action because it wants the state to first conduct safety inspections on the building at Cerrillos and Harrison roads.
In response to neighbors’ concerns, however, city officials recently approved spending $172,000 on lighting and sidewalk improvements on Harrison Road to make it safer for residents at night and harder for loiterers to conceal crimes. Santa Fe police also will increase patrols around Pete’s Place, officials said, although they didn’t say by how much.
One longtime resident noted it took a decade for the city to agree to fund improvements on Harrison Road.
“If issues were never raised about Pete’s Place recently, it probably would still be on the back burner,” Frederick Jones said in an email.
He and other neighbors weren’t notified 10 years ago that a homeless shelter was being planned at the site and now have no choice about how long it will remain, Jones said.
“If I was in city government I would be … making it up to the residents for the burden of what the facility has created,” he wrote in the email.
The renewed focus on Pete’s Place comes as the city considers spending $2 million in federal novel coronavirus relief funding to purchase a motel to serve as an emergency shelter for the homeless and others who need a place to isolate during the pandemic. In the pandemic’s early months, the city created an emergency shelter at the midtown campus on St. Michael’s Drive.
The emergency shelter, in the old dorm facilities at the former college campus, helped ease crowding at Pete’s Place and allowed clients to spread out and slow the potential transmission of the virus.
The city hopes to continue the effort at another location.
Meanwhile, the group that gathers outside is likely to grow in the coming months as the weather chills and more people are drawn to Pete’s Place.
The shelter serves more than 1,000 people each year who rely on its warm beds and meals for their survival, Director Joe Jordan-Berenis said in a recent opinion piece published in The New Mexican. Those who cause problems for nearby business owners and neighbors are limited to 10 or 15 people who have been banned from the shelter for bad behavior.
Neighbors, city leaders and Jordan-Berenis said police are often slow to respond to calls about crimes or don’t come at all.
“I’m told it is worse now than in the past,” City Councilor Signe Lindell said.
Jordan-Berenis said if the same activities happened downtown, people illegally camping, openly using drugs, blocking the sidewalk and street, and defecating in public, the police response would be “prompt and thorough.”
Chief Andrew Padilla defended the agency’s response to reports of illicit activity near the shelter. Officers always come, he said, but they might arrive an hour or two after the call because they were tied up with more urgent matters.
He said he has told officers to go by the shelter more often.
“We can’t just have a dedicated officer there all day, every day,” Padilla said.
There are eight to 12 officers working at any given time to cover the city, so an officer might be called away for something more serious such as a fatal car crash or domestic violence, Padilla said.
“I understand people’s frustrations, but we have the entire city to police,” he said. “With the resources that we have, we’re doing our best.”
There’s not much officers can do about loiterers who aren’t committing crimes, the chief added. Removing them from the sidewalk with no just cause would violate their civil rights.
“It’s a city sidewalk. You have every right to be on that sidewalk,” Padilla said.
In his opinion piece, Jordan-Berenis said he and Padilla have discussed stepping up the police presence.
He recalled the days of community policing, when officers would park across the street from Pete’s Place, sometimes while doing their paperwork from other cases, and would get to know the people who spend time there.
“This is not the first time we have received such a commitment,” Jordan-Berenis said of the increased patrols. “If it happens, the entire neighborhood would benefit.”
City Councilor Renee Villarreal said Pete’s Place is an important resource that aids one of the most vulnerable populations in the city, but she believes the “nefarious and dangerous activities” that affect clients and the neighborhood must be addressed.
“The complaints and pleas for help from the surrounding neighbors and businesses is justified,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should have to be fearful to leave their home, walk down the block or be outside at night in their own neighborhood.”
The lighting and sidewalks on Harrison should’ve been improved long ago, Villarreal added.
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler called the city’s plan for improved lighting on Harrison Road “a good first step.”
“Even if Pete’s Place wasn’t there, that street needs to be lit,” she said.
During a late-night police ride-along last winter, Vigil Coppler said, she observed homeless people gathered on the sidewalk outside Pete’s Place, many of them sprawled out, sleeping in the cold.
Officers cleared them off the sidewalk, she said, which drove many to hunker down at a nearby plaza.
The police car she was riding in also passed homeless people wandering in other areas along Cerrillos Road, Vigil Coppler said, calling the sight further evidence the city’s homeless population has outgrown its shelters. “They have nowhere to go.”
Pete’s Place probably should move to a larger building, she said, but she acknowledged a homeless shelter wouldn’t be welcome in most areas of the city.
Jones, the neighbor, agreed the shelter should move to a bigger facility to avoid the overflow. The prospect of running into a not-in-my-backyard attitude is no reason not to pursue it, he added.
“Move it and update it to truly work for the addicted, homeless, at-risk population,” Jones said.
Mayor Alan Webber said any homeless shelter would have some unlawful activity nearby. But a police crackdown isn’t the solution, he said, because being homeless isn’t a crime.
More services are needed to aid people with mental illness and behavioral problems who wind up on the street, Webber said, adding social workers might be better first responders than law enforcement to this type of situation.
The pandemic has aggravated the problem at Pete’s Place, Webber added. In recent months, the county jail wasn’t accepting people arrested for petty crimes because it was full, he said. That prevented the police from arresting people outside the shelter for infractions like trespassing because there was nowhere to put them.
Webber said Santa Fe’s homeless population is a symptom of former Gov. Susana Martinez cutting the state’s behavioral health programs.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a population on the street struggling to get their needs met,” Webber said. “At the same time, the neighborhood and the businesses have a clear and legitimate set of complaints.”