A decade-old homeless shelter in Santa Fe is facing increased challenges amid the pandemic, with demand for its services staying steady while it offers fewer beds to adhere to COVID-19 precautions.
Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place has a 120-bed capacity at its Cerrillos Road building but can only fill 36 beds to comply with social distancing.
To keep with its mission of bringing the homeless out of the cold, Interfaith has put up roughly 30 people at the GreenTree Inn. And earlier this year, it referred 24 people with COVID-19 symptoms to the emergency shelter the city opened at the midtown campus, where they were quarantined and tested.
But the number of homeless people seeking shelter will grow as the weather gets colder, so there’s a need to find more housing for those who could have obtained bed space at Interfaith before the pandemic, said Joseph Jordan-Berenis, the shelter’s director.
“We don’t want them freezing to death,” he said.
In the midst of those challenges, Jordan-Berenis is seeking a four-year lease renewal at the city-owned building, where it offers less stringent screening to homeless people, such as letting those who are intoxicated return later rather than rejecting them.
“We are the safety net for the city and the county,” Jordan-Berenis said.
The city of Santa Fe delayed renewing the shelter’s lease Wednesday — the day it expired — saying the building needs a state fire and safety inspection.
The City Council voted to kick the proposed lease renewal to committees to review. The shelter will go to a monthly agreement until the lease is renewed.
“I’d hate for something to happen there without the inspections being done,” said City Councilor Christopher Rivera, who requested that the lease renewal be held off. “Something to let us know that the fire and sprinkler system is working well, and that the building is structurally sound.
Still, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said letting the lease expire suggests a shelter for the city’s most underserved populations is a low priority.
“I think we need to do a better job,” Vigil Coppler said.
To provide more beds, Jordan-Berenis has been talking with officials at St. Elizabeth Shelter about taking overflow and with youth shelter officials about sending them younger street people who show up at the Interfaith shelter, he said.
He also would like to add 10 more people to the GreenTree Inn. Because it’s a hotel, he ensures that those he sends there are sober and well behaved, he said.
Over the years, some neighbors have complained about illegal drug activities, theft and junk-filled shopping carts that they’ve linked to the Interfaith shelter.
Jordan-Berenis said he shares the neighbors’ concerns.
In the past year, about a dozen individuals have caused trouble, and they are no longer allowed on the property, he said.
“I empathize [with neighbors] because we call police to have some people moved with some regularity,” Jordan-Berenis said. “The street, unfortunately, is not our responsibility.”
Sometimes neighbors incorrectly blame the shelter for thefts in the area, Jordan-Berenis said. He recalled a business owner pinning a burglary on shelter occupants, when the thieves used a large truck to haul away the stolen goods, indicating it was a more professional job.
The neighbors don’t see the hundreds who receive assistance, such as treatment for mental illness or get housing through Veterans Affairs, he said.
Interfaith took in more than 1,300 people last year, a number that will shrink this year because of coronavirus restrictions.
Still, the shelter remains an important hub, Jordan-Berenis said.
Mayor Alan Webber said the shelter’s pending lease renewal will be a way to discuss how caring for the city’s homeless intersects with the pandemic and efforts at community policing.
“I think the conversation stands to be productive rather than a delay or an imposition,” Webber said. “There’s enormous support in the role that Pete’s Place plays in this continuum of care, and the expertise of the people who work there, and the extraordinary commitment of its volunteers.”