New Esperanza Shelter CEO has ambitious hopes for domestic violence prevention efforts

Feb. 11—The new CEO of Esperanza Shelter, which provides emergency services to local domestic violence victims, plans to reopen the facility's on-site congregate shelter.

The shelter has been closed since the start of the pandemic, when the organization began paying to house people in hotel rooms or apartments. But Jan McCray, who took over at Esperanza in December, said the arrangement is not financially feasible in the long run and does not allow Esperanza to help as many people.

"To be very honest, it is impossible for a nonprofit to run on that kind of model," she said. "It's financially impossible with what funding is available."

Because of limited funding, "it is a more financially sustainable option to go back into our beautiful facility that is in wonderful condition," McCray said.

The shelter has seven units in which people can be housed. By going back to the shelter model, Esperanza will probably be able to double its capacity "right away," McCray said, adding she also hopes to add a few more beds.

The shelter currently has 17 beds but has space for 25 to 30, McCray said. Each family will have its own room, she noted.

"A lot of folks picture an open dormitory style, but this is not that," she said.

In the fall, Esperanza acting CEO Pamela Villars and other shelter staff said domestic violence victims are better able to stabilize when they have their own space, which was one of the reasons it had not reopened the shelter.

In an interview this week, Villars said the organization's capacity is limited without the shelter.

"Moving back to the shelter model, it will be my guess that would help Esperanza house people more quickly," she said.

Villars, who served as the shelter's acting CEO for about nine months, said she is enjoying her "second retirement" following McCray's hiring. She was not involved in the board's search process, which she said involved serious consideration of five or six candidates and a round of interviews with McCray and one other finalist.

"From her background, she looks like an excellent choice," Villars said of McCray.

McCray moved to Santa Fe from Las Vegas, Nev., where she spent about two years as vice president of client services at domestic violence shelter SafeNest. During more than two decades in the field, she also served a victim advocate, attorney and nonprofit provider.

Santa Fe "stole my heart," McCray said.

"Las Vegas has a higher crime rate, and the domestic violence and the homicide rates are high," she said. "I was ready to come to another smaller agency, where I could share what I've learned and create some programs that had been successful in larger agencies."

Though Santa Fe is far smaller than Las Vegas, it's by no means immune from the threat of domestic violence. The city was rocked in November by the shooting deaths of Carmen Navarrete and her 16-year-old son Alex Gonzales at their home off West Alameda Street. The mother's ex-boyfriend, who police said had threatened Navarrete in the past, was charged in their deaths.

"COVID has exacerbated a lot of the problems surrounding domestic violence" in every city in the U.S., McCray said. "There is always a higher need for domestic violence services, particularly shelter, than there are resources available."

Locally, she said the severe lack of affordable housing also makes it harder for people to leave abusive relationships.

"If someone needs to leave a domestic violence situation, coming up with a deposit and application fee, moving costs, utility deposits, all of those things become huge barriers to safety," she said.

The shelter's largest sources of funding are federal, state and local grants, though McCray noted it also relies on private donations and gladly accepts contributions of any size. Federal funding can be a challenge because the money allocated for domestic violence prevention through the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act is continually being reduced.

A bill to allocate $4.5 million to the state Children, Youth and Families Department for domestic violence prevention, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, is under consideration in the Legislature. Rodriguez said Friday lawmakers are trying to put together various pieces of domestic violence funding to include in the state budget.

McCray also hopes to foster more partnerships between the shelter and local law enforcement agencies and health care providers.

At SafeNest, she was involved in efforts to have trained advocates go to the scene of domestic violence police calls and offer support to victims "at their greatest time of need." The organization also launched a program in which victim advocates embedded in the emergency room of the largest hospital in Las Vegas, which she said was a key way to reach victims of domestic abuse who had not had any interaction with law enforcement.

"It's another opportunity to offer services to folks who may not want to report criminally, but have sustained an injury that requires medical attention," she said.

In Las Vegas, McCray said such programs helped SafeNest to reach a wider scope of people.

McCray said Esperanza is in "preliminary exploratory conversations" with some local agencies about implementing similar programs but said she is still in process of getting to know all the service providers in town.

"It's been a wonderfully welcoming community for somebody coming from outside of New Mexico," she said.