Santa Fe proposes sanctioned homeless camp at midtown campus

·5 min read

Jun. 7—City officials seeking solutions to homelessness as well as the scores of increasingly costly and messy illegal encampments spread throughout Santa Fe are proposing the establishment of a sanctioned camp at the largely vacant midtown campus.

It would be developed near Consuelo's Place, an emergency shelter set up at the city-owned former college campus during the coronavirus pandemic, and would provide wrap-around programs, trash pickup and other services for about 50 people at a time, Kyra Ochoa, director of the city's Community Health and Safety Department, told a City Council committee last week.

Councilors on the Quality of Life Committee expressed uneasy support for the project.

Ochoa said it wasn't the ultimate fix for what appears to be a growing homeless community.

"This is a kind of solution that kind of breaks your heart because it is not a solution," she said. "To have people we really hope and wish could be housed living in tents in a sanctioned city encampment doesn't make me jump for joy."

But, she added, it is one way to prevent more illegal camps from popping up around the city.

Santa Fe officials first began exploring the option of a sanctioned and monitored homeless encampment in 2021, based on models operating in other cities.

In March, a draft plan called for up to four city-approved camps, each limited to about 25 people. All of them would have offered wrap-around services for campers.

Ochoa said the city considered a number of sites for such camps, including various parks and other city-owned spaces. They decided, however, that expanding Consuelo's Place would not only be the quickest option, but it was the only option that could include wrap-around services.

Setting up a free-standing camp would have required the city to create new positions to staff it, Ochoa said, and local nonprofits that provide services for the homeless community indicated they would not be able to expand to another site.

The city hopes to have the camp running in the next three months, she added.

The city developed the Consuelo's Place emergency shelter at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 in a former midtown campus dormitory building. The goal was to prevent widespread outbreaks in the homeless community by providing a safe place for people to isolate or quarantine while they recovered from COVID-19 or waited for a test result.

The site is run by a nonprofit of the same name that was started in 2020 by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.

Funding for the proposed camp nearby would come from the city's $15 million disbursement from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, but final numbers are still being calculated, Ochoa said.

City officials provided a few draft figures, including estimates of $250,000 a year for 24/7 onsite staffing by nonprofit providers, $150,000 a year for onsite support services including case management and $40,000 for health and hygiene assistance.

The costs to create and operate a camp likely would be much less than the amount the city typically spends clearing illegal encampments, which officials said reached as high as $3.4 million last year.

Since April 2020, 291 encampments have been reported, 81 of which are currently active; 22 of those were reported in the last 45 days.

"We really don't want to just go back to the days when we are spending $3.4 million on encampments until we can provide an alternative," Ochoa said.

Midtown campers would be required to follow a series of rules governing noise, violence and drug use.

No one under 18 would be allowed to enter.

Julie Sanchez, director of Santa Fe's Youth and Family Services Division, said the next steps for the camp are to apply for a permit from the state for the property's use, procure supplies and services and begin working on a monitoring framework.

According to city estimates, there are about 150 people on the streets and in other unsheltered locations at any given time.

"Not everyone will come to this," Ochoa said of the sanctioned camp. "We have 150 people out there, and we are budgeting for 50. ... We really need to focus on alternative shelter needs as one piece of a larger puzzle."

Ultimately, she said, the goal is to begin work on a larger facility on a suitable property, which would be operated by a nonprofit. The project could include sanctioned camping, an emergency shelter, day services, safe drug and alcohol use and other on-site programs, she added.

Members of the Quality of Life Committee said they hoped the midtown camp would be temporary.

"None of us think it is a solution, but I do think it is a step closer," City Councilor Amanda Chavez said of the proposal. "We are taking individuals in need and trying to isolate them in one location, and I think that is really going to test if we have adequate services as a city but also our community partners and really testing who is going to come in and what force do we have behind us in addressing that issue."

Councilor Jamie Cassutt agreed the proposal didn't feel like a solution but said it was a "step in the right direction."

Councilor Michael Garcia questioned whether the city could be deemed liable if anyone was harmed at the encampment. Ochoa said she needed to have further discussions with the city's legal team to provide a more substantial answer.

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and a Santa Fe County commissioner, said he couldn't identify any gaps in the proposed plan but suggested city staff set up a visit to Las Cruces' Mesilla Valley Community of Hope.

Started in the 1990s as a day center for homeless people, Community of Hope in 2011 opened Camp Hope, which provides temporary and transitional shelter and services for about 50 people in the form of tents, showers, a cooking facility and a "tent to rent" program.

"People used to camp all over the neighborhood around Community of Hope, and now they camp there," Hughes said.