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Santa Fe Fire Department's MIH Program Helps the Homeless

The Santa Fe New Mexican

Dennis is a 72-year-old homeless man—big, burly, bearded—with a philosophical, somewhat mystical bent.
Sitting on a park bench on the Plaza one cold night last week, he was talking about how he likes Santa Fe more than other places he's been.

"Santa Fe is better," Dennis said, "because people's hearts are more open."

Two members of the Santa Fe Fire Department who were talking to him seemed to give credence to his point.

Edward Oliphant, 36, and Patrick Martinez, 25, were slowly cruising the streets of Santa Fe on Thursday night in a city ambulance with the sole purpose of helping homeless people—asking whether they had a warm place to stay and offering to give them rides to a shelter. And for those who didn't want to go to a shelter, Oliphant and Martinez offered free sleeping bags and hot packs—hand warmers that can last for hours after opened.

Oliphant and Martinez were doing volunteer duty in a new pilot program for the city called Code Blue, designed to help homeless people survive the winter.

Mayor Alan Webber said the idea for the program came during "that really bad cold snap we had in the last couple of months when there was a succession of brutally cold nights."

He said he and several city department heads already had been talking about joining a national New York-based program called Built for Zero, a "coalition of cities all over the United States to end chronic and veteran homelessness." The program was created by Roseanne Haggerty, who Webber said is an old friend. Haggerty came to Santa Fe last year to meet with city officials about the initiative.

"With homelessness so much in the forefront of our minds, this cold weather snap got me very concerned we were putting people's lives at risk," Webber said. "So I picked up the phone and called Roseanne and said, 'What do other cities do when there are serious life risks to homeless people?'"

Haggerty told him of a protocol called Code Blue—a process used in New York and other cities that is triggered when temperatures reach dangerous levels. Webber called it "an aggressive effort to get people off the street," rather than simply telling people, "We have shelters; please come in if you're homeless."

The city fire department already had a program called MIHO—the Mobile Integrated Health Office—designed to prevent chronic use of 911. Fire Chief Paul Babcock said the MIHO crew visits frequent callers to the emergency number before they are in crisis, in hopes of getting them medication and help before they need an ambulance.

"We have this unit. We can go out proactively in cold weather and locate people who are homeless and at risk and urge them to go to a shelter," Webber said. "What we had not done until Code Blue was actually take the step of saying, 'We are going to try to pre-empt somebody freezing to death.'"

So far, fire department personnel have gone out on at least four cold nights, distributing dozens of sleeping bags and hundreds of the hot packs. These items were purchased out of the department's existing budget, and so far, Babcock said, he hasn't had to go to the City Council for more money for the program.

Oliphant said buying the sleeping bags is a good investment.

"A trip to the hospital costs the city about $1,300," he said. "I don't know how much these sleeping bags cost, but if they prevent people from having to go to the hospital, it's money well spent."

Minutes after leaving the north-side fire station at Fort Marcy park shortly after dark Thursday, the Code Blue team spotted a man they thought might be homeless on Water Street near Galisteo Street.

"Excuse me, sir, do you have a warm place to sleep tonight?" Oliphant called out.

The man, 54, said he didn't, but he also did not want to stay in a shelter. That was a typical response Oliphant and Martinez would hear that evening. But the man was happy to take a sleeping bag and a couple of hot packs.

There are two homeless shelters in Santa Fe—St. Elizabeth, which has operated since the 1980s, and the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete's Place, housed in a Cerrillos Road building that once was home to Pete's Pets. Firefighters usually offer to take people needing shelter to Pete's because it has more space and less stringent requirements than St. Elizabeth Shelter.

Babcock said some people aren't allowed to stay at shelters because of past problems. "We don't want to take anybody to Pete's Place who isn't welcome there—or to put anyone else there in harm's way because we're taking a homeless person who does have mental health issues," he said.

Mental illness didn't seem to be a problem for most of the homeless people Oliphant and Martinez came across Thursday. But one woman walking down Cerrillos said she'd never stay at one of the shelters because they practiced "human sacrifice" and let "serial killers" stay there.

Oliphant didn't argue with her or try to correct her misconceptions. In his conversations with those he was trying to help, he showed not a trace of judgment or disapproval.

"I think she was suffering from paranoid delusions," Oliphant said after leaving the scene. It's rare that he sees such conditions, he added.

"We see substance abuse problems and things like anxiety and depression," he said. "But this type of condition, hardly ever."

Babcock said his goal is to train all of his staff in mental health awareness.

Another homeless man spotted by the firefighters was in front of the Starbucks coffee shop on West San Francisco Street—the same spot where Thomas Wayne Williamson, 60, was found dead in January after a cold night.

Neither Oliphant nor Martinez mentioned that to the man, who also said he didn't want to stay in a shelter.

"I think [Williamson] was pretty well-known in the homeless community," Oliphant said.

The man in front of Starbucks declined to take a sleeping bag.

"He had yoga mats and blankets," Oliphant said. "He seemed pretty well set."

Some community experts say that's more common than you might think.

"Homeless people are extraordinarily resourceful," said Kyra Ochoa, director of the city's Community Services Department, which is part of the Code Blue effort. "The fact that they can survive as they do shows they're not a helpless population. They have a lot of external resources, and they have a community where they help each other."

Babcock said his staff has been "very well received" when they go out on Code Blue nights.

"They're very trusting of the fire department," he noted. "They see the firetrucks and ambulances out many times where they're interacting, whether it's a substance abuse patient or a mentally ill person."

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said in a recent interview that he likes the idea of Code Blue.

"I think it's important to send friendly faces out to talk to homeless people and tell them what services are available," Hughes said. He noted that in other cities with high homeless populations, police go out and try to round up the homeless.

"And of course they just hide and run away," he said.

Hughes' organization has estimated there are about 112 chronically homeless people in Santa Fe, Ochoa said. Both she and Webber said they think that estimate is low.

Distributing the sleeping bags and hot packs is just the first step in the Code Blue program, city officials said.

Webber said the goal is to create a written protocol on how to respond to extremely cold nights and to establish a network of public and private institutions that can help.

"We have not yet built the network," Webber said. "We have not yet gone to the hospitals and the other providers—that's the next step. Right now [city officials] are testing how it would work and what the demands on the system are."

"Hopefully, [Code Blue] will shine a huge spotlight on our system and gaps in our system," Ochoa said.

Despite the large number of cold nights this winter, there have not been any problems with the shelters running out of room, officials said. Pete's Place typically has 20 to 30 empty beds in a night, Ochoa said. "In colder weather maybe fewer, but we haven't run up against capacity yet."

City Emergency Management Director David Silver said the city is thinking of ways to increase that capacity, making more beds available on those "brutally cold" nights.

Code Blue so far has shown that "we don't really have a coordinated street outreach effort in Santa Fe," Ochoa said. "We don't have day drop-in centers. We have the libraries. We don't have certain components that other, larger, better-resourced communities have. But that doesn't mean we can't solve the problem."

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