Winter Weather Increases Demand Among N.H. Homeless Shelters

Dec 28, 2017

Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR

Shelters across the Granite State are working overtime to provide resources to homeless people exposed to winter weather. 

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with people working in shelters across New Hampshire about their efforts to provide help to those in need.

Ellen Groh is the executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

The coalition I know has been working on a new shelter for some time now. It’s under construction. When do you expect that to be up and running?

We are hoping that it will be finished by the end of February.

In the meantime?

In the meantime, we fortunately have the use of St. Peter’s church again this year. Christ the King Parish has been very, very generous. This will be the third year in a row that they’ve offered that space for the shelter.

Since you don’t have that permanent shelter yet, are there other alternatives that people are seeking? Where else can they go?

Well, in Concord there are two year-round shelters. That’s the Salvation Army’s McKenna House, [which] serves individuals – males and females. And the Friends Program serves families. And so they’re open year round. This winter shelter, the idea started, I think it was 14 or 15 years ago when First Congregational Church and South Congregational Church opened their doors to run a shelter. And they did that for over 10 years until they finally said that they couldn’t carry that burden themselves any longer, and they needed the community to rise up and find another solution.

Can you tell us about that need, why there was a need for a winter shelter when there are two permanent shelters in the city?

Well, both of those permanent shelters are often full. I think they are full almost all of the time. And I will say that the additional need in winter is that both of the permanent shelters have strict criteria for using their shelter. You have to be sober. They’ll do random drug testing. So if you arrive under the influence of anything, you can’t stay at those shelters. The winter shelter in Concord has traditionally been what we call a low-barrier shelter. So as long as your behavior is not disruptive, you can arrive under the influence of something and still be welcomed.

And how has that need changed over the years?

I think there’s a lot more opioid use than there was obviously 14 years ago, and there are still a lot of people who are addicted to alcohol who use the shelter.

What is really challenging in regards to Concord’s homeless population in particular?

Well I know Concord definitely feels like people end up here after being released from the state institutions that are here – the prison and the New Hampshire State Hospital. The people may have come, originated from some other part of the state, ended up in one of those institutions and then get released to Concord and just stay. So I think people feel like a disproportionate number of people who are very vulnerable, and need some help getting back on their feet, and getting back into society, end up in Concord, and that we don’t necessarily have enough resources to take care of everyone, to help everyone get back on their feet.

So what resources do you think are needed to tackle that particular problem?

Well I think in general there’s a lack of affordable housing, that people who are earning low to moderate incomes, or very low incomes, cannot find an apartment. For people coming from homelessness, especially people who are chronically homeless, which means they’ve been homeless for over a year and also have a kind of disabling condition, they will typically need some kind of rental assistance. Even if there were enough affordable apartments, they’re going to need extra help to be able to pay the rent if they’re not able to hold down a job because of their disability.

Over the long term, what do you see as a solution to the homelessness problem here in Concord?

Permanent housing is absolutely the goal that we’re aiming for. Shelters, especially in winter, are critical. I don’t want to downplay their importance, but they are just a band aid. They don’t solve homelessness by any means. That person is still living under tremendous stress and insecurity when they’re in a shelter. So we’re focused on permanent housing as the solution, and right now our focus is on how permanently housing people who have been chronically homeless. So like we were saying before, [they are] homeless for over a year and having some kind of disabling condition. And the way to accomplish that is provide rental assistance to the person so they can afford [housing] in Concord, as well as some intensive case worker support. Because it can be a difficult transition [say] if you’ve been living in the woods for 20 years. We had a client who had been living by the river for 22 years before he was finally housed close to a year ago. So that’s a huge change in your life.

Seacoast

Martha Stone is the executive director of Cross Roads House in Portsmouth, which provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless individuals and families. Stone is also one the board of the Seacoast Coalition to End Homelessness.

  (Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Can you tell us how Cross Roads House and other Seacoast organizations are preparing for housing needs this season?

Yes, Cross Roads House is busy year round. People often ask me, how busy are you right now? And in the winter months we do see an increase, but as I often explain to folks who are asking, homelessness happens year round, and it’s just exacerbated by the winter weather in New Hampshire. So, to answer your question, to prepare for that this year we actually got an early jump on sort of resetting our shelter dorm rooms. Because last year when we saw the uptick during the winter, it never really decreased to the level that it had in prior years as the warmer weather came around. So in the spring and summer our numbers did not drop. So we felt like heading into this winter we could really be in for some increased demand since again it never tapered off from the last winter.

Sure, and I know that national statistics are saying something like there’s an increase of 25 percent of homelessness [among families with children] in some areas of the country. So you are seeing that in Portsmouth?

We are. I mean, it’s easy to count the number of people in our shelter each night. It’s a little trickier to figure out what the unmet need is. So we try hard to not turn anyone away, especially during the winter months. They need to come in outside of the cold. We’re going to do our best to do that. Even if we don’t have a bed available, we’re going to get someone inside. But we get a pretty good sense of the demand, because literally as soon as we help one person and their stint of homelessness and successfully move out to permanent housing, that bed is just immediately filled by someone else. In the case of families in particular, we have space within our shelter for 11 families at a time, and don’t really have the room to go beyond that as we do with the single adult men and women. And the demand for family space is definitely a challenge for us because we just don’t have enough space to meet the needs of everyone who needs it at this time.

And are you usually full up on a cold night?

Absolutely, and not only full, we typically operate at or over capacity. So for example, last year we were over what we call our normal capacity 82 percent of the entire year last year. We were over our capacity. But in terms of just our overall demand, I would agree with the number that have come out recently, which granted are just the snapshot – that point in time count that’s done once a year, on the same day every year. [It] is just that. It’s a snapshot on that day. However, I would agree with the trends that are coming out of that to show that the demand is increasing.

What is challenging in regards to Portsmouth’s homeless population in particular?

Well, I think one of the greatest challenges is the fact that we have so little affordable housing. So the vacancy rate in our region is less than 1 percent. The wages that you would need to rent an apartment in this area are $23 [per hour], and the average earning wage is $13 [per hour]. So you have a $10 an hour gap between what people who are earning would need to afford an apartment in our area. But with vacancy rates as low as they are, and a lack of affordable housing, the effect on our work is that it takes longer and longer for people to leave our shelter and transition into permanent housing. Because it is such an incredibly competitive housing market. One of the ways we measure our work is through our length of stay – how long someone is in our shelter. And for us that rose slightly last year. And part of that is because of the lack of affordable housing. If we could help people move out faster, my beds would be available more quickly and I could serve more people.  

Claremont

Joel Merritz is the emergency housing coordinator for Sullivan County Housing Coalition in Claremont.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

The coalition’s shelter in Claremont is the only one in the Upper Valley. I know it’s probably a very busy time of year for you. What does the average day look like right now?

Well right now we happen to be full. We have 42 clients in our shelters, but we’re seeing an increase in people [requesting assistance] as it got colder. What we largely do is we try to redirect them to other shelters around the state, or even to Vermont if there’s any shelter space available.

And that [has] to be tough. I mean, you’re the only shelter in that particular region.

That is correct. There is a warmer shelter of sorts in Keene [called] 100 Nights. We will direct people there or to other sections of the state. We do not have a very brief, temporary stay shelter up here in Sullivan County or up in this area at all. So there is much more demand than there is available space.

That’s challenging obviously. What do you attribute that to?

I think the biggest problem we have is lack of affordable housing.

We’ve talked with other shelters around the state, and we hear the same thing. Lack of affordable housing is a huge problem, is a huge barrier. Are there other challenges in regards to Claremont and the Upper Valley’s homeless population that you would point to?

Claremont has a reasonably decent need for workers. One of the struggles that I hear from the folks here is that if they don’t have a car, some of the places, some of the industries here in town are four or five miles away. And we don’t have a transit system here in Claremont that really goes out to that area that often. So it makes it a little bit more difficult for them to find some of the better paying jobs, farther out of town. You have the alcohol and substance abuse problems, the lack of quality, good paying jobs, and the lack of affordable housing. If you put all those things together, it’s somewhat of a perfect storm where you end up with people who just can’t make it by on what they have.

How has the opioid crisis affected the number of homeless people that you see coming through?

Well, that is hard to say generally because it’s not blatantly apparent when someone comes in and has an opioid addiction. And generally people are not willing to open up to that. And what I do with case management is that I try to discuss with them over a period of time on how they ended up in the shelter. And if they allude to me that they have an opioid problem, then we try to direct them to services up here in Claremont and throughout the state. But it’s only when they’re willing to admit that they have a problem with opioids that we really find out. Otherwise, you can tell folks are off or they’re under the influence, but you really never know what it is.

What do you suggest for people who are looking to help out this winter season? What’s the best thing they could do to help you at the coalition in Claremont?

I would say the best thing to do would be, and I think I can speak for many shelters, one of the things we end up being short on are like towels, pillows, blankets, sheets. Because people when they leave the shelter, a lot of folks just abruptly up and leave and they take everything with them. And it’s kind of frustrating when we bring somebody in, and we’re literally scrambling around to keep up with the house laundry just to make sure everyone has everything they need when they come in. So donations like that would be awesome. Also, personal care, personal hygiene stuff, body wash, stuff like that – those are things that we do our best to try and provide in enough quantity for everyone. But we’re always running low on stuff like that.