Some have complained in Manchester that there seem to be more people begging for change downtown. Drivers on Interstate 93 might see a line of tents along the Merrimack River near Concord’s Loudon Road. In cities across the country, typically in warmer climates, homelessness is more obvious. In New Hampshire, it can often be hidden.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
“Our homelessness has always been a little bit masked,” said Keith Kuenning, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness. But now, “You’re going to have a lot more panhandling just because it’s so rough out there. It might be something that wakes people up.” Kuenning said in New Hampshire homeless people often sleep in the woods out of sight.
Lorrie Dale, director of the McKenna House shelter in Concord, agreed the general public can be naive about homelessness in New Hampshire. Dale says McKenna House works to enlighten people “one gallon of milk at a time,” in that every time someone brings in a donation, workers show the person around the facility. “They get to see they’re just like anybody else that could be behind you in line at Walmart,” Dale said, adding she’s seeing more first-time homeless people, particularly those in the 18-to-24 age group. “They’re not these scary people; they could be your next-door neighbors.”
Shelters are at max capacity now. Naturally, shelters always see an uptick in demand during the winter — in warmer months, some are more willing to sleep in a car or in a tent. Dale said McKenna House must turn away about 10 people per day. Cynthia Andreola, Harbor Homes community relations specialist, said Harbor Homes, which offers a variety of services, including residential housing programs, had to turn away 1,000 people last year. Andreola said Harbor Homes tries not to turn people away, even if that means handing someone a sleeping bag to be used on the floor.
“It’s the hardest thing. It’s very difficult to turn these people away,” Dale said. Staff will offer a phone and a cup of coffee but there’s not much else they can do when the shelter is at capacity.
The state has about 1,000 shelter beds and there’s typically about 2,500 homeless people found on periodic one-day counts. “We maybe serve a third of the people every night that really need shelter,” Kuenning said.
In Concord, there are three overflow shelters, and the community recently opened a family shelter that can hold up to six families and currently houses four. Concord’s cold-weather emergency shelter will stay open until April 1. Other shelters are full as well, and people are staying longer at shelters. At McKenna House, Dale said people are staying an average six to nine months.
Youth without homes
There’s a perception that there are only a couple hundred homeless people in the state. Kuenning said there were 600 homeless children just in the Manchester school district last year and if trends continues this year, there could be more than 3,000 homeless school-aged children statewide.
Those numbers only begin to tell the story. They don’t count younger children who aren’t old enough for school or teenagers who don’t want to be found.
Lynda Thistle-Elliott, state director for homeless education, said she’s getting more requests than ever. She said there has been a steady rise in homeless youths in the last couple years. She said school districts are getting better at identifying homeless youths and youths at risk, but it’s still challenging. The problem remains that homelessness numbers are significantly underreported. People don’t want to say they are homeless.
“There’s a perception still that homelessness equals neglect and people are concerned their children will be taken away,” Thistle-Elliott said.
Often families and youths don’t know what their education rights are. Kids aren’t likely to talk about their living situation, especially if they’re homeless. While families are often afraid social services will take their children away, youths are often fearful social services will send them to a foster home, so they stay under the radar. Sometimes small groups of youths will stay together, but those are particularly hard to find, Thistle-Elliott said.
Every district in the state has a liaison who works with homeless youths. Thistle-Elliott said sometimes the most effective outreach is for the liaison to work with an individual and build trust. That can send the message to others that there is help out there. The liaison makes sure a homeless youth is immediately enrolled in school and tries to connect the individual to whatever services are available. Homeless youths automatically receive free school meals. Sometimes getting to and from school is difficult; in those cases, districts provide transportation, Thistle-Elliott said.
The state tries to combat homelessness among youths by presenting information on services at shelters, soup kitchens, laundromats, campgrounds and any other places where people might congregate.
The state does have family shelters and it has individual shelters for people ages 18 or older. The state does not have a single shelter that takes in homeless youths by themselves, and there are hundreds of youths finding themselves in that situation in New Hampshire.
“There’s no place for you to go,” Thistle-Elliott said.
An adult shelter isn’t likely to be a good fit for someone 18 or in their early 20s. Dale said particularly the 18- to 24-year-olds should have their own program as they are in a very different situation than other homeless people. Most have little or no work experience and far less life experience, she said. With younger kids, officials see couch-surfing, where individuals sleep at a friend’s house for a few nights and then move on to another and another, until they have nowhere left to go.
It’s often hard enough for youths to go to school every day, but it’s even harder to go to school, stay focused, be productive and the whole time not know where you’re going to sleep that night. Often, youths are responsible for younger siblings while parents look for work. Kids have to prioritize basic needs, like food, shelter and clothing, ahead of school, Thistle-Elliott said.
“The face of homelessness has changed significantly,” Thistle-Elliott said.
The economic collapse has only worsened homelessness. Though the unemployment rate is lower in New Hampshire than it is nationally, it has risen from 4.1 percent to more than 7 percent during the current economic downturn — that’s more than 20,000 additional unemployed people in the state. Not all of those folks end up homeless, but many of those people were on the edge and the economic downturn has pushed many over it. Those numbers don’t reflect the children who may be impacted by a parent’s lack of a job.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of people looking for help,” Andreola said. “And it’s new people who have never been homeless before and more families.”
Preliminary data from 2009 suggest there’s been a 12-percent increase in homeless families statewide, with the expectation the shift from individuals to families is economically driven, said Maureen Ryan, state bureau chief for the Office of Homeless, Housing and Transportation Services.
Kuenning said he thought there was some kind of economic restructuring going on. The livable wage is rising, but employers aren’t matching that rise, putting more stress on families. For people on the edge, losing a job or foreclosing on a home is catastrophic.
The livable wage for a family of four is considered to be $20 per hour. If two parents are making $9.50 per hour each, they’re still $1 short. “We just don’t have jobs that produce a livable wage,” Kuenning said.
There’s plenty of focus on job creation in terms of how many jobs a given project would generate or how many jobs a new company would bring, but there isn’t always as much focus on how much those jobs pay. Kuenning said 70 to 80 percent of the new jobs are in the service and retail sectors, the lowest-paying sectors.
“Even before the recession, people just don’t have any cushion,” Kuenning said, adding that’s happening nationally as well. Ford just started hiring under a new union contract and is paying $14 per hour to workers who assemble vehicles. “Wages just continue to slide down and down and down,” Kuenning said. “People just don’t have any savings when things go bad.”
Ryan said the average monthly cost of a two-bedroom apartment in New Hampshire is $1,041. For people making $41,904, which is 60 percent of the state’s median annual income, 50 percent of the rental units statewide are affordable, considered to be 30 percent of income. For people making 50 percent of the median income, 16 percent of the apartments in the state are affordable. For someone making $20,000, just 2 percent of the state’s rental units are affordable, Ryan said.
“Folks can’t find affordable housing without housing subsidies,” Ryan said, adding the waiting lists for Section 8 housing can keep people waiting for several years.
It’s hard to know how things will look once the economy balances out, but prior to the collapse, officials, like Kuenning, thought the state was making progress toward ending homelessness. Numbers of homeless in Nashua fell below 100. The state was increasing its number of Veterans Assisted Housing Vouchers.
Historically, veterans have been a consistent population within the homeless numbers. Recently, more younger veterans are coming forward for help, whereas it had previously more often been veterans from the Korean War or the Vietnam War, Andreola said.
McKenna House offers case management services and will help people with taxes and job searches. The shelter currently houses an occupational therapist and someone half way through a master’s degree program. “It’s really a strange mix of not what you would typically think of homeless people,” Dale said.
Occupants at McKenna House must either pay $70 per week or do 20 hours of community service per week. Most do the community service. “We want to motivate them,” Dale said. “It gives them a sense of pride, a sense of normalcy that they’re doing something.”
When occupants move on, Dale said they just ask that people “pay it forward.”
Though shelters are hanging in there, money is certainly tight.
“It’s difficult times out there,” Andreola said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for agencies that serve to get funded.” That means less government help, less grant help and fewer contributions from private donors. “It’s all becoming more challenging at exactly the time the need is greatest....”
Andreola said Harbor Homes is struggling to meet the increase in demand. Kuenning’s organization is constantly on the lookout for financial help for adding beds and services. Both U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes and U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter have helped funnel funds to the state for new or expanded facilities. There’s a relatively new veterans’ shelter in Nashua with 30 to 40 beds and a new shelter in Manchester with 20 to 30 beds. Kuenning is working on possibly the first teen shelter in the state.
“We’re constantly looking for money out there,” Kuenning said, adding the state could use more Section Eight housing vouchers. He said if people signed up for a voucher today, they’d probably be on a waiting list for up to four years.
But there is a silver lining. Kuenning said he’s been contacted by more people looking to help recently than he has in the past five years. At the very least, the spirit of giving is alive in the Granite State. The state has also received more than $4.6 million in stimulus funding to help reduce homelessness, particularly for those at risk of becoming homeless, just becoming homeless or dealing with short-term issues. The funding includes housing subsidies for as long as 18 months, Ryan said.
“I think this is really going to be a shot in the arm for New Hampshire’s homeless services,” Ryan said.
Historically, government services have focused on the chronically homeless — people suffering from disabilities or drug-related problems. They make up the smallest segment of the homeless population but use the most resources. The stimulus funding marks a shift in government focus to shorter-term services. The more quickly people can get back into transitional or permanent housing, the less stress on the system, Ryan said.
There are happy endings. One man who spent 12 years on the streets in Boston before coming to McKenna House got himself sober and now has a steady job and custody of his daughter, Dale said.
“I think the important part is to keep it in front of people,” Kuenning said. “It is a problem.”
Visit www.home4hope.com to find the closest shelter and what donations it needs.