MANCHESTER, NH – Brandon and Lexi were the first two people approached by a Granite Recovery Center outreach worker on Nov. 19. The organization was hired by the state to round-up 22 people living in tents on the Hillsborough County Superior Courthouse grounds and move them to respite beds. The rest of the 70+ people who declined the offer of alternative shelter were told to move along, their tents dismantled, their belongings loaded into trash bags.
But Brandon and Lexi decided to take a chance.
It was not an easy decision to make. After six years together, through “hell and back,” they wanted to stay together. Going into treatment meant separation. But both were in need of medical services, and both were tired of living like drifters, tired of living in an altered state. They wanted clarity and a second chance. So, holding hands, they climbed into a white van with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and a glimmer of hope.
Nearly three weeks later Lexi and Brandon are among only eight of the original 22 people who remain at the Granite House in Derry, according to Executive Director Eric Spofford.
“Those who left did so voluntarily, or were asked to leave,” Spofford said.
There are rules in place for those who took the respite beds – just like at any shelter in New Hampshire. No drugs. No alcohol. Although Granite Recovery Center is focused on achieving and maintaining recovery from substance use, the services as contracted with the state do not include treatment; just a safe space to start rebuilding. They do provide staff support, transportation to appointments and assist those still there in making the necessary connections to get their lives back in order. That can include applying for Medicaid, getting other documentation like driver’s licenses, Social Security cards or hospital records.
For Lexi and Brandon, it has been a blessing. “Everyone here has been great. They’ve treated us so good, with respect,” says Lexi. “We were drowning in drugs and alcohol. To be honest, I didn’t want to come. I wanted to kill myself. But we are so happy here. We wish we could stay until March – even another month would help.”
But on Friday they were told that the state funding runs out on Dec. 31 and they have to find another place to live.
Spofford confirmed that the arrangement made by Gov. Chris Sununu ends soon. “Our contract with the state is through the end of the month, and we haven’t heard that the contract is being extended,” Spofford acknowledged. “But the state is working to find placement for those who are here, which includes sober living or treatment.”
The news landed hard for the couple, like a gut punch.
“We’ve been sober since we got here. No drinking, no drugs. We’re doing the best we’ve ever done,” said Lexi on Friday. “I’m on my mental health meds now. They bought us some clothes. We have a beautiful room. We came with nothing and now we have so much. We have a fresh start. All we need is a chance. I have so many goals right now it’s overwhelming, but I’m taking them one day at a time,” Lexi said.
They said that when they arrived they were told they had “plenty of time” to get their lives on track.
“We were told we had until March 1. If we’d known that we had to be out by Dec. 31 we would have saved all our money for a down payment on a little studio apartment or something,” Lexi says. Instead, they’ve invested their monthly checks in things like toiletries and clothing, medicine and paperwork needed to obtain copies of their licenses and Social Security cards.
Lexi says she closed her mental health case in Manchester when she left the city. She tried to reopen it recently but was told they couldn’t see her until June 2021.
“So I called Derry Mental Health and they sent me a release. They said they could give me an appointment in a month or two, but I’m waiting for my Medicare card which will take 30 days. It’s being sent to this address, but now I’m not going to be here. I feel like I did that for nothing,” Lexi says.
Lexi says she spent more than $150 for medication that she hopes to be reimbursed for eventually, but that depends on getting her Medicaid card, and that will likely arrive weeks after she’s moved out of Derry.
Spofford said the arrangement with the state “moved so quickly,” and he only knows that the extension of their services is set to expire Dec. 31. There has been no commitment from the state to extend the contract, he says, and there is no mention of the contract on the Dec. 18 Executive Council agenda, the government body that approves such contracts.
Spofford said he couldn’t speak specifically to Brandon and Lexi’s situation.
“If it were up to me, they’d all go to treatment from here. The state is working with our case management, but ultimately it’s up to the individuals to choose treatment or sober living – or they can find something else. Right now they are getting respite – no therapy or psychiatric help, just housing. We’re working hard to figure something out for each and every one of them,” Spofford said.
Lexi and Brandon say they don’t want to go into treatment, or back to a shelter.
“We’re clear-minded. We’re working on our goals. We started getting our health issues straightened out,” says Lexi, who just had gallbladder surgery last week. “I was supposed to have it in June but the doctor said I had to be sober to have the surgery.”
Lexi says the last time she had stability was nine years ago.
“I had Section 8 but I lost it due to drugs,” she says. Her medical issues have been chronic – her toes were amputated due to cancer, and she was prescribed Percocet for the pain. When that ran out, she found that crack took the pain away. She also suffered from an auto-immune disease that created lesions on her skin but she found a doctor who was able to treat her condition. “He saved my life,” she said.
She also had surgery for a perforated bowel. “I had to wear one of those shit bags for four months,” she says. “That was a nightmare. I’ve been through hell.”
Life on the streets has taken a toll, says Lexi. But the transformation that’s happened in just three weeks at Granite House has been life-changing. Brandon is looking for full-time work, and Lexi is hoping for a part-time job. Through the state’s vocational rehab program Brandon will get his GED and some skill training. Lexi would like to get connected with the program, as well.
“Brandon has an interview Tuesday for a job that pays $25 an hour, in Manchester. We’d like to get a car. We don’t want to live in Manchester. We’d rather find a place in Nashua or Concord. We would do outpatient, but we don’t want to go into treatment. We are doing pretty good on our own. We have each other. We would like to stay here. It’s quiet and there are no temptations. In Manchester it’s so loud, fire trucks and sirens all the time. Here we can breathe again,” Lexi says. “We have all these plans and now we have to be out by Dec. 31.”
If they can’t stay at the Granite House, they would rather find their own place. They don’t want to go back to a shelter, says Lexi. People get stuck there because there is no real stability and not enough one-on-one services, not like they’ve experienced in the past three weeks.
“Everyone is drinking there. Not inside, but before they go in. We’d be doing the same thing. The last time we stayed there we got head lice and had to cut off our hair. Here the rules are easy to follow. We are together. We help each other. We have our own room, and it inspires me to keep going, to reach all my goals,” she says.
Brandon feels the same way. He has stopped by 1269 Cafe to see some of their old friends from Manchester, but he hasn’t been tempted to drink or do drugs.
“When I hear stories about what an asshole I am when I’m drinking, I don’t want to be that person anymore,” says Brandon. He admits he doesn’t remember a lot about the day they left the courthouse lawn and climbed into the van. He only knows that he wanted a chance at something better, and he wanted it enough for both of them. Before they came to a decision they walked over to the corner store and talked it out. Brandon bought another can of beer to drink before heading off, the only way he knew how to sort through his emotions. Now, three weeks later, he is thinking clearly, and he feels a little betrayed.
“I feel like the state paid a lot of money to get us off the courthouse lawn just to kick us out of here before we’re ready,” he says.
They have mourned the loss of one too many friends, those who don’t survive street life, people including Justin Dexter, who they heard was found dead on Dec. 1 under a bridge.
“He was one of our friends. We hung out with him. We knew him for about two years, what a nice guy. It’s too bad he couldn’t get help,” says Lexi. “And Jen Burpee – the woman who was killed in the high-rise? She was a friend. It’s a sad way to live, or to die. We have been through a lot together and we feel like this is what we needed. Now they are taking it away.”
Brandon’s mom, Mary, says she is so proud of he son’s progress. They call each other daily.
“I haven’t seen my son this happy in quite some time. I was thanking God that he answered my prayers. Then Brandon told me they have to get out. That is such a cruel thing to do in winter. You don’t tell someone you’re going to help them then tell them they have two weeks to find someplace else. He’s had some big battles in his life. He needs help with his mental illness. He’s feeling so good right now. I’m so angry that the state is pulling the funding after they were told they had time. It’s wrong,” Mary says.
Lexi says having a roof over her head, a place to keep some things of her own, food, transportation for appointments, a laundry room – just those basic things – feels like a dream come true. Among her goals, Lexi says, is the hope to give back and help others find their way once she has her life on track.
“There are 450 homeless people in Manchester living on the street and they want to keep putting them in shelters. What they need are programs like this that can help them get sober and help them get their lives together,” Lexi says. “If I do good I’ll come back and help people. I wouldn’t mind setting up a program to help people with mental illness change their lives. This is the best we’ve ever done. We’ve lived in rooming houses where we’d bring in other people to try and help them, but it never ends well. They drag you down and get you kicked out. We’re not doing that anymore.”
Editor’s Note: A post-publication comment was provided by Jake Leon, Director of Communications for the state Department of Health and Human Services:
“The State’s contract with Granite Recovery Center utilizes federal CARES Act funding, which must be spent by the end of 2020. We are hopeful that additional federal funding will be made available to allow us to extend the current contract. Were that not to happen, the Department will ensure that the individuals who are receiving treatment and shelter will continue to receive these services in 2021.”