MANCHESTER, NH — As the city was evacuating the downtown homeless encampment on Jan. 18, Jake King was taking it all in from the sidewalk across the street. He had just returned to Central Station after going on a tour of the vacant factory on Beech Street that the city was standing up as an emergency shelter.
King was interviewing for the job of shelter manager that day.
Two weeks later, it’s official – King is ready to oversee operations at the temporary shelter, which opens Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. and will remain open until April 30. It sleeps 40.
He’s spent the past several days there, and intends to be there Thursday night when the doors open for the first time.
“I’ll be there for food service and lights out. On Monday the fire department steps away and I’ll take over operations with my staff,” says King.
Standing up an emergency shelter that provides 24-hour services has taken every resource the city can spare. Every department has been involved, says Fire Chief Ryan Cashin.
“From what I’ve been told it typically takes up to two years to set up a shelter like this. We’ve set up three shelters in three weeks. I’m proud of the effort all city employees involved,” Cashin says, including the opening of the Cashin Senior Center as an emergency overnight shelter, and the former Tirrell House on Brook Street, which is opening Feb. 6 as a shelter for women.
With the opening of the Beech Street shelter tonight, use of the Cashin Senior Center as a makeshift shelter ends. Chief Cashin said there have been more than 30 people coming in each night to sleep and keep warm over the past two weeks, and he expects to see many of those same people at the Beech Street shelter.
One thing that changes is that the city will no longer be providing rides to the shelter.
“Beech Street will be open 24 hours a day so people can stay during the day – they don’t have to leave,” Cashin says.
King says he is ironing out a few last-minute details with his staff, but come Monday they will be ready. His personal history with the city’s homeless population runs deep. King ran the city’s day shelter a decade ago, which he says grew out of a need expressed by the downtown business community for the homeless to have a place to go during the day. It was closed five years later due to outcry from the same community, that it was drawing homeless people to the city, says King.
He disagreed with that assessment back then, and still believes that providing such resources is the only way forward.
One reason he was willing to step back into this realm is the team the city has assembled, including Chief Cashin, Homeless Initiatives Director Adrienne Beloin and Director of Overdose Prevention Andrew Warner.
“The reason I stepped back into this was I was given the opportunity to speak to the people in charge of this process and it felt very different than a lot of the things I’d dealt with in the past,” King says. “It felt like people were willing to admit where their expertise ended and listen to people with great ideas – you don’t always get that when dealing in this aspect of community,” King says.
King’s day job is running Thrive Outdoors, an indoor adventuring center located on Elm Street and just uphill of where the “Firestone encampment” was, which was evacuated in 2021. He had plenty of interactions with the homeless who were living below his place. Some of them vandalized his building and stole equipment and other items from him; others asked for help. But through that process King was reminded that without relevant outreach and regular services, the deeper issues that keep people chronically homeless can’t be solved.
When he and his staff take over operations on Monday a few things will change.
“For one thing we’ll be more stringent in terms of rules, but no one will be kicked out unless they’re making the community unsafe,” King says. “If people are staying during the day they’ll be expected to be part of the community, chip in and help in some way or interface with the various service providers who will be here to go deeper with them about their needs. But no, we don’t intend to kick anyone out.”
In addition to a sleeping area, there will also be a place to sit, read or watch TV “which is coming, as soon as I have time to go get one,” said Cashin. Coffee will be served all day, as well as “three square meals,” says King.
“We’ll have three to four staff people working per shift. We could probably cover it with two, but we want to make sure everyone is safe and the biggest push is to be providing more outreach and support on-site so anyone who wants it has easy access to it,” King says.
Over the past three weeks the fire department’s Squad 1 has been following up on reports of people who may stil need help with shelter, either through tips from the Manchester Connects app or phone calls, Cashin says.
“Squad 1 has been out daily doing outreach. We’ve gotten into fatality prevention mode leading up to tonight’s cold weather to alert everyone we can find that the shelter is opening and to start planning accordingly,” Cashin says. “We’ll have a good 36 hours of really cold weather.”
Statewide alert for ‘potentially life-threatening cold’
Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday urged Granite State residents and visitors to prepare for the dangerous cold weather.
The National Weather Service (NWS) in Gray, Maine, has issued Wind Chill Warnings for New Hampshire that were expected to reach chill values of minus 40 to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit Friday and Saturday.
“Ahead of what may be the coldest air that we’ve seen in years, the State of New Hampshire is prepared with resources in place,” Sununu said via a press release, adding that multiple state agencies, including the Department of Safety (DOS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), were coordinating with municipalities and local service providers.
He also noted that $5 million in federal funding was approved in August “to support emergency shelter and homelessness initiatives” across New Hampshire, including short-term cold weather shelters.
That money was used to maintain current operations, which remain underfunded. None of that money was used for expansion of shelter services in 2022.
Sununu advised anyone in need to call 211 to locate the closest shelter.
Manchester Ink Link tried calling several of the shelters on the list. Of those reached where a person answered or called back, all said they have a wait list, but would likely be referring people to local emergency warming shelters to get them out of the cold over the next few days.
“We work from a waitlist, so right now we have no open beds. But once the temperature gets to the point where they declare an emergency, then we’d work from the overflow list and we also have the warming shelter in Somersworth,” said an intake person working the phones at My Friend’s Place in Dover, described as a “medium barrier” shelter. “We could put a couple people up in the living room, and we will refer others to the warming center. It depends on how many people call. We’re not hearing the warming center has met the max capacity yet this year,” she said.
When called, Families in Transition shelter in Manchester said they were not able to say how many beds were available tonight as their computer was frozen, but said it would be possible to call 211 to find out where there are beds. However, a call to 211 found that it’s not possible to get a list of available beds. The helpline is a referral system to the various shelters around the state. An individual who calls will be given a list and must call each shelter to find an open bed.