Story Produced by the Concord Monitor, a Member of
CONCORD, NH – The woman calling herself Zelda wears pink eyeshadow and doesn’t want to be living in the tent in the woods along the Merrimack River. If she had her way, the New Hampshire native would be inside a house in a sunnier locale, like Savannah, GA, or maybe Beverly Hills.
Later this month, she will abandon her temporary home not to move to a warmer climate, but because the owner of the land south of Black Hill Road in Concord near Exit 13 off Interstate 93 wants to develop the forested area where she and a dozen or so other homeless people are living.
She is already on several waiting lists for housing but nothing has materialized.
“Just because you have all your ducks in a row doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait,” Zelda said. “Very patiently.”
In the meantime, she plans to pack up her tent and move to another encampment in the city, joining the slow exodus of homeless Concord residents leaving the site of the old drive-in movie theater before October.
Plans for development
The 22 acres located on a triangle of land sandwiched between Manchester Street and the highway is owned by a family trust, which is in the early stages of seeking approval from the city for plans to turn the area into a huge mixed-use development with as many as 266 housing units in five buildings, as well as a gas station, car wash, sandwich shop and convenience store.
Later plans could include a supermarket, medical office building, restaurant, assisted living facility, and independent living townhomes.
The landowners’ attorney Ari Pollack said they will have contractors begin clearing the area of trees at the end of September or beginning of October to make it more attractive to potential development partners.
“It’s a difficult and delicate situation and we’re trying to handle it the best we can,” Pollack said. The landowners have asked Concord Police to coordinate the removal of the encampment, but have not yet asked police to make arrests if people refuse to relocate.
Deputy Chief Steven Smagula said while Concord Police have the resources to carry out a sweep – effectively kicking everyone out in a matter of hours – a slower approach gives residents more time to move their possessions and allows for a bit more dignity.
“We decided that the best course of action is to basically get out a soft messaging first, which is through outreach,” Smagula said. That means Julie Green, Clinical Director of Case Management at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, has been reminding the people she sees each week that they need to move by the end of September.
“At the end of the day, the million-dollar question is ‘where do I go?,’ and we never have a good answer for that,” Green said. She and other staff at the Coalition can help make calls to shelters, get people into drug treatment, or put in housing applications, but waiting lists run long.
“Some of our folks out there have already applied for the emergency housing through New Hampshire Housing, some of our folks have applied for Concord Housing vouchers,” Green said. “Most of the folks, because of the timeframe, will have to move along to another location in Concord, because the application for vouchers is a tedious process.”
When she first started telling people that the landowners wanted them gone, Green said there were 30 to 45 people staying there. Those numbers have dwindled down to closer to 15 or 20. Some have been successful in finding more permanent housing, including a veteran who Green said had been homeless in Concord for 12 years who now has a place to live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Later this month, police officers will give a more formal notice to anyone still there, accompanied by outreach workers.
“The officers will notify who they spoke to that the landowner wants them off, and then…we’ll come back in 10 days, with the goal that they have moved on, that we don’t have to charge people,” Smagula said.
Police and advocates used a similar outreach strategy to disassemble an encampment between the highway and Storrs Street this spring, executing a planning process that took eight months.
Some of the people displaced from Storrs moved to the current encampment at Black Hill Road, Green said. She expects many leaving now will remain unhoused, moving their tents or cars to another unused plot of land somewhere else in Concord to start over again.
Most of the people living on this overgrown plot of land have been homeless for a long time.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines someone as “chronically homeless” if that person has a disability and has been living in a place not fit for human habitation or an emergency shelter for over a year. While the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness prefers the more expansive term “long term homelessness,” the organization focuses primarily on individuals who have been homeless for years, rather than families or those who briefly lose housing.
“The focus is on the long-term homeless, because they use most of the resources,” said Gregory Lessard, the Coalition’s director of housing initiatives. Without a plan to help people who may have interlocking challenges like addiction, a criminal history or serious mental health issues get housed, communities end up relying on expensive emergency services like hospitals and the police and fire departments.
While stopgaps like the Emergency Winter Shelter act as necessary Band-Aids, Coalition Executive Director Ellen Groh says real solutions require finding ways to permanently house people in a place where they can access services. About two years ago, her organization realized that the housing for their clients just didn’t exist, and that the coalition needed to play a more active role in getting those homes built.
“The problem is really the lack of housing,” said Lessard, “It’s very difficult for everyone to get housing, and for our clients it’s especially difficult.”
The Coalition has a multi-year plan with different housing solutions for people living in long-term homelessness and aims to permanently house about 130 people over the next six years. Some of those strategies include providing 24-hour supportive housing services, convincing landlords to rent to their clients, working with developers to reserve units in future projects, and buying land to house people in mobile home parks.
Groh and Lessard say the Coalition plans to present the various paths they are working on in late October.
Meanwhile, if people in Concord want to want to help their neighbors experiencing homelessness, Groh said they can volunteer with the Coalition, or sign up for legislative updates from Housing Action in New Hampshire or national groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“You break up the encampment, everyone’s just going to scatter until you break up the next encampment. It’s going to happen again, they’re going to go somewhere,” said Lessard. “There’s going to be less and less places out of the public eye.”
Homeless, not helpless
Zelda knows that people lucky enough to live in houses make assumptions about people like her – that everyone living unhoused is a drug user, or a bad person. But some people develop addictions after becoming homeless, she said. Others have bad luck, or no support to bounce back after they make a mistake.
“Just because you’re homeless, that does not make you a bad person. Some people are very, very smart and they made bad choices,” Zelda said. “My mom made a bad choice. She had an alcoholic for a boyfriend and he kicked me out.”
She’s one of few women in the camp near the Merrimack, and she tries to keep the men who remind her of Neverland’s Lost Boys in line. It can be a stressful place to live, but there’s also friendship and solidarity to be found among people brought together by their lack of a safety net.
“It’s not just about being homeless and doing drugs. That’s not it at all,” Zelda said. “It’s about being a community and supporting each other.”
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