MANCHESTER, NH – It has been a tragic end to a frustrating month here in the city. In a year that has magnified the scope of New Hampshire’s crisis around homelessness, every community has its share of tragic stories – many of which never make the headlines.
But since Christmas Eve in the Queen City there have been two reported deaths among the homeless, and the birth of a baby in a tent in the woods.
Shelter beds on any given night at Families in Transition are few to none. And the first significant winter storm of the season last week blanketed those living under tents on the perimeter of the shelter with several inches of snow.
After about a month on the job, the city’s Director of Homeless Initiatives Adrienne Beloin has been deep in the trenches of it all.
“We’re trying to do everything we can in the immediate. We feel a great sense of urgency. It’s heartbreaking and upsetting. Every time something happens like it has been here in the past week, it’s unbelievably heartbreaking for those of us working on this issue. We can’t get there fast enough and we don’t want anyone to suffer that way. There should be no deaths. That’s unacceptable,” says Beloin.
She’s been assessing everything at her disposal and filling in the blanks between where we are and where we’re going as a city. Her training as a social worker allows her to see the city’s issues of homelessness and addiction as interconnected, so much so that she was directly involved in the hiring of the city’s first Director of Overdose Prevention, Andrew Warner. “We will be working closely,” she says.
“I’m a mental health clinician and SUD [substance use disorder] provider in my history, so that’s really the approach working with people with co-occurring disorders and in space where they have mental health issues – you can’t look at one without the other and programming has to have both,” she says.
Balancing the sense of urgency with the need to create a system of stability is the jumping-off place.
While there is an obvious need to address homelessness, there must be consideration for how lack of services and solutions for homelessness affects the quality of life for all residents and businesses.
“Balancing of the two goals – getting more emergency and permanent housing solutions for those suffering, and the responsibility of ensuring the safety and rights of everyone in Manchester; those two things can overlap and also impact each other,” Beloin says.
“It’s hard to see the future. It’s hard to predict and it’s difficult for us not to have that light at the end of the tunnel right now. We can only rely on best practices and get some outside consultations. We need to find out what are the outcomes of other cities compared to ours. We have to continue to find out what’s working for those doing the work while piloting opportunities to improve things,” Beloin says.
“Part of what clouds people’s ability to look at realistic solutions is the stigma that gets in the way. It’s convenient to be dismissive of a population that’s struggling, saying it’s their personal choice or they have other options or they are undeserving. That stigma attached to some of the behaviors they suffer with, that clouds people’s abilty to problem-solve for them,” Beloin says.
As it stands right now, the city is running on empty. Residents have called to find out what more can be done, or sometimes to offer help, but mostly there is frustration all around, what some call compassion fatigue.
Manchester Police, who are daily on detail outside the emergency shelter, and Manchester firefighters, who answer every distress call, are exhausted, she says.
“They are so compassionate and they are working so hard, but in my experience what happens is that it takes a toll. They are tapped out – between the situation with the baby and the deaths of two people, it all hurts. It’s raw for first responders who, frankly, are doing things they never expected to be doing in the jobs they’re in,” Beloin says.
One of the reasons she decided to step out of the non-profit world of service providing and into her first government job was the opportunity to focus the sum total of her life’s work on an issue that desperately needs solving.
“I’ve always been a social worker, and started from the lens of social justice,” Beloin says. She went from working on trauma and addiction to taking leadership roles where she was able to shape services and programs.
A native of New Hampshire, Beloin left for college out of state and then spent 22 years working professionally in Boston. This past summer she felt the pull to return to New Hampshire – the city job wasn’t on her radar, or even available when she came back over the summer.
“I came back to New Hampshire looking for the next opportunity to make a greater impact. When this opportunity came up with the city of Manchester, it felt like a perfect fit. My previous role was working for an agency similar to FIT. But in all my career I’ve never had the luxury of focusing 100 percent of my time on solving homelessness,” she says.
She looks forward to opportunities to connect with the public, to provide more education around behavioral health issues and lend her expertise to decisions about what programs are being funded and what services are lacking.
It’s not enough to say we need more emergency, transitional or permanent supportive housing – which we do; it’s time to look at the gaps and find ways to fill them.
“One of the things that have come out of conversations with community partners is considering other opportunities. We’re looking at things like hotel conversions to provide faster solutions to permanent supportive housing. we need developers to come in and create something that doesn’t exist in our housing portfolio right now in order to provide the services and housing needed,” Beloin says. “The other thing comes out of brainstorming – what model of care is missing?”
It’s important to take a look at the human suffering that is so visible right now in Manchester – but also in Nashua and Concord and Keene and Portsmouth and beyond New Hampshire’s borders.
“Moving the needle is going to look like providing a model of care that’s different from what we’ve been offering. We need to explore that and see what the right fit for Manchester is. We understand a large percentage have substance use issues – 50 percent of overdoses are among this population. There’s an enormous amount of trauma,” she says.
Removing barriers to stability and recovery is vital.
“Beyond any adverse childhood experiences, a person may have endured in their lives, just the experience of being homeless outside in the cold and what a person has to do to survive, that person is living in a state of trauma. But for most, they are dealing with compounded trauma and even for the best of them, it’s absolute acute trauma right now. We have to help stabilize them for there to be an opportunity to accept services we offer and create services that are easier for them to step over, like a threshold.”
She says the many service providers who work with the homeless and addicted populations are often people who have personal experience with the subject matter. It’s work that wears you down and burns you out. But when done right, it can also give you the satisfaction of making a difference and give you the strength to go on.
“Either through themselves or their families – there’s nobody punching a time clock,” she says, “This is complete work of passion and dedication and understanding, and if we don’t pull forward that perspective to whatever plan we come up with to combat this, we’re missing the boat.”
Adreienne Beloin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org