The Soapbox: Fatality prevention is not enough for the homeless 

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

This past Friday, NH State Police officers arrived at the encampment on the courthouse grounds. People in stark white hazmat suits brandished knives as they cut apart tents. Some people were arrested for being uncooperative. Personal property was confiscated and thrown out. Although the campers were initially told they had until the end of the day to leave, a forcible eviction started roughly an hour afterward. One person had left for work, and had come back to the site to find all their property gone.

The uneven enforcement of the law between owners of real estate and those without could not have been more clear. Ordinarily, if a person comes into another’s house uninvited and starts taking away all their stuff, the law would identify this as breaking and entering, as well as burglary. Even if there is no intent to take another person’s property, such an action would be identified as criminal trespassing.

No such law applied to police officers on Friday, as they handled the personal property of others with impunity. Clothes, tents, and other supplies were all discarded. Once the police had shown up, all rights an individual had to keep their own stuff were forgotten.

Similar situations have played out in shelters across New Hampshire. With limited space and increasing demand, shelters have no choice but to discard- ie, throw in the trash- any personal property a person may own. Whether a shelter resident stays in the hospital for several days in a row, or whether they have another issue which prevents their attendance, the result is the same: whatever items a person has accumulated to keep them warm, safe, and dry, are thrown out.

Most shelters operate from a principle called fatality prevention. That is to say, a minimum of care is provided to a person in order to keep them alive. This may include medical services or case management. It often includes food, as well as access to a bed and bathrooms. While these are more than a person may get on the street, they often come with highly restrictive rules.

Those who prefer to sleep outside, regardless of how cold it is, do so because they struggle with the rules put in place. Such rules are not in place when a person is renting their own apartment or living in the own house- a shelter resident has to go to bed at a certain time, eat at a certain time, smoke cigarettes at a certain time, leave the property at a certain time, stay awake throughout the day if they remain in the shelter, and never drink alcohol or do drugs.

There is, as is generally understood, a segment of New Hampshire’s homeless population who struggle with addiction. There are those who are trying to recover; there are those who are not ready to recover yet. Wet shelters- best defined by their admission of people struggling with addiction- also admit those folks who are not addicts. There are homeless people who work, and who continue working in spite of their circumstances.

Shelter regulations often place people into difficult positions: due to often inflexible curfews, people must choose between having a place to sleep and keeping a job. This is especially true of third-shift workers who depart late at night, come back in the morning, and must sleep during the day. Those who leave their jobs in favor of shelter have no guarantee they will find another in a more favorable shift. Those who keep their jobs must find a way to shower, bathe, eat, and stay warm.

What is worse, theft is common in shelters. A person may have their phone, lighters, or chargers stolen. Disabled people who are homeless often find aging shelter buildings incapable of providing accommodations for them. Wheelchairs and stairs are not compatible. 

The message delivered with sharp pertinence this past Friday, and which has always been a part of the nation’s various homeless shelters, has been that people who lose their housing also lose their comfort and security. A person who loses their house loses their right to personal autonomy. Their hold on personal property becomes tenuous. The law, while ostensibly protecting the right of personal ownership, often fails those who are most vulnerable.

The mental health effects on such an environment cannot be understated. No longer being in control of their own lives, no longer having their property safe from theft, no longer being able to set their own schedule, homeless people lash out in anger. Anyone who has spent time around the homeless can attest to the short tempers some folks have. Many of them are going through unrelenting crisis, a situation wherein deleterious circumstances crop one after the other without relief.

In order for homelessness to be solved, rather than continually addressed, a completely different approach will need to be taken. People in recovery will need to be separated in a different building from those not in recovery. Shelter rules should be clear and largely unchanging, so that everyone can understand them.

Property must be treated as sacrosanct, just as it would if it was situated inside a house or a car. Authorities, whether public or private, should not be entitled to discard a person’s belongings unless they have been deliberately abandoned. Mental health staff, rather than police officers, should respond to public calls of a person acting out in public.

What is more, the deeper issues surrounding poverty should be addressed. The city government must learn to spend within its means, rather than increasing the city budget every year, along with property taxes. Property taxes for homeowners should be lowered significantly. Agencies who receive public funding should be fully transparent before the public as to how much they spend and why.

Buildings unoccupied and unused for a period of longer than 10 years should either be reverted back to the municipality in which it is found, or be offered to the public at an auction. This rule should not apply to unused real estate upon which no building is located. Public property should be truly owned by the public, rather than by local and state governments who impose restrictive rules upon usage.

Public transit in Manchester must improve. Rather than sending three or four buses to the Mall of New Hampshire (and one to a mall in Nashua), Manchester Transit would do better to add routes to areas of business, particularly Industrial Road in Londonderry, which a great many people work. While it is currently infeasible to have such routes for second- and third-shift workers, having increased routes on first shift would give more people access to job openings in the area. The same applies to business complexes in Nashua and Concord. Manchester Transit’s number 4 bus runs out to a business complex in Bedford. Similar routes would be a benefit to the community.

The goal, ultimately, should be to allow homeless people to become fully autonomous and self-sufficient. It is better, both from a personal standpoint and a funding standpoint, for fewer people to rely on services. In order for this to happen, people must have access to jobs and must be able to have the ability to set aside a bit of money every month. Some difficult choices will need to be made in order for this to come about.

Instead, the opposite is happening- especially during an unprecedented pandemic. More people than ever are accessing services. Homelessness has been increasing in Manchester for a number of years, partly because other towns in New Hampshire aren’t taking care of their own people, and partly because the average person is finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves.

No matter how much compassion is shown by volunteers, no matter how often police officers report to a call, no matter how many shelter beds are open, unless the fundamental problems surrounding poverty and homelessness change, things aren’t going to improve. Fatality prevention just isn’t enough.

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Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester.