MANCHESTER, NH – Wesley Searles is 80. He says he’s been homeless since being evicted from his Amherst Street apartment eight weeks ago for hoarding.
“After 10 years there I guess I collected a lot of stuff,” says Searles, like an apology. He has no family left. “They’re all upstairs,” he says, matter of fact, looking up toward heaven.
He is wearing two hats – one knit, one baseball cap. He’s dressed in layers wrapped in a gray blanket and checkered scarf, with a maroon sleeping bag draped across his legs. He’s sipping a hot chocolate delivered by a kind stranger who knew he wasn’t a coffee drinker. Wesley says he would like to be in the shelter but was told there’s no room. He says he worked for many years on a farm, and as a laborer after that.
“My biggest problem right now is I fell on my right side, and my left leg and arm started hurting. They’re not working so good.”
Asked if his Medicare would cover him for a nursing home bed, he just shrugs. “I have no idea.”
What he doesn’t say is that he’s a convicted sex offender. He was charged in 1995 and has also been convicted a few times of failing to report to police when he changed his address, a common problem law enforcement has with keeping tabs on sex offenders.
He’s melded into the community of homeless campers outside the Hillsborough County Superior Courthouse, so much so that when the city’s outreach team arrived for daily rounds and was asked about Wesley, they were familiar “I heard they took him out, but he came right back,” said Manchester Fire Lt. Mike Rheault, part of the team.
For someone like Wesley, it might be the feeling of community at the campsite that brought him back. And while some seem to prefer the relative freedom of living under a tent, there are those who want out, but can’t find their way.
“We just were over on the West Side with a guy who said he had a place to go in Keene. We called him an Uber and it looked like he was going to get out, but it didn’t work out,” Rheault said. “We’re not sure what happened, but it fell through.”
On this day they have been delivering crackers and bottled water, gloves and socks. They ask everyone what they need, and when they see someone who is underdressed for the frigid temperatures, they give them a sweatshirt, or a warmer coat.
“We’re out here every day and we go to every camp we know about,” Rheault says. “I’m always concerned about whether they’re getting the care they need. Many of them have mental issues and seem like they need to be at Concord Hospital. Some don’t want any help. We’re just here to make sure if anyone wants help, they can get it.”
Mike Gonzales is a local artist who came to see for himself what was going on. He was preparing to go on a Manchester Public TV program, Ward 13, a small platform to talk about issues of the day, he says. He is using his sketch pad to capture the feeling. “Weird Vibe” is scribbled at the top, with the word “cold” written multiple times.
Maybe because he was feeling it, after giving his coat up to a woman who didn’t have one.
“I saw a girl who looked like she was freezing so I offered her my coat. She said no thank you, at first, but I insisted. She gave it to her boyfriend, which was fine with me,” Gonzales says. “I get to go home after this.”
He feels a natural compassion toward the homeless, and has tried to help them individually from time to time.
“Then I get discouraged by the bad apple of the bunch, but I get it. I feel like they must feel like they’re in a zoo. People show up with good intentions and then, exactly like me, they won’t be back tomorrow,” he says
But many of the volunteers have come back over the past three days, working in shifts to make sure they’re there when the state police arrive to begin the eviction.
Brandon Lemay, 27, is one of them. He was born and raised on the West Side and is a community organizer. He worked on Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign and is a member of Rights & Democracy.
“You see a vulnerable group and you can come in with a savior complex, but that doesn’t really take the problem away. What we’re attempting to do is organize these folks and get them to talk to each other, and try to get a consensus of residents on what they want to do. Most of them don’t know what they’re going to do or where they’re going to go,” Lemay says. “It seems like the state and the governor’s comment yesterday are coming from a different reality. If the governor were here, I don’t think he could look any of these people in the eye and say ‘Get out. I don’t care where you go.’ But he’s not here.”
Lemay says his values are rooted in his Catholic upbringing and spiritual guidance from his mémé.
“The Christian in me can’t allow these folks to go uncared for. My empathy and love for all humanity mandates that I have to stand up for these folks,” he says.
Ken Norton, Director of NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) NH has been in the camp for most of the day. He came to assess the situation. “A significant percentage of the people here are suffering from mental illness and I am here to work with anyone, and use my connections to find alternatives and appropriate services for people who the shelters are not equipped to manage,” he said.
He doesn’t see removing the camp by force as a solution. He is an advocate for a housing first model. Many of the housing programs that are available are contingent on sobriety or agreeing to get help. “Some people are not ready to make that choice and we need to meet them where they are.
Norton has worked in the mental health field for decades. He points out that in the 1990s New Hampshire’s community-based mental health programs were a national role model. Treatment included a continuum of housing. Clients went from acute care treatment to group homes to apartments, where they continued to be seen by caseworkers.
Services have deteriorated over the years, he says. A new 10-year-plan was approved in 2019 to restore mental health services in the state, but Norton says there is a long way to go. And the inadequate supply of affordable housing is a challenge for many people. The people in the homeless encampments are just the most severely impacted.
Corinne Dodge says her spiritual guide is Granny D.
“I’m part of a group called Open Democracy Action, which started with Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock. Whether it’s about money in politics or this, it all comes down to the money in politics. We don’t have enough mental health services to help these people,” Dodge says. “My nephew has mental health issues and is homeless in Arizona right now.”
She points across the street to the vacant building that used to be the Manchester Police headquarters.
“There are empty spaces all over the city. I know you can’t just give free access to them, but you can’t just evict these people without some place to go,” Dodge says.
A homeless man with a sturdy-looking bicycle and a long flashlight stops to ask Dodge if she has batteries.
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” she says. I wish I did. I’ll pray for you, though,” she says, after noticing he has a bandaged thumb and stitches.
The man smiles back at her. “Thank you. The prayer means more to me than the batteries,” he says, walking his bike across the street toward a convenience store.
Amanda Harvey looks around for a place to drop off a shopping bag loaded with blankets and scarves she’s donating. Someone directs her to the “supply table,” which has boxes of Dunkin coffee, snacks, face masks, water, gloves and other necessities.
“I lived in New York City during Occupy, and this definitely reminds me of that,” Harvey said, the irony of homeless people trespassing on state property where justice is served, waiting to be evicted for having no place else to go.
“I just think it’s really shitty to take this kind of action against people, and to do it in the midst of a pandemic. Who sits back and thinks, “I’m going to take legal action against people who need help the most in this city?” Harvey says. “I’ve been privileged enough in my life to not be in this kind of situation. I just wanted to help.”
Lexi Clewes, 20, is one of those who needs help, but hasn’t asked yet. She says she’s been living homeless in Manchester since ending an abusive relationship.
“That’s when I lost my place,” she says. She has been on and off drugs – mostly off, but occasionally uses meth to “level out.”
“I haven’t had a diagnosis since I was 6, but I’m bipolar,” she says, explaining that’s when she was 7 she was given Adderall and so using a drug to normalize her state of mind is just habit. “That’s what got me into drugs.”
She says her life was most stable about a year and a half ago, when she was living with the boyfriend.
“He was controlling so I wasn’t allowed to work. I stayed home in the apartment all day with the dog, but it was the most stable my life has ever been,” she says. She doesn’t stay at this camp. She has her own “spot” in the North End, where she feels safer. She has two plastic shopping bags loaded with things like bread and water bottles she will carry back to her tent to get her through another day.
She grew up in Hampton Beach and says she has been homeless twice before.
“The first time I was a little kid and we lived in a minivan, and at the beach. The second time I was 17, and we stayed at a hotel. I was still with my family. But I had to get away from them. They’re in Dover, in a 1,500-square-foot apartment with four cats. They’re hoarders and their apartment is like a biohazard,” she tells her story willingly, without visible emotion.
“I’m not here because I’m incompetent. I graduated early. But I’ve been in and out of the mental health system since I was 6,” she says. She hasn’t been to the Mental Health Center except maybe once to charge her phone and fill a water bottle. She doesn’t want to go to the shelter.
“I feel like I’d just be fresh meat there. I’m OK in my spot. I just want to get by and try to maintain my health, she says.”
When asked what kind of life she’d like to have, she says she just wants a normal life.
“Honestly, I’d be OK with just being comfortable and having an average, normal life, a family – maybe a dog. I’m not like a lot of people in my generation who want to be famous, or a social media boom. I’ve never been like that,” she says.
She says she is an artist, and wants to stay off the drugs. She says she has been meaning to stop at HOPE for New Hampshire Recovery. But most days she is just busy preparing for the next day.
Dana Springer is leaving the camp, heading back to New Horizons where he is one of the lucky ones with a bed.
He’s a veteran with 30 years of service – 13 infantry with the National Guard and 16 years of active duty with the Chaplain Corps, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Korea. He suffered a traumatic brain injury while stationed at Camp Hammer in Iraq. He’s never had counseling, post-service, but recently made an appointment. He’s a man of faith. He’s had the same job for eight years, working for the state of Massachusetts. He’s trying to hold onto it, but he can’t work his night shift and comply with the shelter’s 7 p.m. curfew.
“I have to call my boss and tell him the outcome. They said I can’t do it. I hope he understands,” says Springer. He has an attorney through the Veterans Law Project, but his court date isn’t until mid-January.
How he ended up homeless is a series of unfortunate events. On Oct. 27 he says a domestic incident between he and his wife of three years went sideways and even though he is the one who called police for help with his teenage stepdaughter, he ended up arrested.
“I didn’t hit her or anything like that. I just picked her up and put her in her room,” Springer says. To explain why, he pulls up a series of text messages copied from his stepdaughter’s phone, the kinds of images and messages a father doesn’t want to see.
“I have done everything for her. I took her to all her games, karate lessons. I took her to church. I never missed a family holiday or birthday,” he says.
The worst of it all, says Springer, has been how people look at him.
“They don’t know my story. They look at me like I’m a child abuser, but that’s not true,” he says. “I served my country, I love God. My daughter is 15 and she’s out of control.” he says, his eyes weary peering from over his mask. “There’s no kind of father’s support group to help someone get through something like this.”
His is a complicated story, but the loose random threads that have unraveled his life are not uncommon ones. He needs hope. He would like to go to the Manchester Mission for the 7 p.m. service for some ministry by Pastor Steve. But it would violate curfew at the shelter, and he can’t afford to lose his bed. He’s not eligible to stay at the Liberty House, which cares for homeless veterans, because he doesn’t have addiction issues.
“I have been to 1269 Cafe,” he says “I go just about every day. It helps.”
Kathy Staub contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: Information regarding the status of one of the subjects interviewed was updated on Nov 19 to reflect he is a convicted sex offender. We thank our readers who provided more information to us, post-publication.