MANCHESTER, NH – On Thursday Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan walked the walk. Again.
It’s a walk that’s become all too familiar. As part of the city’s Emergency Management outreach team, working with Manchester Community Mental Health Center, Healthcare for the Homeless, Families in Transition, Network 4 Health and Catholic Medical Center, Goonan and the team keep tabs on who is living unsheltered, and where; who’s sick, who’s hungry, who’s ready to give up. It’s been part of the routine since March.
That’s when COVID-19 concerns among those living at the New Horizons shelter began relocating to other spots around the city, pitching tents and camping. Since then, the number of people living rough has reached an all-time high in Manchester, according to Goonan.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday Goonan, who also serves as the city’s Director of Emergency Management, wound his way through a section of the homeless encampment at the state courthouse, this time for an overdose call. A guy on spice was found curled up next to a tent wedged between a pile of autumn leaves and his own vomit. “He was in rough shape,” Goonan says. An ambulance took him away.
To date, Goonan counts more than 40 tents there, each one he guessed was housing one to four people, making the potential number of those who must evacuate Nov. 16 by order of the State Attorney General’s office anywhere from 40 to 100. Goonan said he was interested in talking to some of the people there about what they expect will happen Monday – when the state’s eviction notice goes into effect.
The eviction notice has no specifics as to what time on Nov. 16 the state will take action or how they will proceed.
“The homeless people we’ve talked to have no clue what they’re going to do,” Goonan says.
“What you’re seeing in Manchester is a humanitarian crisis I’ve never seen in my 36 years. Some I talked to say they feel angry, some say they’re just going to stay and get arrested. Some think the ACLU is going to save them, somehow,” Goonan said. “But for the most part, we have a lot of people out there who have persistent mental health issues. Sometimes we find them in serious crisis, even suicidal. We can do emergency hospitalizations, that happens often. We’re also trying to develop a plan to do triage and schedule those types of on-the-scene medical evaluations. There are many who are extremely sick with things like infections and abscesses, a lot of people fighting — there’s a lot of chaos out here.”
The scramble to find a place to put the unsheltered has been ongoing and, so far, fruitless. The city has been looking at every and any location that might be suitable, but there are obstacles and roadblocks along the way. Goonan says even if and when a location is found, it will only be temporary, for extreme emergency purposes like those nights when the temperature dips below zero. It might be only 50 beds, and it will be up to Goonan and the outreach team to figure out what the threshold is for activating the emergency shelter, when to close it, who gets a bed and who is turned away.
And he expects pushback from whatever neighborhood abuts the location. Nobody wants homeless camps in their backyard.
“When it gets cold we’ll basically try to keep them alive at night during extreme cold weather. What we’re working on at the city level is just finding a place we can use. We tried to get the Armory but were told by the state it was unavailable. We thought it could work because it’s centrally located. As a city, we don’t have the capacity to open a new shelter – unless someone says they’ll provide a building. But then you also need staff,” Goonan said. “Right now we’re focusing on fatality prevention, because that’s all we have the capacity for.”
According to Mayor Joyce Craig, the city requested use of the Armory on Canal Street in July, anticipating the need for winter shelter. The state denied the city temporary use of the Armory after DHHS Chief Lori Shibinette told Craig that the state planned to use the Armory for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, although there is not yet a vaccine available.
Goonan said if the state has a plan for removing people from the courthouse property Monday they have not shared it with the outreach team, or the mayor’s office.
In an email exchange last week DHHS spokesman Jake Leon said the state is working with “community providers in Manchester to develop plans for each of the individuals currently camping at the courthouse. The ultimate goal is to find immediate housing in Manchester or their home community,” Leon wrote.
On Nov. 12 Gov. Chris Sununu doubled-down on what has been his primary answer to the question of what the state’s plan is for those camping on state property – and hundreds more camping out in Manchester for whom there are no open beds as winter sets in.
The state has sent Manchester – and other communities – money to figure it out. Craig counters that, noting state funding does not go directly to the cities and towns but is parsed out to dozens of non-profits and other agencies. She further believes the state has a responsibility to take the long view on homelessness, which has been a persistent and increasing issue for the past 20 years.
“The last time the state created a plan for homelessness was 2006,” Craig says.
Meanwhile, in Vermont…
Our next-door neighbors in Vermont have similar issues with homelessness in a northeastern climate that, like New Hampshire, is hostile toward those living unsheltered. The approach taken by Gov. Phil Scott, a popular Republican much like Sununu – elected the same year – has been different.
According to the VT Digger, Vermont lawmakers this year allocated $87 million of Vermont’s $1.25 billion share of CARES Act money (about 6.96 percent) to housing needs in Vermont. Agencies that work to ease housing problems, help the homeless, and create affordable housing bought several motels and other buildings around the state to turn into supported housing. Landlords got about $8 million to rehabilitate housing that was unlivable, bringing more units onto the market.
- Vermont State Housing Authority got $25 million for a program that helps tenants pay their rent
- $5 million went to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency for mortgage assistance of up to six months
- Vermont Housing and Conservation Board got $34 million to add new housing and improve housing for the homeless
Vermont officials also acknowledge that “economic forces that make real estate very expensive and depress wages or eliminate jobs” aren’t going to be fixed by a few hundred new housing units. Three years ago, the VT Digger reports, lawmakers authorized the Vermont Housing Finance Agency to sell $37 million worth of bonds, money earmarked for construction of several hundred units of affordable housing in the next few years.
Prior to COVID-19, they were discussing approval of a second housing bond for as much as $50 million. A 2020-2025 state housing needs assessment found that construction of new homes had stagnated in Vermont, with the proportion of seasonal homes and short-term rentals growing over the last few years, whittling away the supply available for full-time working residents.
By comparison, NH’s allocation to Housing and Urban Development total $35.2 million (about 2.8 percent. See allocation chart below):
Of the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money New Hampshire received, $35.4 million in “flex funds” was allocated to Housing and Urban Development through the five Community Action Program (CAP) agencies, which includes Southern NH Services in Manchester. The money is designated to support families or individuals in need of housing assistance as a result of COVID-19. Of the allocated $35 million, $20 million will be initially expended, with $15 million being held in reserve, for rent stabilization and housing support.
Taking a statewide approach to the issue, as Vermont has done, provides the actual resources necessary to create a big-picture solution, rather than distributing bandaids without a prescription for a long-term fix.
Solving Homelessness: A National Dilemma
In an essay published in the New York Times in May, “America’s Cities Could House Everyone if They Chose To,” Binyamin Appelbaum asserts that homelessness is solvable – if we as a country have a will to end it:
“The federal government could render homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring. The cure for homelessness is housing, and, as it happens, the money is available: Congress could shift billions in annual federal subsidies from rich homeowners to people who don’t have homes.
Instead, Americans have taken to treating homelessness as a sad fact of life, as if it were perfectly normal that many thousands of adults and children in the wealthiest nation on earth cannot afford a place to live. Government programs focus on palliative care: Annual spending on shelters has reached $12 billion a year, according to Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on homelessness. Rather than provide housing for the homeless, cities offer showers, day care centers and bag checks.”
Appelbaum points to strides made in ending homelessness among veterans. The number of homeless veterans has been cut in half since 2010. He quotes U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who told Congress last year that, based on the success of HUD’s approach to veteran homelessness, “that homelessness is not an intractable problem — we can end homelessness.”
The federal Supportive Housing Program for veterans as outlined in HUD’s annual report to Congress, uses a triage approach, calibrating aid to need.
“The government provides up to $4,000 in cash for those who need just a little help, for example to pay a security deposit. For those who need continuing help, there are housing vouchers. And for veterans whose economic problems are compounded by other issues, such as disabilities or substance abuse, the government provides “supportive housing” — a place to live, plus counseling and care.
This is cheaper than leaving people to remain homeless and then intervening intermittently. One study found that in the two years after a person entered supportive housing in New York, he or she spent on average 83 fewer days in shelters, 28 fewer days in psychiatric hospitals and four fewer days in prison.
Manchester as Ground Zero for the Homeless
Although Gov. Sununu has repeatedly spoken about “unprecedented” funding and support to Manchester for a growing population of homeless individuals – a majority of whom have been documented to come from outside the city – when analyzing how CARES Act money has been allocated in New Hampshire, and what restrictions there are on that money, it’s unclear that the city of Manchester has received anything over and above what it might need to solve a lack of shelter beds and the lack of affordable housing for low-income city residents, let alone those coming from outside the city or the state.
At the Nov. 12 press conference on the topic of homelessness in Manchester, Sununu stated, “The State has also released more than $6 million in CARES Act funding to increase shelter capacity and outreach efforts, with approximately $2.8 million going directly to providers that serve Manchester. In addition, the City of Manchester received approximately $2 million to be used for housing or sheltering directly from HUD to assist with needs for homeless individuals. Anyone in the State seeking shelter who cannot find shelter, including at FIT-New Horizons, can call 2-1-1 to seek referrals to other emergency shelters or services across New Hampshire.”
Of those funds, HUD sent $7.49 Million in CBDG-CV (Community Block Development Grant/COVID) to individual municipalities. These funds allow for communities to rapidly respond to COVID-19 and the economic and housing impacts caused by it, including the expansion of community health facilities, child care centers, food banks and senior services. Of this $7.49 million, funding awards to New Hampshire cities were:
- Manchester – $1,046,487
- Nashua – $390,913
- Portsmouth – $313,589
- Dover – $169,209
- Rochester – $149,714
On July 7 the Mayor’s office outlined how the $1,046,487 of CBDG-CV funding would be allocated as approved by the Board of Aldermen. Funds are focused on addressing economic, housing and public service issues caused by COVID-19 as follows:
- $550,000 to provide emergency housing assistance to low- or moderate-income homeowners and renters for those who have lost their employment income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of rent or mortgage payments for up to three months.
- $250,000 to provide grants ($3,000 to $5,000) to small businesses: owned by low- to moderate-income individuals, or that employ low- to moderate-income individuals who have had significant disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic individuals
- $146,487 to be made available via application to nonprofits and City Departments for activities such as job training for those whose employment was impacted by COVD-19, meal delivery for those in quarantine, COVID-19 testing, supplies, and materials.
- $100,000 for program administration.
The mayor’s office also has been transparent as to how the $2,350,270 in federal ESG-CV money would be spent. These funds are for essential services that prevent or address homeless issues such as rapid rehousing, homeless prevention, and renovations to an emergency shelter.
- $2,115,270 to be made available via application to nonprofits and City Departments for expenses such as operating support for increased costs due to COVID-19, funding for rental assistance and security deposits, funding to support the quarantine of individuals who have contracted COVID-19.
- $235,000 for program administration.
In June, Sununu announced another $15M from the CARES Act would be used “to increase the number of beds and meals that can be provided to the more than 1,000 residents of the state who are homeless or have insecure housing situations.” When asked about how that money was allocated, Jake Leon of NH DHHS directed us to NH Housing and Finance Authority, which manages that funding. We contacted Grace Lessner of NHHFA who said based on their contract with the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) they are specifically prohibited from increasing the number of shelter beds based on the terms of their contract with GOFERR.
“The funds are not to be used to increase the numbers of homeless people served but to provide the means by which shelters can serve their numbers of clientele as of March 1, 2020. While the physical space may expand including establishment of new locations, the numbers of people served may not,” Lessner said.
As of Nov. 15, the GOFERR Transparancy Map providing an interactive overview of awards made with New Hampshire’s CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds was unavailable, with notice that is was down for maintenance.
Although the state has a State of New Hampshire Action Plan 2020 according to the section on homelessness that begins on page 86, the primary resource for connecting those experiencing homelessness is the NH 211 information and referral program. Right now there are few if any open beds in the statewide network of shelters.
Last week the state approached Families in Transition to ask if some of the homeless residing on state property could be put up at hotels.
“We have had a discussion with the state about utilizing funds for hoteling and FIT-NH is not able to hotel one camp or any camp due to a number of reasons, some of which revolve around safety, risk, and overall capacity. While the urgency is apparent, there was a mutual understanding that the current funding FIT-NH is receiving is needed for long-term sheltering solutions to support capacity that meets CDC guidelines and work towards returning to numbers pre-pandemic. Hoteling is a short-term fix and the costs and liability are high,” said Kyle Chumas, FIT/NH’s Director of Marketing & Communications.
Families in Transition
As for expanding resources at the state’s largest shelter, privately operated by Families in Transition/New Horizons, as of Sept. 15 money allocated had not yet been dispersed (see letter below). However, since then, FIT/NH reports they have been able to purchase a property on Lake Avenue, which will allow them to add more shelter beds to the Manchester Street location.
On Nov. 6 Families in Transition Chief External Relations Officer Stephanie Savard explained some of the challenges and constraints around the funding.
“We are receiving a couple pots of funds to help us support our clients. The key things with a lot of this funding, it’s not about expanding shelter beds, but almost exclusively about maintaining the status quo – how to stay where you were at before the pandemic related to COVID. All this money is focused on that,” Savard said.
FIT/NH was allotted $2.3 million in shelter modification funds from the NH Housing Finance Authority. They’ve used the money, which was not available until October, to purchase a second property at 176 Lake Avenue. They are in the process of renovating that space so that they can move the food pantry that is currently at 199 Manchester St. to Lake Avenue.
“Then we’ll be able to take the previous pantry location and turn that into more dorm space – still with socially-distanced requirements, or using top bunks, but it will bring back more beds – 40 or 45 give or take – under one roof at the shelter on Manchester Street,” Savard said.
One of the stipulations is that the modified space must be occupied by Dec. 31, which gives FIT about eight weeks to complete the work at both locations.
“This is the insanity part. We just signed the purchase paperwork once the funds were awarded. It’s really, really difficult, but we’re going to have to get it done,” she said.
Currently, there are 68 beds at New Horizons and 39 at a second location, Angie’s Place, which was converted over the summer to provide a second location to allow for social distancing for a total of 107 beds. Last winter’s capacity surged to over 168 on some nights until the shelter reduced capacity to 138, so the addition of beds in the former pantry will get FIT/NH back to where they were last year.
A second award of $50,000 to FIT was from the city, which used the aforementioned ESG-CV funds which allowed the shelter to make modifications including hand sinks in the laundry room, new mattresses and mats for COVID prevention, and another $277,000 for operations at Angie’s Place through December, to keep that running.
FIT/NH will also be awarded some state funding for contracts good through 2022 to continue operations and a two-year grant for $750,000 for additional shelter needs.
Ideally, there would be grant money available to create more affordable housing in the city – with no strings attached or prohibition on adding shelter beds, says Savard.
“There are a lot of buildings that are empty with a big red X on them. If we could have funds to develop and operate those spaces, that would be a great help – but they need a subsidy attached to them. The individuals we serve have the lowest income in our state. We have to build more affordable housing for working families as well as those in our shelters, who need a permanent place to live.”
However, such vacant buildings are largely privately owned and, even if funding were available, the owners would have to agree to sell.
The current wait for a housing voucher in New Hampshire is 8-10 years. Once awarded, the recipient has a three-month window to identify a place to rent or they will lose their voucher and move back to square one. And that is another hurdle – many landlords choose not to rent to people on public assistance.
“We just found out the Seacoast has landlord incentive program, and I think this is something we need to pursue here. How do we incentivize landlords to honor vouchers. With a less than 1 percent vacancy rate in the state, there are few units opening up.
Sevard says the issues around substance use disorder and homelessness have always been there, but the pandemic has lifted the curtain on the extent of the problem.
“Only because the opioid crisis brought with it a daily overdose count, and the fact that the substance of the moment was opioids and not alcohol, that’s what lifted the curtain on it, and exactly what happened when opioids became a problem is what we’re experiencing with homelessness in a pandemic – we’re building the ship while trying to sail it. We knew there needed to be more capacity long before the pandemic, but it’s needed all around the state,” Savard said.
When asked, she could not recall the last time Sununu toured the state’s largest homeless shelter.
“I’m not sure he’s been down since we merged with Families in Transition three years ago,” she said.
What happens on the day after tomorrow?
On Nov. 6 the governor received a letter signed by the state’s 13 mayors who all urged the governor to outline a statewide plan to address homelessness. On Friday Sununu said he had not yet responded, but planned to.
Sununu also said the state is “coordinating directly” with individuals camping outside the courthouse “making sure they’re aware of opportunities available to them.”
He did not directly respond to what will happen Monday when the state’s notice of eviction expires, or the day after tomorrow to those people, and hundreds of others living unsheltered around the state as the winter weather settles in.
Goonan said he has only heard rumors, that state police are going to remove those who have not vacated.
“Last year our point-in-time count [of the homeless] was 74. Now the number of people we’ve had eyes on is at around 180,” Goonan said Thursday.
“One of the things is that the people at the state level underestimate the problems these people have. It’s difficult to describe what is happening in Manchester – it’s a unique population when it comes to homelessness. There are not just people who are down on their luck. They have persistent mental health and substance use disorder issues. They’re a difficult population to deal with. You can’t just pluck them out of the courthouse property and put them in an apartment,” Goonan says.
Goonan added that while about 40 people have been relocated since the pandemic began and homeless camps increased, there are few “opportunities” that exist for shelter.
Sununu and Commissioner Shibinette claimed that they have “outreach teams going into the encampments every day,” acknowledging that not all those living outside of a shelter are receptive to services.
Goonan said if the state has its own outreach team, he has not run into them in the field, and said none of the individuals he’s asked in the past week about contact with state workers acknowledged having contact outside of the city’s outreach team.
Sununu insisted otherwise.
“Our teams have been on the ground in Manchester every single day –every single day. For the city of Manchester to say they’re not aware of the state’s personal one-on-one involvement in this issue is absolutely false, because we’re there talking to them every single day,” Sununu said during Thursday’s COVID-19 news conference.
“The state has gone over and above. I can tell you that our teams have spent more time in the city of Manchester on this issue over the past 18 months than any other time in the state’s history, far and away, more time. The opportunities are there for these individuals but it really takes a partnership to come together to make sure we have that whole level of success that we do expect and can achieve,” Sununu said.
If the governor is referring to Manchester Community Mental Health, which receives some state funding for outreach and is part of the city’s outreach team, they have the same information Goonan has.
And they already know there’s no place for the unsheltered to go.
Mayor Craig said if there were a plan, she’d be all for it. But given the current statewide COVID-19 outlook, simply dispersing the unsheltered only compounds the problem.
“I am very concerned the State is breaking up this encampment with no place for individuals to go, especially during this pandemic. Currently, New Hampshire is seeing our highest numbers to date of positive COVID-19 cases. By breaking up this encampment with no solution, we will have more people moving from camp to camp throughout the city and beyond — which puts our entire community and state at significant risk for community spread,” Craig said. “None of us want people living unsheltered or setting up encampments in our communities. I wish there were an easy solution, but there isn’t.”
In April of 2020 the NH Department of Health and Human Services released a NH Emergency Shelter Plan with the following guidance. The document does not include a plan for increasing shelter beds, and has not been updated since April.
To date, over $240,000 from philanthropy has been given to shelters and outreach programs to support staffing, portable handwashing stations, portable shower bags, technology, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has committed an additional $3M of funds from the CARES Act to: 1) Provide essential dollars to support direct care staff supporting people experiencing homelessness; 2) Provide additional dollars to shelters for increased cost due to the COVID pandemic; and 3) Provide additional dollars to support permanent housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. The State of New Hampshire has also committed funds to support the cost of local decompression solutions. The resources from philanthropy and communities has assisted as a bridge until other resources were identified. The approach taken has enabled solutions to develop based on the strengths and needs of each community.
New Hampshire Housing has a resource page titled Challenges and Solutions, which provides targeted information for advocates, officials, developers and citizens, and the invitation to explore the site, adding, “By learning more about housing issues and your community, you can help ensure that all Granite Staters have a home they can afford.”
On the Web: Read more here about Understanding Federal Funding for COVID-19 from the NH Municipal Association.