MANCHESTER, N.H. – The issue of homelessness became a flashpoint at the Board of Aldermen meeting on Tuesday night, sparked by concerns from Alderman at-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur.
Near the meeting’s conclusion, Levasseur shared a recent experience in which he met two homeless people on the street when he was putting up a campaign sign for the upcoming municipal election in November.
The homeless people asked Levasseur for help and Levasseur told them to call him in an hour when he could direct the people to the city’s new homelessness coordinator, Doug Howard.
Levasseur told the board that after several hours of phone calls with the people and Howard, it seemed like little was being done to help the people. While Levasseur was not upset with Howard, he was confused and frustrated with what he saw as a lack of clarity regarding Howard’s position, which was posted and filled in the past few months.
Levasseur was unsure on the specific guidelines of Howard’s position but hoped that Howard could do more to directly help people such as these in the future.
“I feel like I let these people down, I feel like these people put their trust in me to help them and I really did let them down,” he said. “Trust is such an issue (for) government and officials and we all say we’re going to do something and when we don’t, it hurts the agenda of getting these people off the street.”
A description of the position was approved by the Aldermen over the summer, and while Mayor Joyce Craig did not have a copy of the description immediately available, she told Levasseur that the primary purpose of this new position is actually to help coordinate among the various homeless services across the city.
According to a memo issued Sept. 3 by Craig. Howard’s job description includes “coordination of outreach, data collection, serving as a liaison between city departments, non-profits, the community at large and other duties,” under the direction of Health Department chief Anna Thomas.
Levasseur also voiced other concerns he had with the Welfare Department, and hoped that despite the position description that the Homeless Coordinator position can provide more direct work with helping those who are homeless or facing homelessness when immediate action is needed.
“Somebody calls me and wants my help, to reach to me and ask for it, to me that is a major step. I’m not going to turn my back on them and I hope the city doesn’t either,” he said. “I want a homeless coordinator that would put in the effort that I would.”
Welfare Director Charleen Michaud asked Levasseur and the rest of the Aldermen to contact her for support and said she would be able to help the residents.
Manchester Health Department Chief Operations Officer Phillip Alexakos also praised Howard, whose position is half-funded by the city and half-funded by the Granite United Way.
“Doug has been on the street working with families and with at-risk youth, so he has experience with that type of work,” said Alexakos. “He also has great connections with the people paid to do that work directly.”
Craig also noted that the city does whatever it can to help the homeless population, but she reiterated her concern that the state as a whole has not done enough to help on the issue, noting that there are just under 1,000 homeless beds available across the state, with 40 percent residing in Hillsborough County.
Following a brief further debate on Manchester’s role in helping the state’s homeless population, Alderman At-Large Dan O’Neil thanked Levasseur for bringing this to the board’s attention and assured him that there would be more coordination in the future.
The issue continued with different focuses as the meeting continued.
Ward 6 Alderman Elizabeth Moreau hoped for a non-public hearing on the issue of homelessness and its impact on situations such as the recent incident at Econolodge, in which a 1-year-old child died. Details on that situation have not yet been disclosed by investigators.
Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry wanted to make it clear that the Mayor and Aldermen had done significant work on the issue of homelessness.
Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann told the board that on the list of contacts he had been given to help constituents, one of those contacts was the Manchester Homeless Assistance Line, which he had never heard of.
And Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw urged the board to see the issue of housing security for the elderly, especially in low income and Section 8 situations where she says that her constituents have been evicted by unscrupulous landlords using “renovations” as an excuse for rent hikes.
She said in many situations, landlords would perhaps fix a crack in a wall or add some paint and raise monthly rent by $400 a month.
“These kinds of things are bothering me, because the elderly are just as important as homeless people with families and children. Everybody is important and there has to be some way we can work with landlords in this city or hold a hatchet over their head,” she said. “They can’t be doing this to people.”