MANCHESTER, NH – The third and final meeting of the Mayor’s Task Force to address Homelessness convened March 25, with about 40 community leaders gathered at the city health department to go over updates from the various sub-committees, and to consider next steps.
The greatest takeaway was the universal agreement that a new position within city government should be created to oversee and coordinate services for the homeless. The position would serve as an efficiency “hub” to assess the kinds of services offered by various agencies and coordinate how they are connected to those in need. How to fund such a new position would be part of the “next steps” discussion.
Patrick Tufts recommended creation of a printed draft document summarizing the work of the task force and submitting it to the mayor and board of aldermen for further discussion and consideration.
The task force first launched in February as a way of developing an action plan to address ways to better serve the city’s homeless and sheltered population, and consider how to improve quality of life issues for all residents.
Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Mike Skelton, representing the Panhandling subcommittee, outlined public communication strategies to be rolled out immediately by the Chamber and Intown Manchester, which will be expanded over time. The tiers of the campaign will include: public messaging, increased communication, amplified police participation and the exploration of a “downtown cadet” program; lighting and beautification of the downtown; and a panhandling to jobs program, similar to other models in place in communities outside of New Hampshire.
He said that the issue of panhandling in Manchester is “something we can get our arms around,” as the number of those who are out panhandling is “in the dozens” rather than in the hundreds, as seen in larger cities.
“Good Change Manchester,” is a proposed marketing campaign around public messaging to educate the public on the distinction between panhandling and homelessness.
- The main message would advise the public that giving to organizations or causes that provide services to the homeless would go farther in helping those in need than by directly giving to those panhandling. The ongoing campaign would launch mid- to late-April and refresh each spring, and include ramped-up regular communication with downtown business owners and providers, including round table discussions and surveys.
- The campaign would include brochures and resource guides targeted various sectors, including residents, visitors, employees, business and property owners.
- Creation of an online giving platform as pat of the campaign website, as the overriding message is not “don’t help,” but rather, “give where it truly helps most.”
Reporting for the Services sub-committee was Erin Kelly, director of Runaway and Homeless Youth Continuum for Waypoint, who said their group focused on the need for more outreach, employment opportunities and reduction of barriers.
They recommended the creation of a full-time master’s-level coordinator, ideally a city position, to oversee and coordinate concerted efforts toward outreach, including data collection. The sub-committee also recommended creation of five full-time outreach workers to be available during different hours, equipped with an outreach “toolbox” of referral services to connect people to the services available in “an active and warm” way. The group also recommended another level of an outreach team that might be a combination of volunteers or part-time workers.
Kelly said given the number of organizations currently offering work opportunities and training for those seeking employment, it was recommended to convene a focus group of folks who are or have been homeless to understand better what the barriers are, such as sick childcare and transportation, preventing people from using the services or retaining employment. They also mentioned the need for case management dedicated to helping people succeed.
The Services sub-committee also said there is a need for a centralized “hub” where people can get what they need – lockers, mail, computers, phone charging stations, employment counseling – and couple that with ways to “co-locate” similar services, perhaps by utilizing existing space in a more relevant way.
“It needs to be a welcoming and nurturing place that’s trauma-informed, well staffed and well-trained to oversee this space that’s productive and beneficial,” Kelly said, more than just a “waiting space.”
It’s necessary to identify those who are currently panhandling and finding out their immediate needs, something missing from the equation, Kelly said. ”
Who are they and why are they continuing to panhandle every day, and how do we help them overcome the barriers to service? We know that needs are individual and you need to outreach to each person,” she said.
Another point made by Kelly was the need to bring service and faith-based organizations together to coordinate outreach. “Bridges need to be built between those two sectors in our community because a lot of us are doing similar work in different ways and we’re not doing it in a coordinated way,” Kelly said.
Borja Alvarez de Toledo, President and CEO of Waypoint, said in talking about coordination of services, there is another side to the equation – while it’s important to look at services available and coaching a person in need of job skills, it’s also important to consider how to coach businesses on how they can be prepared to employ those who are coming out of homelessness.
Kelly said that point was touched on by their sub-committee, and that it’s a discussion that needs to be developed. While some businesses are already connected to work-ready programs, there’s room to expand on that and invite businesses to the table to identify how they can participate.
Sean Owen, CEO of wedü , represented the sub-committee tasked with the issue of housing capacity. He said more data was needed. He reiterated the current lack of coordination of services, and identified a need to connect with developers and city officials to consider redevelopment of existing properties as possible housing opportunities.
“The messaging we talked about was a little bit less around people visiting, or downtown residents and business owners, and more around the stakeholders — developers and real estate owners, and even people within city government with knowledge of programs or existing properties that are underutilized,” Owen said.
The largest gap is around “affordable housing,” Owen said. He described a plan in raw numbers that would address the need, to include 20 units of housing annually over the next five years at a cost of each unit being $200,000, or $4 million a year, for 100 units.
The biggest discussion was around funding an initiative of that scope. Owen said with little incentive to build new housing units, the current boom is in rehabilitation. To that end, there needs to be more federal or local tax incentives for developers to rehab available properties or those which the city has taken possession of because they’re rundown.
Although there are signs of progress, including an initiative in the works for 14 housing units by Families in Transition-New Horizons, it’s not enough progress – and not happening fast enough for those frustrated by the lack of resources for the homeless.
City Health Director Anna Thomas reported on notes from the Prevention task-force. She said that the city has been bench-marking homelessness “for quite some time,” and when you see homelessness elevated in any community, it’s a marker for community health.
“The health department brought homeless healthcare to this city in 1987 – over 30 years ago – so this topic is not new, the need is not new, but what it feels like is that it’s much more in our faces, much more visible, and this is where we need to come together as a community,” Thomas said.
She said the definition of health as defined by the Institute of Medicine has shifted from being “free from disease” to “a person’s ability to function in the face of changing circumstances.”
“So when we look at individuals who are in crisis and they’re living on the street or they’re not able to keep a job and care for themselves in some cases, you have to look at that fundamental definition of whether they’re able to function in the face of difficult circumstances, and if they’re not, then by our definition, they’re unhealthy,” Thomas said.
Part of the work of a city health department extends beyond physical health to things like helping a parent get their high school diploma, providing financial literacy, or enrolling a person in resident leadership training, all proven strategies to improve the health of an individual and family down the road.
Reaching people before they get to a crisis point and become homeless is also key, said Thomas. Early intervention in schools is one way the city is getting a handle on the need through the work of the school district’s homeless coordinator, Jocelyne Pinsonneault. Based on the most recent census conducted on March 1, Pinsonneault said there were 825 homeless students counted in city schools — a number on the rise.
Averting homelessness before it becomes a reality is the best way forward, Thomas said. But first, the community conversation around homelessness requires consensus.
“From my experience now from sitting at multiple meetings and in listening to public sessions at the Mayor and Board of Aldermen meetings, there’s a tone that comes from the public, and it’s all over the map. Some of it is ‘these people are problems, they’re vagrants, they’re undesirables,’ there’s that kind of language, while others including those here today who say these are people, they’re vulnerable, they’re in crisis, they need help,” Thomas said.
“I always praise people like Mary Sliney of The Way Home, who reminds us of the importance that we dignify life — all life. Especially if we understand not everybody has the ability to function in the face of changing circumstances, and so how do we help them,” Thomas said.
Their sub-committee concluded there is a need for a messaging campaign that helps to tell the city’s story and which talks about homelessness as an issue in an compassionate way that also leads to a solution. Other issues in need of vetting are the city’s lack of affordable housing stock, and whether Manchester is getting its fair share of state resources for those who come to Manchester from other cities and towns seeking help.
“Everybody wants the same goal,” Thomas said. “We all want people to thrive in the face of changing circumstances.”