MANCHESTER, NH – Despite a temporary reprieve with an influx of emergency funding last week approved by the Executive Council, changing circumstances in the state may soon cause homelessness to increase, even as services and volunteers struggle to meet the needs of the community.
For a year and a half, while the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected housing situations across the country, rental assistance and hotel assistance were available for individuals who needed it. In October New Hampshire’s request for extended Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) funds was initially denied by the U.S. Treasury.
A few weeks later NH’s congressional delegation secured an additional $2 million in ERA funding to bridge the gap. Hotel rental assistance is now set to expire next year, but rental assistance programs are no longer accepting applications.
“Some people will still be getting their rental assistance early into 2023,” said Rob Dapice, Executive Director of New Hampshire Housing. “For some people, it’s already ended because they had an application in but the last month they got rent paid was in November.”
Up until this point, tenants who have relied on rental assistance will have to find another source of income to stay in their apartments. Such income may not be easy to find, given that median rents have risen over time while the state’s vacancy rate has decreased.
Although New Hampshire has a low unemployment rate compared with the rest of the country, renters across the state continue to struggle paying rent. Over 5,500 households were on a waiting list for assistance, while 4,226 vouchers were given out by New Hampshire Housing. Around $38 million was spent in 2022 on the voucher program, and around $215 million in New Hampshire.
The rental assistance program was part of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program which allocated $350 billion nationwide to help with recovery efforts during the pandemic.
Money no longer being available will mean recipients and those on waiting list will have to make other arrangements, if they haven’t already. Rising rents coupled with a low vacancy rate could mean an increase in homelessness, something no municipality in New Hampshire appears prepared for, especially Manchester.
Tents of various shapes and sizes surround the sidewalk outside Families in Transition emergency shelter on Manchester Street. Previously, tents would be pitched on public property, on private property, in wooded areas, or wherever there was space.
However, this changed when the Board of Mayor and Alderman passed an ordinance amendment aimed at restricting the activity of homeless people in public parks. This, together with a years-long policy of sweeping camps wherever they are found, have limited the number of places homeless people can exist in public.
The removal of portable toilets in Veteran’s Park limited the number of places people can go to relieve themselves – the most common of which is the library. If a person has such a need in the middle of the night, some people choose to go in alleys around town instead of waiting until morning.
In addition, the shelter has been full most nights, as it often is during the winter. People sleeping in tents have been hesitant to accept shelter accommodations for fear of losing their property only to be asked to leave the shelter later, then without a tent or a bundle in which to sleep. Those who have must maintain consistent attendance each night in order to keep their bed; those who do so are only allowed so many personal possessions. As has been the case in years past, mistrust for the shelter among the homeless population sometimes prevents personal progress from being met.
While this situation qualifies as a humanitarian crisis on its own, with resources drying up, the problem may expand.
“Most recently,” Dapice said, “the governor’s office announced they were going to seek approval from the legislature and the executive council to use $20 million dollars to help people who are in hotels ‒ these are people who don’t have another home to go to. They are getting assistance through the emergency rental assistance program to stay in hotels. The intent of this money is to help keep them sheltered through the winter. That’s for April 1st for households without kids, and for June 15th for families that do have kids.”
And on Dec. 7 the Executive Council voted to give the NH Finance Authority $19,977,520 to extend the rental assistance program to continue to pay for hotels or motels for qualifying families.
For those who have not received rental assistance, or who have seen it expire, the situation is becoming increasingly dire. Many nights in December have been below freezing. At times, cold air whips around tents lined up around the fence that encircles an empty lot next to Families in Transition adult shelter.
Public Works Director Tim Clougherty said during a snow event the main concern would be the safety of those on the sidewalk.
“We would not plan to plow the sidewalks and would push back as much as we could (from the street) so as not to endanger the safety of individuals in the area. A storm [of some magnitude] will likely require some type of snow removal operations, “Clougherty said. “Each storm response will likely be different and require us to be flexible in our approach. One way or the other, safety of people in the area will be at the forefront of our thoughts.”
When asked why homeless people are even there in the first place, a local activist who goes by the name Dam Wright (who recently announced the launch of “Dam Wright’s Homelessness Initiatives Consulting” business) said the unhoused have run out of options.
“People have been systematically chased out of every safe space in town. They’ve been corralled into an area of about 1,200 square feet of sidewalks outside the shelter. There did seem to be talk at the beginning that the police did want to get rid of the tents. So far, they have been leaving them alone, presumably because of the city ordinance says they should not enforce the no camping ordinances when the shelter is full,” Wright said. “They’re gonna do whatever they need to do to survive.”
Economics and inadequate housing
The local economy for workers in New Hampshire continues in much the same way as it always has. Jobs, when they are available, are often out of town or require transporation. Those that are available in town require access to a shower, which not everyone in a tent has. While the 1269 Cafe on Merrimack Street offers free showers to members of the community, there are few spots open with limited time for each.
And in the bigger picture of housing, there are several new projects in the pipeline including many that are workforce or market-rate housing. Units set aside as rent-controlled spaces for elderly and disabled people are among a small minority. Many such projects will take years to develop, and won’t arrive in time to help people freezing on the streets now.
Homelessness grew by 21 percent in 2019 with a study from New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness finding that people of color are disproportionately affected.
Brandon Lemay, a tenants’ rights activist and former candidate for state representative, finds little to like about the current situation.
“I don’t view homeless shelters as humane solutions,” he said. “A shelter stay should be brief and rare. Instead, people are staying for months, and sometimes not for the first time. There are so many problems with robbery, assaults, bed bugs, and all that stuff.”
Lemay suggested the city should apply for grants in order to enact a housing-first solution. In 2021, readers of Ink Link offered potential solutions for Manchester’s homelessness problem. Ward 3 Alderman and State Rep. Pat Long has also gone on record suggesting people could be allocated a space somewhere in the city while sleeping in small individual pods. Long also volunteers his time to help with tenant advocacy.
Additionally, homelessness is a regular topic of discussion at the city’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings. Community members and activists of all kinds have spoken their minds about what they like and dislike. Others have contributed opinion articles on this site as to what they would like to see, and what they’re dissatisfied with.
For all the activity Manchester has seen around it, homelessness remains a complex, persistent issue.
When viewing the row of tents on Manchester Street, Lemay said, “It’s a visible sign of policy failure. The ordinances aimed at homelessness didn’t do anything helpful, they just moved the problem and didn’t solve it.”