In Laconia, task force moves forward with creating report to inform strategic homelessness plan

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An unidentified man sets up camp along the railroad tracks somewhere in Laconia. As homelessness becomes more prevalent and visible in the Lakes Region, so has citizen frustration. In February, the mayor’s homelessness task force completed a series of forums with the goal of gathering information from the public, business owners and members of the homeless population themselves. How that data will guide the task force in seeking solutions, remains to be seen. Photo/Jon Decker

LACONIA, NH — As the city seeks to develop a strategic plan for tackling homelessness, more than 50 people participated in the final forum regarding Laconia’s unhoused population February at Isaiah 61 Cafe, marking the highest attendance of the series.

The forum was the sixth of its kind, held to gather data by consulting firm JSI Research & Training Institute and the Partnership for Public Health, with the aim of creating a comprehensive report for the mayor’s homelessness task force.

“This report is really the launching-off document for a strategic plan that we might be asking the city to adopt going forward,” Mayor Andrew Hosmer said. “In order to have a goal, we have to have a solid definition of what the problem is. This document will serve to start a number of conversations in identifying the problem and achieving a number of goals here. That’s going to be the work of the housing task force that has come together.”

According to Laconia police Det. Eric Adams, a member of the task force who works extensively with the homeless and substance-abuse communities, there are an estimated 300 to 400 individuals without housing in the city.

While the forums offered the public a chance to speak about their experience and learn more about the causes and potential solutions for homelessness in the city, few took advantage of the opportunity.

The business leaders forum and the session for those with lived experience bucked the trend with 51 and 58 attendees, respectively.

Organizers said the goal of these discussions was to gather data and inform the public.

“The report in general, I’m not sure if there is anything terribly new in it,” said Margaret Franckhauser, a JSI researcher who attended the forums and compiled the data.

“There were dimensions in it that added to the complexity of the issue. It’s not a simple issue that can be solved with a simple solution.”

At the community-based forums, JSI polled participants for their concerns and perceptions regarding homelessness.

According to a draft report, 85% of attendees “believe homelessness in Laconia is a major concern,” and 13% consider it to be of “moderate” concern.

“A majority saw it as a significant problem in the city. We appreciate the fact there is a bit of a funnel effect because of our area of the city,” Hosmer said. “There are communities out there that are drawn to the city because of services here, and then the city shoulders what some might consider a disproportionate load as far as the expenses go.”

At the final meeting at Isaiah Cafe, which was attended primarily by members of the local population experiencing homelessness, Franckhauser said they did not collect data, but rather had an informal discussion.

“It was just a talk, very much like the other sessions, no real hard data or numbers or anything,” Franckhauser said. “I would say it was interesting to see the age range. I would say we saw people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, maybe 70s, it was pretty much across the age spectrum.”

Franckhauser said there was no poll conducted because of a lack of internet connection on site. Despite the lack of any hard data from the final forum, Hosmer views the effort positively.

“I believe we did learn something,” Hosmer said. “We can never discount what we learned from those with lived experience and what their experience has been dealing with housing instability and at times, homelessness.”

Franckhauser summarized comments from the crowd at the cafe, with an emphasis on the high cost of housing in the Lakes Region, the inability to overcome a past eviction, safety and public perception.

“Especially women expressed concern about safety and sexual assault and assault in general or theft,” Franckhauser said. “They feel at risk from fellow members [of the homeless community] and others. It came across in the sessions that if you have a backpack and bike, people treat you differently, so they feel less safe.”

The eviction cycle appears to be a massive barrier, according to Hosmer.

“When people hit tough times and they don’t have a strong credit or criminal record, they are put on a list where they don’t have access to housing. It’s just an informal list,” Hosmer said. “It’s challenging that you can’t shake your past, no matter how hard you try.”

Even when people try to improve their circumstances by seeking work and stability, their housing status provides extra stigma.

“We also learned that people experiencing homelessness have to use Isaiah 61 as a mailing address. As soon as they use it, people just sort of know what that is, and they are no longer considered for employment. These are some of the things I heard about when we did the lived experience forum,” Hosmer said.

For Hosmer, this fact only emphasized the need for stronger partnerships to address homelessness in the city.

“How do we confront that? People know employers are desperate to hire, and the lived experience forum indicated that there are people willing to work but cannot secure employment because of our housing situation,” Hosmer said.

“This is not a problem the police can resolve on their own, that the welfare department can solve on its own. It can’t be solved by all of our nonprofits and service providers,” he continued. “We need a strong, collaborative effort between the private and public sector as well. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’re going to need partners.”

The participants “actually praised Isaiah’s for being very supportive of them and they talked quite a bit about how issues of substance use and homelessness often intersect. They don’t necessarily intersect, but they often do,” Franckhauser said. “There is a need for treatment and treatment support to help look for a house, look for a job, maintain stability, because once that cycle begins, it’s very hard to break the cycle.”

Hosmer noted that despite public perceptions, substance abuse was far from the only factor pushing people out of their homes. Many, he said, just end up on the streets through bad luck.

“This idea that people become homeless because of substance abuse or alcohol or they’re irresponsible, that’s a fairly popular narrative,” Hosmer said. “But when you sit face to face with people, that’s not the case. People become homeless because of a myriad of circumstances that impact their lives.

“They don’t necessarily enter it suffering addiction or mental illness, but we have found that when people become homeless that compounds some of the personal challenges they have.”

This past year proved that helping people experiencing homelessness is rarely a straightforward task.

This winter, the county received $95,000 to help set up a temporary cold weather shelter on the former Laconia State School property. The doors were open anytime the temperature dropped below 20 degrees, or if snowfall was at least six inches. The shelter was fully staffed with employees from Lakes Region Mental Health Center, and offered a free shuttle bus. Despite the preparation, the shelter saw almost no use, with just two individuals using it during February’s sub-zero weekend.

“The Dube shelter is a perfect example,” Hosmer said. “It was well-intentioned, very well staffed with professionals, would keep them warm and protect some from death and extreme cold. But there was reluctance to use the shelter, and we need to have a better understanding of why.”

The Daily Sun previously reported that some people cited a hesitancy to leave their camps, and thus many of their possessions, unattended, as well as a lack of freedom in the shelter, such as the ability to come and go freely, and going outside for smoke breaks during the night.

While some services, such as the Dube shelter, were underutilized, others are at or beyond capacity.

“There are waiting lists for places, it’s very hard to get behavioral health support, but they’re very overwhelmed by all kinds of communities coming out of COVID,” Frankhauser said. “The existence of navigators to help with housing is really small.

“While there are people who do great work, the work that is needed exceeds their ability to meet the demand. It’s not a one-off thing. It’s very much a continuing relationship of doing this work. It’s labor intensive for the organizations, mostly nonprofits and volunteers.”

“One thing we need to come to grips with, too, is at some point there has to be some investments made by the city, communities, the state, maybe even the federal government helping with this situation,” Hosmer said. “It’s not just Laconia. It’s the state of New Hampshire, New England and across the country.”

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