MANCHESTER, NH – Early Thursday morning police, and crews from Parks & Rec and Public Works were set up outside the Families in Transition adult emergency shelter. The clean-up effort was requested by the people who for several weeks now have been living on the sidewalk surrounding the shelter, according to Manchester Police Sgt. Emmett Macken.
“We were just out there making sure it’s safe and a little cleaner,” said Macken. After daily conversations with those who are living outside the shelter, Macken was fielding requests for more trash pick-up and more storage bins.
“We were going to do it yesterday but since it was raining we put it off until today,” Macken said. People were asked to move anything they didn’t want to the curb so that it could be picked up and hauled away. Things they wanted to keep – but not with them – could be packed into large plastic bins that the city will store for them, free of charge. Macken said they didn’t have as many takers as expected for the storage bins.
“Some of them thought it was going to cost them money. And some people, I guess they don’t trust that they’ll get their stuff back,” Macken said.
WATCH – Above, items no longer wanted by the homeless are moved into a dump truck by city workers. – Video, Carol Robidoux
Trust is scarce at the encampment, and theft within the homeless community is “a big problem,” according to Raul “Gene” Gonzalas, who stopped by to ask Macken if he could get some of his stuff out of storage. He recently found a place to live.
“I’m at a place over on the West Side,” he said, explaining that his life has taken a turn for the better.
“I was looking for work and mentioned it to someone. The next day he woke me up and said, ‘Let’s go. We’re working today.’ We’ve been setting up the new Zoo gym in Seabrook,” Gonzalas said. For months he has shown up and done whatever was asked of him. His willingness to work resulted in the offer of a job, and a place to stay by his boss. He’s lived there for about a month now, and counts himself grateful. He says he returns to the tent encampment outside the shelter to lend a hand to others. This day, he was looking for someone who wasn’t feeling well. “I got her some breakfast,” he says.
Of the stuff being removed from the sidewalks, Gonzalas says “nobody in their right mind – their right frame of mind – would think this stuff is anything but junk,” he says.
He notes that whatever is lost to the dump truck can easily be replaced by a trip to the “free store” at Veterans Park on Sundays. He likens some of “his compadres” to hoarders and recalls a scene from the movie, “The Jerk,” in which the character played by Steve Martin finds himself broke and homeless.
“He says I need this chair. I need this ashtray…,” a condition of having nothing of substance to call your own.
Another resident of the encampment, Dennis Higgins, 57, is wearing a tattered Santa hat. He’s known around the neighborhood as “the mechanic,” for the large collection of bicycles in various stages of disrepair he keeps outside his tent. Macken said today was a day of reckoning for the bikes
“There are too many, for one thing,” Macken says. He notes that another concern is that many of the bikes may be stolen – not by Higgins, but he has become the repository for them. He fixes them and sells them, and sometimes just gives them away. A check by police to identify any of the bikes as among those reported missing was fruitless. Higgins said he had a guy who was coming to get them, so officers on duty patiently waited while assisting with the clean-up efforts around the perimeter of the fenced area.
As Higgins tells his story, he has operated his own automotive shops in Nashua, Hudson and Windham, and is a good mechanic. But each of those situations ended badly and similarly – the property owners sold the properties, or in one instance, he was unknowingly subleasing from another guy who was leasing. “The owners showed up and told me to leave. I thought the guy I was paying rent to owned the property. I was paid up through December, but they wanted money from me. I lost all my tools. Everything,” Higgins says. He says he went to court to fight it, but nothing went his way.
Although he doesn’t mention it, a quick online search reveals he’s also been in and out of trouble with the law for some drug-related charges. What he does say is that he has been diagnosed with ADD and finds it hard to focus. “My mind is everywhere,” he says. He also says he suffers from narcolepsy. “I was at an appointment the other day and they told me I fell asleep 48 times.”
He guesses it could also be a result of sleeping in a tent outside, keeping one eye open to guard his things. He’s had tools stolen. And he’s sporting a scrape on his nose, which he got a few days ago when he tried to intervene in a situation.
“These guys were hassling a young lady and I just asked them to leave her alone,” says Higgins. He got smashed in the face with a skateboard.
When he first came to Manchester a year ago he was depressed, although that’s passed, he says.
“I spent last Christmas alone. That was hard,” he says.
His situation has kept him from being in close contact with his sons, who are grown now. He calls them sometimes, but hasn’t seen them for months. “I have asked myself how I got here, or why I’m here now. I think it’s to be a voice for the homeless.”
He has attended a few Board of Aldermen meetings lately, including on Dec. 7. “Maybe that’s why I’m still here,” he says.
Higgins says all he wants now is a place where he can get a fresh start. Nothing big, just a shop where he can work on cars or bikes. “I’d be willing to work for someone, but without a place to go home to, or shower or sleep, and no tools – that’s hard,” he says. And after working for himself for so many years, it’s hard to go back to something different.
Macken, who at one point in his career, worked for NYPD in the 25th Precinct in Harlem, has seen it all. The most frustrating part is that in a city like New York, the problems haven’t been solved. And here in Manchester, although the problems are on a much smaller scale, answers are still hard to come by. As a community police officer, he has a job to do, which is addressing the concerns of everyone, whether they are homeowners or homeless.
He says most of those he has encountered on the street have deep and complicated stories like Higgins, who comparatively speaking, is among the “good guys” who seem to stay out of trouble and try to help others within the homeless community.
And then there’s Gonzalas, who says he served in the U.S. Marines, from 1979-1985, a fact that Macken says is true.
As Gonzalas, 61, tells his story, he was honorably discharged with a heroin habit, a drinking problem and PTSD, from a combat deployment in Beirut. Once home he was arrested a few times for a DUI and lost his license. That’s one thing his new boss is going to help him recover, Gonzalas says.
“I’m better now. My PTSD is more manageable. I smoke marijuana, that’s it,” he says.
Many of the others who are living in tents outside the shelter “don’t want to work,” he says. They could benefit from more job skills training, and soft skills – like how to fill out an application, or how to build a resume. But drugs are rampant and go hand-in-hand with mental health issues, also common.
He’s seen too many people who’ve left for rehab return.
“I’d say 99.9 percent of them come back. When you want to go to rehab it’s because you want out of this situation, but there’s no place else for them to go. This isn’t the place for them.”