MANCHESTER, NH – Why was a homeless woman from Maine driven 60 miles south by Sanford Police to a homeless shelter in Manchester, where there was no bed waiting for her?
It’s the question that remains mostly unanswered, but it has stirred up controversy between two municipalities, both of them stretched thin when it comes to resources to help the homeless.
Mayor Joyce Craig, who in an email to Sandford city officials called their actions “shameful,” says she became aware of the situation on Tuesday when the woman walked into her third-floor office at City Hall asking for help.
The woman explained that she was driven to Manchester Tuesday by the Sanford Police Department who picked her up from Southern Maine Medical Center in Sanford in an unmarked police car.
“And she had frostbite,” Craig said of the woman.
“She was told by Sanford police that there was a bed for her at the Families in Transition emergency shelter. The shelter is full and turned seven people away Tuesday, plus there are people sleeping outside,” Craig said. She was incredulous that police officers would drop someone off with so many people vislble living on the street just outside the shelter.
Craig said to her knowledge no one from FIT was even aware that the woman had been brought there.
She praised the collaborative efforts of city departments and non-profits in Manchester.
“As a result of their hard work, this woman is back in the state she calls home and is safely housed,” Craig wrote in a follow-up email to Sanford’s mayor and town manager after the situation was resolved.
“It’s important to recognize the hard work of our welfare department, who worked with her, cared for her, provided direction, found her housing in Portland, Maine, and got her back to her home state and into that shelter,” Craig said. “I’m sorry. It’s unacceptable and inhumane to bring someone from another state – who’s never been here and who has no connections here – and just leave them here.”
Craig initially reached out to both Sanford’s mayor and city manager on Tuesday. Mayor Anne-Marie Mastraccio replied that she was out of the country until Friday, and town manager Steve Buck did not respond. So Craig asked Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg to make a call to Sanford Police.
“I had a couple good conversations with the Sanford chief, yesterday and today. Do I think they were trying to do something malicious? No, I do not. But the manner in which it was handled could have been better,” Aldenberg said.
According to Aldenberg at some point Sanford Police, in searching for a bed for the woman, went online and claim they saw something on FIT’s website that said “no appointments needed.”
“So they drove her here and dropped her off. Did they hand her off to FIT staff and she got in there and they said this isn’t where I want to be, or did they drop her off at the door and drive away? I don’t know, but either way we can’t have Manchester becoming the center of the universe for the homeless. As you know, our shelter doesn’t have the capacity, and I’ve got more police resources dedicated to the shelter than I’d prefer to,” Aldenberg said.
Whether this is the first time a police department has delivered a homeless person to Manchester is hard to know, Aldenberg said. The only reason this incident came to light is because the woman happened to go to the mayor for help.
“I will have this conversation with surrounding chiefs in Hillsborough County, that we can’t have you dropping your homeless people off and driving away – if that is, in fact, happening. How would you like me to return that favor? I wouldn’t tolerate my officers doing that, it’s irresponsible,” Aldenberg said. “I can’t say that Sanford was malicious or had bad intent. On the surface, I think it was well intended, but the approach could have been better.”
Sanford Deputy Police Chief Eric Small said he was on the call with Aldenberg Wednesday, and that the situation was never meant to be a dump-and-run. In fact, said Small, Sanford Police returned from their mission of mercy to Manchester feeling like they’d done something good, which was going the extra mile (or 60) to help someone in need.
“We did the best we could with the information we had and if we created any headaches for the city of Manchester, we regret that; it wasn’t our intention,” Small said.
As he explained the story, the woman’s journey began in Lewiston, Maine. She had already walked 70-plus miles to Sanford, stopping first in Portland. She said her intention was to walk to Florida. But she stopped at the hospital in Sanford for medical treatment. That’s where Sanford police officers assigned to the mental health unit first encountered her.
The woman told them she had left a shelter where she’d been staying for two to three weeks, and that she no longer wanted to be there. There are not shelters in Sanford.
“She wanted to be in Florida. Obviously, that’s a long walk and a tough one if you’re going on foot. But this person insisted she was going to walk. So before that, we went and bought her some new shoes and a winter coat and snow pants and wool socks and hand warmers – just in case she decided she was going that way,” Small said. “We can’t do something against someone’s will, but they often don’t choose the safest route in situations like this.”
Small said the hospital allowed the woman to stay overnight but in the morning she was discharged because they had no medical reason to keep her. So Sanford’s mental health officers returned to try and convince the woman to go to the shelter in Portland, or return to Lewiston.
“She didn’t want to go back to a local shelter. She insisted she was going to Florida,” Small said. At that point, they reached out to a shelter in Portsmouth, thinking that it was better than having the woman continue walking south in 10-degree weather.
“But the Portsmouth shelter was full. At that point we could have said ‘OK, good luck,” but that doesn’t feel so good, and we’d hate for someone to be walking all the way from here to Florida and get hit by a car or something. We want them to be safe,” Small said.
Exhausting all the other local options, Small said someone went online and found FIT.
“Think of it like this: We look locally and take the 5,000-foot approach, then we branch out and look at 35,000 point-of-view, outside our neighborhood. When we couldn’t find anything here we felt we had to look beyond our local resources,” Small said.
Believing that they’d found a “walk-in” shelter with “no appointment needed,” based on some information Small said was published on FIT’s website.”I didn’t see it myself, but that was what someone said.” So police told the woman they could get her as far south as Manchester. He says the woman welcomed the ride.
“We figured that to be a safer alternative to her walking down 95, or however you get to Florida, at least it was a leg in the journey and she would have a warm place to sleep for the night,” Small said. From our point-of-view, it was looked at as ‘mission success,” Small said.
That’s why he was surprised to get a call from angry city officials in Manchester.
“From the bottom of my heart, I tell you we would never dump anyone anywhere – it’s not what we do. I don’t know what this person told Manchester police upon arrival there, but obviously, we’re sorry for how it ended. We provided every resource we could,” Small said.
Craig said she eventually heard back from Sanford’s city manager, who told her that their error was “not confirming a bed was actually available before transporting the woman.”
Which does little to ease the unsettling feeling that not only are so many other cities and towns across New England and the country in crisis over homelessness, but that Manchester could become a dumping ground when other municipalities run out of resources.
Craig said the woman was scared and the experience for her was obviously traumatic.
“I can think of no good reason why Sanford officials could not have done all of these things yesterday that our city did for her today, and spared this woman the ordeal of the last 24 hours,” Craig said.
“Homelessness is very complex and we know it’s affecting pretty much every community in our country and our state but we need support from the state level,” Craig said.
“We’ve heard this happens but never encountered a situation like this until yesterday. People are coming here for services, but it’s important to note that FIT is a state-funded shelter and is currently full, as are all the state-funded shelters in the state. The state needs to make sure individual communities have the resources we need to take care of the need – we can’t do it by ourselves,” Craig said.