MANCHESTER, NH – The Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen heard a presentation Tuesday of a new plan for dealing with the city’s homelessness issue.
In just a little over four months since Schonna Green moved to Manchester from Florida and took over as the city’s first-ever Director of Homeless Initiatives she has put together a roughly 20-page plan with three phases and multiple recommendations, many of which are already being undertaken.
Green calls the plan HOPE, an acronym for Housing Options Promote Empowerment for all people and incomes. The first phase will focus on the chronically homeless population, which is the group most resistant to accepting shelter beds and other available services.
The second phase, which has already started, is entitled empowerment capacity building and would find ways to increase the city’s affordable housing stock.
Phase three is a community outreach awareness campaign.
Green said the chronically homeless population is “the hardest-to-serve population in the United States” and in the city she estimates 70 to 80 percent are mentally ill.
Alderman Jim Roy said he was glad Green mentioned mental health because he feels it’s the driving cause for a lot of homelessness. Green said there are also those homeless folks who are not mentally ill. She said some are mothers with small children escaping an abusive partner, for example. They often avail themselves of services, whereas the chronically homeless do not.
There are currently an estimated 30 homeless encampment locations around the city, and Green said the scattered encampments and camp clearings sometimes hinder service delivery systems. So she recommended establishing a “central location” to deliver outreach services, housing placement, and other support services.
The idea is that homeless individuals would be asked to come to the place, and engage in “normalcy activities” such as following the rules of engagement, as opposed to the current system where outreach teams meet people where they are in their camps.
Alderman Pat Long said he liked that idea, and compared it to having to go to the grocery store to buy food for making breakfast, as opposed to waiting for someone to make breakfast for him.
Long praised the overall plan for providing data and creative solutions.
“I think it’s something the city hasn’t seen in a long time,” Long said.
Green’s plan also called for camp clearings on any city property, such as public parks or cemeteries and any camps that are a danger to health and safety. In answer to a question from Alderman Ross Terrio, Green said there are some examples of camps that are probably better left alone, such as small camps with one person, located out of sight and keeping the site clean.
Terrio said he agreed with that, and said he didn’t see a problem with creating a central location for services.
Green outlined some ways the city can formalize its camp clearing policy, the legal process depending on the landowner, and recommended the adoption of a nonbinding resolution called the “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which Green said would set clear expectations and build a foundation of trust that the city won’t violate a person’s privacy or property protections, voting rights, protections against segregation and harassment. It would also outline restrictions on staying on public property and a formal camp clearing policy.
While most aldermen expressed support for Green’s recommendations, asked questions and made suggestions, Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur voiced the most opposition. He was particularly critical of the Homeless Bill of Rights idea, saying, in his experience as an attorney, if you give people rights they are more likely to sue the city.
Levasseur bristled at the idea of empowering certain homeless individuals who he said act like they own the city.
“The last five years have been hell,” Levasseur said.
He also asked why other communities aren’t implementing similar steps to invest in affordable housing. Mayor Joyce Craig interjected to say she is aware of several communities that are dealing with the same issues as Manchester and are implementing similar policies.
Phase two of the plan recommends the city invest in its local businesses, nonprofits, faith-based initiatives, landlords and housing developers who are willing to create a broader range of housing options, with a particular focus on permanent housing, permanent supportive housing and special needs housing.
Right now, she said the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Manchester is $1,546, according to the recent rent survey by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, but in reality most two-bedroom units start at around $1,800.
“When you look at the average income, it’s nowhere near affordable,” Green said.
Green said the city should dedicate a percentage of the city’s tax deed properties and buildable lots each year for affordable housing projects, add new sources of revenue for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust and create an incentive program for landlords to make more affordable housing stock.
The city is already implementing some of these recommendations by dedicating $4.7 million for six new affordable housing projects, plus development initiatives to convert parking lots on Pearl St. and Hartnett St. into new housing.
Green said Manchester is already set to meet and exceed the goals set forth by the statewide Council on Housing Stability.
Terrio said he doesn’t think the crisis will be resolved until the city builds “hundreds and hundreds” of high-density small, affordable apartments.
Green said the current development projects being designed and applying for funding are a good first step.
Terrio also suggested the conditions in the shelters need to change in order for certain homeless people, such as cohabiting couples, to want to use the facilities.
The third phase of the proposed plan would focus on community awareness and engagement. This part involves the newly established Homeless Initiatives website and ways for the public to directly contact Green with their information and concerns via email at HOPE@manchesternh.gov and phone: (603) 792-3859.
The plan recommends creating a stakeholder group that includes three formerly homeless participants to facilitate and champion the city’s homeless initiatives, providing access to services through multiple online platforms, hosting quarterly town hall events and seminars to educate the public on homelessness, promoting community awareness of city-backed housing projects by adding the city logo on developments, and celebrating the city’s successes with annual proclamations.
You can read the full proposal below.