Mayors convene with state officials, relay ‘eye-opening’ challenges of homelessness and need for statewide action

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Mayors from around the state convened Friday in Concord to discuss their common challenges with homelessness. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

MANCHESTER, NH – A meeting held last week between several New Hampshire mayors and state government officials was an important step toward progress in the homelessness crisis, said Mayor Joyce Craig.

“I’m grateful that the meeting occurred and I think it was eye-opening for the state to hear directly from the mayors, and what we are encountering in our communities,” Craig said of the Jan. 20 meeting with DHHS interim commissioner Lori Weaver and others in Concord.

Following the meeting Weaver released the following statement:

“I want to thank everyone who attended today’s meeting for their candor and contributions to the discussion. Mayors and municipal officials shared their experiences and perspectives on the issue within their communities, what is working, what is not, and what they need. While the issue is longstanding, it is clear that the number of people who require housing assistance and behavioral health services has grown has increased over the past few years. Homelessness is a complex issue that requires complex solutions. Today’s meeting was productive, and all agreed that we need to continue coming together and expanding the voices at the table if we are to be successful in developing collaborative solutions to the issue.”

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig. File Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Craig said that while mayors in attendance from every corner of the state govern over very different communities, all who gathered around the table reported dealing with identical challenges.

“We are all seeing the same things – more individuals living outside, more active encampments, not enough shelter beds statewide and the need to collaborate – or the desire to collaborate – with the state and the county and our non-profit partners to address the needs in all our communities,” Craig said.

She called Friday’s meeting an “important” and encouraging first step.

She described the meeting, which was closed to the media, as a “candid conversation” that she felt was particularly revealing to state officials in attendance. In addition to Weaver, NH officials included Chris Santaniello, Director of NH Division of Economic & Housing Stability; Ann Landry, Associate Commissioner of Population Health;  Katje Fox, Director of Behavioral Health Services; and Melissa Hatfield, Chief of the Bureau of Housing Supports.

Sununu was not in attendance.

Interim DHHS Commissioner Lori Weaver, left, with Gov. Chris Sununu during the Jan. 18 Executive Council meeting where the state granted Manchester permission to use the state-owned Tirrell House as a shelter for women. Photo/Paula Tracy

City Health Director Anna Thomas accompanied Craig to the meeting and at one point, asked the state what its surge plan is, Craig said.

“We’ve enacted our emergency operations in Manchester as of January 3, and so what Anna wanted to know was what is the threshold at the state for an emergency? We need to be able to know that,” Craig said.

The meeting was called after several mayors, including Craig, signed a joint letter to the governor on Jan. 3 calling for emergency action to address statewide homelessness. 

In the letter, the mayors said there was an urgent need for affordable and supportive housing at a time of year in the state when homelessness has reached “a tipping point.” The mayors also laid our four action items – an immediate increase in the number of emergency shelter beds statewide and a call for National Guardsmen to serve as supplemental staff at shelters;  additional shelter space for women; medical respite care for those released from hospitals without a place to go; and additional resources for homeless youth.

In his response to the letter, Sununu pushed back on the requests and made note of the financial resources the state has already invested in issues related to homelessness and housing of late. He put the onus on the state’s three Continuums of Care (CoC) – in Manchester, Nashua and for the “balance of the state” – as the entities responsible for oversight and strategic planning of state and federal money.

Craig said while the governor’s focus on fund management by CoCs is fair and necessary, without a statewide strategic plan there can be no cohesive planning. She also noted that the state’s investment to shelters did not add any capacity over and above last year – it was sufficient to fill the funding gaps so shelters could stay open at current capacity.

When it comes to homelessness, the state as a whole must have equitable resources, Craig said. Otherwise, not only is there redundancy in spending and services but people who are unable to get the help they need where they live will continue to flock to the largest cities as they are doing now. 

“One of the major things we all are worried about is the end of the emergency rental assistance program and individuals living in hotels, which is happening in April and May.  Many of us wanted to know what the state’s plan is,” Craig said. “There were not a lot of answers but there was a lot of listening, which is good. We had an open and honest dialogue so the state can understand the urgency and what’s happening in our local communities. Now they need to digest all of that, and we are hopeful there will be a follow-up meeting.”  

Craig said it seemed clear that increased scrutiny and transparency is needed around funding of non-profit agencies providing services, often to several communities simultaneously across the state. Right now there is no working system of tracking the money or services at the state level. 

“We would like to have a better understanding of who the state is funding in our community, a sentiment expressed by other mayors and their representatives on Friday,” Craig said. “The state funds non-profits directly so we don’t really know who’s getting what.” 

Concord Mayor Jim Bouley brought up the issue of overlap in funding that results in a lack of a state-operated reporting system. “He said he has non-profits coming to the city asking for money only to realize they’ve also gotten money from the state. Understanding where systems are breaking down and having increased transparency would serve not only local governments and agencies but our residents as well,” Craig said. 

Three-legged stool approach

Keene Mayor George Hansel.

Keene Mayor George Hansel, who also attended the meeting, said that while homelessness is widespread, it is particularly prevalent in Manchester and Keene. In both instances, there are not a lot of resources outside city limits, which means the problems associated with homelessness become concentrated. 

“The issue here is the density and services are being disproportionately affected. Part of the job is to make sure everyone understands what’s happening on the ground in these cities. If you can’t get the high-level recognition, it’s hard to solve,” Hansel said.

In Sununu’s written response to the mayors, he bristled at what he termed the “tone and misleading content” of the letter and labeled it as unnecessarily political. Hansel doesn’t disagree with Sununu.

“It’s a delicate situation, with homelessness. There’s a lot of frustration. There is a human element that is very sad, difficult and frustrating. It’s important going forward we avoid politics and fingerpointing – that won’t get us anywhere or serve the residents of New Hampshire who are struggling,” Hansel said.

He said what’s needed is a “three-legged stool approach,” state, municipalities and community partners – including social service agencies – if there is to be meaningful progress in reducing New Hampshire’s homeless population. 

“What’s happening now is that what we’re all doing individually is not taking care of the deeper problems,” Hansel said.

Looking at statutory requirements and communicating across city and town lines in collaboration with the state and partner agencies could help identify where there is capacity, and where it can be flexed. 

He also is optimistic that pending legislation could be passed around welfare reform and perhaps codify changes allowing cities like Keene or Manchester to hold surrounding towns responsible for their financial stake in services provided to citizens from outside their city limits. He noted that Sen. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, has introduced SB110, which establishes further residency requirements for the statewide emergency shelter program.

Hansel regards Friday’s meeting as a good start and hopes it has created a foundation to build on. It will require collaboration to untangle some of the more complicated aspects of chronic homelessness and the state’s lack of capacity.

“In Keene we have an increased number of people finding themselves unhoused and we also have people who just don’t want to engage in the system – they want to live outside or want the freedom to live their lives outside of the shelter system or social services and housing that’s available,” Hansel said. 

“And that’s really difficult because people see that and ask me why aren’t we doing anything for them. The answer is we are; we’re doing all we can. We have lots of outreach workers in the city of Keene who are keeping in touch, trying to coordinate and bring resources to the folks that need them and who keep rejecting them,” Hansel said. “What we have to do is figure out a different approach, and that’s tough.” 

He said he recently learned from the Cheshire County Jail warden that an average of six people per week are routinely dropped off in the center of the city, upon release.

“They give them their shoelaces back and the county sheriff drives them into the center of Keene and pushes them out of the car and basically says ‘good luck.’ That’s in Keene – I can’t imagine how many people that is happening to in Manchester. And those are our support services? Those are people transitioning out of an institutional setting that you’re just dropping off in Keene and leaving to their own devices,” Hansel said. “And then we wonder why we have people who can’t get it together or find stable housing or services needed to get back on their feet?”

Cheshire County House of Correction is releasing an average of six people per week into downtown Keene, says Keene Mayor George Hansel.

He would like to see the county government develop more robust support for those exiting the correctional system. 

“With all the millions [the counties] got as part of COVID funding you’re telling me out of all the priorities they couldn’t come up with more robust supports to help people ease back into society? You have these people coming out of jail and you’re plopping them in the middle of the city. They’re coming from a place where they were getting medical care, mental health supports and as soon as they’re released, it’s gone.” 

Like Craig, Hansel also is aware that the current emergency system of putting people up in hotels is going to run out of funding in the next few months, and so other forms of transitional housing must be identified in a hurry.

Shelters are not supposed to be permanent situations for anyone, he says.

“The shelter system is expensive, inefficient and not a solution. We need to move people into permanent housing by creating incentives. Ultimately you want everyone in a secure and permanent home, not in an emergency bed,” Hansel said.

He said he did a quick calculation after speaking with Mayor Deaglan McEachern of Portsmouth, who mentioned that the budget for one of his non-profits was $2.2 million for 100 beds. 

“That’s 1,800 bucks a bunk per month. You’ve gotta believe we can come up with a better solution, where people can be comfortable and get the services they need,” Hansel said. 

From his point of view, there are two main areas of focus: systemic change that can lead to prevention of more homelessness; and understanding why more people than ever before are opting to live outdoors. 

“We have to address both of those things. I think the will is there, and the conversations happening now should help get us there,” he said.  “The amount of money we’ve spent on hotel rooms is ridiculous – it’s obscene – and I can’t help but think about what if we’d been able to put those funds toward something more permanent, what could have been achieved,” Hansel said. 

The complexities of the situation can’t be underestimated. The state’s lack of housing was known prior to COVID, says Hansel, and it’s only gotten worse. There are local zoning issues and communities that want different solutions. Without a statewide perspective, “it’s like digging a trench with a spoon, and that’s not going to cut it,” Hansel said.


 

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carol-robidoux

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!