I love my downtown co-working space. It’s located on Elm Street at WBC Office Suites, and the building owners just completed work on the third floor, adding more spaces for businesses to set up shop, as well as other amenities.
Right next door to the entrance is a vacant storefront where Karma Hookah Lounge used to be. The space, at 1077 Elm St., is advertised as available by Kanteres Real Estate, 1,434 square feet for $2,400 monthly rent.
I’ve noticed that since October the sidewalk and empty storefront vestibule at Karma have become a permanent home for a group of the city’s otherwise homeless.
When I pulled up for a meeting at the office yesterday I noticed a man and woman tucked under a yellow blanket sharing a bowl of Cheerios – he was holding the box as they took turns with the cereal. My parking spot right out front had a clear view of their worldly possessions – a shopping cart loaded with sleeping bags and clothing, a couple of bicycles, one with a cart attached to the back for hauling things, a trash bag full of probably more clothing.
And encircling their sidewalk living space were a number of items – half a gallon of milk, an apple, plastic beverage containers in various stages of empty, a book, a big suitcase, a coffee mug, some toys and a cardboard sign with some money pots, asking for the public’s help.
As I set my automatic parking gadget for two hours, I watched a patron exit The Gyro Spot, food in hand, as he headed for his car. He turned around after one of the two under the blanket said something to get his attention. The Gyro Spot guy shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a couple of dollar bills, walking back to hand one to each. A third resident of the sidewalk, an older-looking gent with a big white beard, had just arrived on a bike, and it looked like the man from the Gyro Spot was apologizing for only having two spare bills.
Gyro Spot guy got into his car, which was parked next to mine, so I decided to tap on his window before he pulled away and ask him what he made of the homeless camp on Elm Street.
“It’s not a good look for the city. But I had a few extra bucks. I feel bad for anyone living outside in this weather. What are you going to do?” the Gyro Spot guy told me.
I wasn’t judging him for giving up two bucks. It looked like a gesture from the heart, and yet, the city has warned us that when we give money to those asking for it, we’re adding to the problem.
I have been thinking about these particular people a lot over the past few months, and I’ve talked with them a few times. I know that I’ve never seen so many street people before in the city’s downtown. I know that while we do have a homeless shelter just a few blocks away on Manchester Street, New Horizons for the Homeless is not for everyone. Some of the homeless people I’ve asked about it say they would rather sleep outside based on the conditions and restrictions, and “sketchy” caliber of some who fill the cots.
I also know that the city’s downtown is where all the relevant services are clustered for those who are struggling with homelessness, addiction or other desperate situations. The shelter’s soup kitchen provides a hot meal and food pantry, as does the 1269 Cafe on Tuesdays. Healthcare for the Homeless has an office on Manchester Street. The city’s Central Fire Station is the busiest for Safe Station intakes, and it serves anyone who walks through the door. Earlier this year the city made a plea for more funding from the state to compensate for the hundreds of people who come from someplace else for help at Safe Station, on Manchester’s dime.
Of those people, I have no idea how many actually make it to the other side of addiction, or just return to street life and adopt our city as their new home since there are at least some services here.
As far a I know, there is no welcoming place for homeless people to go to warm up save for the public library and 1269 Cafe’s limited weekly lunch hour and Sunday church service. Those residing at the shelter can stay for breakfast, and anyone hungry can eat dinner at the soup kitchen.
I have raised the issue of what to do – really do – about the visibly and chronically homeless with anyone who will talk to me about it.
Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines operates Mint Bistro, just a few storefronts away on Elm Street. He is trying to help because he’s acutely aware of the growing problem – he says by his estimation it is currently considered the No. 1 issue plaguing the city as far as his downtown constituents are concerned.
“It’s a delicate issue,” says Baines. “We want to first and foremost get people into a safer situation than living on the streets. Their health and wellbeing should be at the forefront. But the other part of it is to consider what’s fair to people making investments in the downtown.”
He acknowledges part of what makes it a delicate situation is the ensuing debate over a person’s civil rights. The last thing Manchester wants is to be sued again for violating someone’s right to live free.
But I have to wonder who protects the rights of business owners? Who’s thinking about my right to walk on Elm Street without having to feel like a schmuck for ignoring a homeless person’s cardboard plea for spare change?
It also troubles me to hear from business owners in the downtown faced with cleaning up urine and feces left behind on their office doorstep, or in the alleys behind their buildings.
All of this led me to wonder how our city could do better for everyone’s sake. Surely there must be a city somewhere that has figured it out.
It took some digging.
I learned that in Austin, TX, some ordinances recently enacted to address panhandling, urban camping and what they called the “no sit, no lie” law all were found to be violations of the rights of the homeless.
In Olympia, WA, a private security detail hired collectively by that city’s downtown business alliance was suspended after protestors, who felt the rights of the homeless were being violated, won the battle and had the patrol disbanded.
Then I found Downtown Tucson Partnership. It felt like I’d struck gold.
After a brief chat with Ashley La Russa, project manager for DTP, I learned the initiative launched in 2016 as part of that city’s five-year plan to solve some of its chronic issues. It’s so innovative that it was just honored with a Pinnacle Award by the International Downtown Association “as among the most creative and inspiring innovations in urban development worldwide.”
What makes it so unique?
It is administered under the umbrella of a city entity that is much like our Intown Manchester – only on steroids. DTP is tasked with beautification of the downtown, planning community events, and supporting the downtown business district. As a 501(c)(6), it has developed strategic partnerships for funding and execution of a plan that includes a team of unarmed Security Ambassadors who patrol the downtown decked out in bright purple shirts for visibility, providing a strong visual deterrent to criminal behavior.
The Security Ambassadors have intervened in situations that range from actual life-saving – like the time they pushed a stranded car off the railroad tracks within a minute of the train’s arrival – to detaining someone behaving badly until police arrive. They also will walk late-shift employees to their cars, and communicate directly with business owners and city officials to address specific needs.
Even more innovative, the DTP Mobile Service Unit which, in partnership with a community service provider, uses golf carts go to where the homeless people are and, individually, try to figure out what they need to get off the streets.
According to the DTP website, within the first three months the mobile unit helped 84 people find permanent housing, and the homeless street population was reduced by 96 percent in one of the city’s most concentrated trouble spots. The one-on-one efforts and outreach also reduced sanitation calls for human waste by 92 percent, and security calls for violence and drug use by 96 percent.
Tucson estimates that providing services to their chronically homeless costs somewhere between $65-100,000 annually – just in medical and incarceration expenses, straining resources that otherwise could be used toward actually helping house the homeless.
This is not a scheme to relocate the homeless to some other, less visible place in town, Ashley told me. DTP wants a diverse downtown that is welcoming to all, including the homeless, who they believe should be able to sit in a city park and drink a cup of coffee, just like you and me. Rather, it’s an actual plan that involves public/private partnerships to actually help people through direct outreach, reducing the number of people who are living in limbo, somewhere between the shadows and main street.
Asking what a person needs is the first step. Investing dollars and training in a team to make sure fewer people are slipping through cracks in the system is key.
The board that oversees this outreach is comprised of downtown property owners and businesses, non-profit leaders, members of city arts, cultural and historical organizations, neighborhood leaders, and those working with the primary partners – city and county officials, and major business heavy hitters, like Cox Communications, Southwest Gas and Unisource Energy. There are also advisory committees that have slots for members of the public to fill, bringing in voices from across the community.
I’ve reached out to the CEO of the program for more information. Ashley told me Kathleen Eriksen would love to bend my ear about DTP, but she’s got her hands full this week with last-minute preparation for Saturday’s annual Parade of Lights & Festival. I hope to find out more about how they executed the mobile service unit, from blueprint to reality.
I know something like this takes time and planning – and collaboration from some heavy hitters. But I sense there’s something here we can learn from.
Alderman Baines told me he’s thinking in overdrive on this problem, and actively seeking solutions, as are some of his fellow aldermen including Will Stewart, Dan O’Neil and Joe Levasseur. Baines has sat in on meetings with the mayor, the police chief, Families in Transition executives, city health officials and even the ACLU. There are some public meetings in the works.
“We’re waiting for a report from the ACLU with recommendations, and to be honest, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a meeting unless we have some concrete ideas and solutions on the table,” Baines said.
He mentioned that despite homelessness being a huge problem, it doesn’t seem to be slowing interest in downtown investment – new restaurants are opening, hotels are springing up, the Palace is investing in reviving the old Rex Theater and thousands more people will join the ranks of those choosing to live, work and play downtown, thanks to several independent apartment development projects.
“Many wrongly think it’s a law enforcement issue,” Baines said. “Our police department is enforcing the law as it’s currently written, and it will take an enormous effort to rally around this issue and come up with some happy medium, where we’re meeting the needs of these people living on the streets while making it comfortable for people to do business downtown.”
I love a good happy medium.
Baines also said he’s open to suggestions, so here’s mine: Plan a trip with a few fellow aldermen to Tuscon (I noticed Southwest has $337 round-trip fares from MHT), and find my new friends Ashley and Kathleen at the Downtown Tucson Partnership. They’d love to take you out on a golf cart to see the sights.
*If you have an idea, alternative suggestion or other solution, post it in the comments field below the story and I’ll be sure to pass them along.
Carol Robidoux is publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.