State-funded services shifting away from encampments to other locations as city hopes to draw homeless back to shelter

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Fire Chief Dan Goonan and Emergency Director Chris Hickey make the rounds at the encampment underneath the bridge on Canal Street last month. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH — Starting Friday, services currently being provided to four large homeless encampments across the city will end.

Fire Chief Dan Goonan said those services – portable toilets, handwashing stations and food delivery – will still be available to the homeless population but they will have to go to other locations to access them.

Stephanie Savard, chief operating officer of FIT/New Horizons, said the services are being located at other non-profit locations.  She declined to disclose the sites because she said there is only enough funding to cover the individuals located at the four encampments already provided services.

Last week, Mayor Joyce Craig said city and state officials, including state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, visited the encampments with an eye toward drawing down services.  From the beginning, the state provided the services and the funding as a way of preventing the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless, a vulnerable population.

A supply tent set up inside the encampment on Canal Street used by those camping under the bridge. Photo/Carol Robidoux

She said the situation was a temporary solution and now, everyone agreed, is the time to steer them back to the shelter, where it is safe and beds are available. Craig said the goal is to “get them the help they need.

In April, people fled the New Horizons shelter after two residents contracted COVID-19, according to Goonan.  One camp that sprang up was under the Amoskeag Bridge on Canal Street, across from the New Hampshire National Guard Armory. 

About two dozen people at the shelter were in contact with the infected individuals and needed to be quarantined.  Goonan said, however, it is difficult to quarantine people who are homeless and dealing with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.  About 8 to 12 people went into quarantine, but others refused.

“They just wouldn’t be quarantined,” he said.  Others left the shelter because, Goonan said, they thought it was cleaner to be outdoors than at the shelter.  They didn’t want to get infected.

A man who said he had recently become homeless tries setting up his tent underneath the bridge back in May. The man said he’d been a car salesmen but “nobody’s buying cars,” and his roommate developed mental health issues, so they lost their place. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Initially, there were about a dozen tents pitched at the Amoskeag Bridge site but that camp has now grown to 30 tents.  

The other three sites, where services are delivered, include encampments behind Firestone on Elm Street; behind MOMs (Motorcycles of Manchester) at 98 Willow St., and behind the Fisher Cats baseball park.

Providing services to the encampment did what it was supposed to do, Goonan said.

“It kept people in four large encampments across the city with services provided by the state,” Goonan said.

People complained about the setups and on social media, some were harshly critical, especially concerning the large encampment on Canal Street but Goonan said officials didn’t place the people there.  That was where they settled and, following CDC guidelines, the city and state did what they could in providing services to prevent a COVID-19 hotspot, as has happened to homeless population in other states.

“There’s a lot of people out armchair quarterbacking this thing, saying let’s not service them,” Goonan said.  “They’re yelling, ‘Get a job.’ 

A tent for bikes inside the homeless encampment on Canal Street. Services being provided there will be moved to another location and campers will be asked to go to the shelter starting June 26. Photo/Carol Robidoux

It’s sad to see because the people who are out there, for the most part, are out there for reasons that may be out of their control. They say substance use disorder, alcoholism is a choice but once you’re in that position you need help to get out of it.  There is so much persistent mental health problems out there, they’re not capable of keeping a job and not capable of being on their own.”

Craig said the services provided at the encampments were all paid for by the state; the city incurred no cost, she said.

The state is working on a plan to expand capacity at homeless shelters across the state.  Gov. Chris Sununu has earmarked $15 million from the CARES Act to increase the number of beds and meals that can be provided to the more than 1,000 residents of the state who are homeless or have insecure housing situations.

Prior to COVID-19 and continuing to this day, outreach teams in Manchester worked to identify all of the homeless in the city.

Goonan said they identified 60 camps across the city and 196 individuals by name who are in those camps or who are in the shelter. 

Goonan and Savard both said the number of homeless is a “moving target” because the population is transient.  There could be one camp with a half-dozen people one week and the next week no one is there or the same people turn up in a different location.

If the people in the camps opt not to leave the area, Savard said the outreach workers will still be going to the locations, hoping to build relationships with them and get them connected to needed services.  The bigger issue, she said, is the need for more shelter beds at and affordable housing.

Dubbed “Camp Live Free” by those staying there, a makeshift camp site under the Amoskeag Bridge. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Presently, FIT/New Horizons has 104 beds, down 34 since COVID-19 arrived because of the need for social distancing. Forty of the beds are in the former St. Casimir School building while another 17 are located at the former Angie’s Place on Union Street.  However, that facility is reserved for the homeless who must be quarantined.

There are currently 20 open beds at the shelter.

The St. Casimir building, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, is being purchased by the 1269 Café.  Savard said the FIT/New Horizons contract is up with the Diocese on Aug. 1 but she is hopeful that they will be able to continue using the space for the homeless to ensure proper social distancing.  What is really needed, she said, is supportive housing and affordable housing.

Craig said in the past incentives were offered to developers to build affordable housing but today there aren’t any.

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Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.