State homelessness study sounds alarm on homeless ‘tidal wave’ and racial disparities

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Fire Chief Dan Goonan and Fire/EMS Officer Chris Hickey do rounds at an encampment for the homeless under the Amoskeag Bridge on May 15, 2020. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – The number of homeless people was already growing fast before the pandemic, and now the problem has grown larger than we know, experts say. In Manchester alone, the count of unsheltered homeless has more than doubled from July 1, with about 170, to over 480 as of Nov. 30.

Last month, the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH) released its annual report on the state of homelessness. In addition to the point-in-time headcount they perform at the start of the year, the organization included data from a national database for the first time, which provides more detailed information about the individuals who don’t have a home, including demographic data which shows Black and Hispanic people represent a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population. [Read the full report below.]

NHCEH Director Stephanie Savard said the COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in exacerbating the homelessness situation in the state, but that other contributing factors had also led to a rising tide even before the pandemic hit our shores.

In January, the point-in-time study found that homelessness had grown by 21 percent (293 people) over 2019 with a total of 1,675 unsheltered people. 

“And that’s before the pandemic, which is almost sticker shock,” Savard said. “And we know the pandemic escalated that even more.”

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While Savard said she’s not aware of any significant economic shifts that could have sped-up the growth of homelessness prior to the pandemic, a lot of the contributing factors have been steadily adding to the problem, such as a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, high eviction rates and the number of people for whom rent represents more than half of their income.

“We were riding a wave of that perfect storm for many years. With the pandemic, we hit a tidal wave,” Savard said.

The Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a central database that kept track of all the homeless people service providers interacted with between July 1, 2019 and June 30, 2020 partially captured the early period of the pandemic. It counted 4,451 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people statewide.

Compared to Vermont’s 4,407, New Hampshire has a higher per capita rate of homeless people. But one of the bigger takeaways was how most of those people are not located in Manchester.

“A lot of people just assume that the majority of unsheltered homeless are in the city,” Savard said.

About 39 percent of the state’s overall homeless people (1,739 people) are in Manchester. Savard said about 60 percent of just the unsheltered homeless are similarly living outside of the state’s largest urban center.

She said the conventional logic has been that people gravitate to the city for the supportive services available there, but the data shows a lot of needs being left unmet by a majority of homeless people in rural areas.

The Dec. 17 report called for an investment in the state Affordable Housing Fund, citing a steady 1.8 percent vacancy rate for the past five years as evidence that we don’t have enough housing inventory. It also called for meeting the Bureau of Housing Support’s $9 million budget increase request, and supporting legislation proposed by the Governor’s Council on Housing Stability.

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A large encampment on the state-owned grounds of the Hillsborough County Superior Court North in Manchester. Those living there were evicted in November 2020 by state police. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

The Council finalized its recommendations on Dec. 11, which outlined a number of long- and short-term goals for bolstering support services and increasing housing availability. 

The state of homelessness report estimates that an investment in just under 600 supportive housing units would be enough to end chronic homelessness.

“While this may take a significant collaborative effort with housing developers, investors, social service providers, and communities in general, it is far from insurmountable, especially when compared to the larger numbers seen in other states,” the report says.

Savard said the data in the report does not show homeless figures from July to the present, but she has heard from providers in each region of the state that the problem has only grown. In all but one region, it has grown “significantly,” providers report. 

Since this is the first year the organization has used HMIS data in its report (Savard said it was less reliable in the past), we have no previous years to compare this to. But one of the most troubling findings was how the number of racial minorities suffering homelessness is outsized for their overall populations.

“What we found was that multiracial and Black African-Americans are four times more likely to be homeless than white in New Hampshire,” Savard said.

Multiracial and Black people represent 2.7 percent of the general population, but 10.2 percent of the homeless population. Similarly, Hispanic and Latinx people 2.8 percent of the general population but 10.2 percent of the homeless population.

The homeless rate of these minority groups per 10,000 population also far exceeds the national average, with 65.2 Black people in New Hampshire compared to 55.2, and 50.1 Hispanic people in the state compared to 21.7 nationwide.

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About 580 people out of the total homeless in New Hampshire have been identified in the HMIS database as being chronically homeless. This population is most resistant to taking advantage of services like shelters and mental health treatment, according to the report.

They’re usually the ones who tend to live in camps. 

Bill Rider, the chief psychiatrist at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester said the city’s collaborative homeless outreach efforts, which coalesced earlier this year during the pandemic, have concentrated its efforts on the camps. 

The number of camps in Manchester have fluctuated over the past several months. Between July and August, the camps grew in number from about 31 to 35, with a census count of about 263 individuals living in those camps. As of Nov. 30, the outreach teams have counted 32 camps and a total of 484 individuals, according to a monthly report provided by Rider. Of that, outreach teams have been unable to locate and speak with 319 of them in the previous 30 days.

“My sense is that the number of discrete camps has been reduced and consolidated into fewer camps,” Rider said.

However, more people are being sheltered than there were in July or August, he said. Three Families in Transitions shelters in the city have reported close to maximum capacity usage last month, and on Dec. 30 the main shelter on Manchester Street converted its food pantry space into sleeping quarters, increasing its beds from 68 to 110, or 190 between all three shelters. 

On Dec. 30, they had 124 guests, so there were still several beds available.

And in mid-December the city also approved using the former police station on Chestnut Street as a new shelter for about 50 people. 

Unfortunately, the past few months saw the tragic accidental deaths of three homeless people living in camps, Rider said. And one 18-year-old woman was found hypothermic by the outreach team in December and treated by emergency personnel. (Her age was not previously reported).

“If they hadn’t decided ‘let’s check out that pile of blankets’ … that might have been the fourth death,” Rider said.

Rider said it’s important to look at the homelessness issue square on in order for society to come to terms with it and solve it.

“As a society the gulf between those who have things and those who don’t have things isn’t something that we can slide away from. I think it needs to be in our face, and we also need to figure out solutions,” Rider said.

About this Author

Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.