The Soapbox: Activists and participants call shelter policies into question

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The Soapbox

Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

Hello again. In what probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, I’m writing about Families in Transition specifically and homelessness in general. While I have spent a great deal of time gathering information on both topics, I must caution readers that, until finding my own apartment this month, I had been homeless off and on for two and a half years. I’ve stayed at the shelter for three different stretches of time. 

While I would like to claim to be unbiased, the caveat of this article is: I may not be. I’ve lived among homeless people and seen what it does to people. I’ve slept at the shelter, and was fortunate enough to come out the other end in a better situation than when I started. In my case, Families in Transition has been good for me.

At the same time, though, I have also borne witness to times when this was not the case, as have other housing and homeless rights activists in Manchester. I’ve participated in many of these groups, and gotten to know the people involved. As a result, I’ve gained a variety of different perspectives on how housing and homelessness really works in our city.

From an outside perspective, it may seem silly to voice any word of complaint about getting free meals, free housing, free toiletries, free access to clean water and electricity. All of those amenities Families in Transition does provide. However, many of their other practices have been called into question of late.

Such questions came into focus during October 19th’s session of the Board of Mayor and Alderman, Manchester Housing Alliance member Brandon LeMay went before the Board and the Mayor to report on conditions at the New Horizons shelter on 199 Manchester St.
His statement includes the following:

“Residents are requesting more blankets and towels, there are not enough for the number residents.

After being told there wasn’t enough of a budget for extra pillows, they put up a gate that can easily be unlocked from the outside that serves no functional purpose.

Residents demand that the bed bug infestation currently ongoing in the shelter be remediated in accordance with NH state law.

The facilities in the men’s shower room have been damaged for quite some time, to the point where there is only one working shower for all of the men in the building, despite very limited available times for using this only shower.

The only lift available for people with disabilities has been broken since late September. Residents were told it won’t even be looked at until October 20th, and may require rebuilding, from parts that would come from Canada. Due to a needless delay in switching beds, a man with one leg was forced to literally crawl up the bed-bug infested stairwell for days just to get to his bed on the upper level. He then still had to do so after the bed change just to get a shower. A woman in a wheelchair has been placed on a broken cot in the dining area since she cannot access the dorm upstairs, despite the constant overnight noise in this section of the building.”

Long-time participants at the shelter have known for some time the shelter’s policies are less than ideal. There are people who choose to sleep in tents, sometimes in the park, over what they view are deficiencies in the shelter’s policies.

Despite being out in the open where police can displace a tent or an encampment at any time, some members of Manchester’s chronically homeless population would rather avoid the shelter altogether. Efforts to bring them inside where they can seek case management services, among other things, have not always proven successful.

At times, the shelter may have beds available. At other times, the shelter may be at capacity. Repeated sweeps by city and state police have limited the number of places a person can spend the night when the shelter is at capacity. 

Participants of the shelter program who stay in the hospital for an extended period, such as for emergency surgery, may come back to find their bed given away to someone else who needed it.

Samantha Colby, a current shelter participant, says she has encountered difficulties similar to what LeMay and other activists have described.

“I’ve been back at the New Horizons shelter,” Colby said. “It’s been like this off and on for a couple of years. Having a disability, it’s an invisible one. I have Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Once she confided in staff about her condition, “the mean comments to her” started coming. Colby reports being bullied and made fun of on a daily basis by other participants.

“They change the rules almost every day here, it feels like,” Colby continued. “It really does seem like the body count is more important than helping the people here. There’s a lot of them [staff] who can say harmful things that make it feel even more hopeless. I don’t want to feel hopeless anymore.”

Families in Transition does make disability exemptions within the framework of their own rules – despite the fact their reputation is one of ignoring doctor’s notices to the detriment of a participant’s health. An exemption may be granted after meeting with the shelter director, Rebecca Picardo, and presenting document evidence of the disability in question. While the building does not have an elevator, their lift is normally in operation.

I can speak on the disability exemption, having received one myself. I have documented medical evidence stating I need more rest than the average person – that’s as far as I’ll go into my disability for now. FIT was more than accommodating for me when I sought an exemption in order to take care of my medical needs.

Prior to this, I volunteered on a cleaning crew in order to earn extra sleeping privileges – something other participants do as well. 

Photo/Winter Trabex

However, with that being said, New Horizons’ staff receives a minimum of training on how to administer Narcan. Ambulances and fire trucks are a common sight at the shelter, almost on a daily basis. A homeless person getting back to the shelter from the hospital may experience difficulty doing so, as both Elliot and CMC are a long walking distance away. While both are close to a bus route, participants in the shelter often aren’t familiar with MTA’s route schedule in order to know the number 9 bus passes Elliot and the number 6 bus passes by CMC.

Activists like LeMay, many of whom prefer to remain anonymous, have sent a list of grievances to Families in Transition. These grievances highlight concerns over broken showers, a lack of towels and pillows, the shelter’s refusal to take anyone who shows up after 7 PM (even if there are open beds available), high turnover of staff, and what they call “abuses and tortures” of shelter participants.

Kyle Chumas, Director of Marketing and Communications for Families in Transition, provided the following response:

“Families in Transition has received the letter and is taking the allegations very seriously. Our board and our staff are reviewing each claim to get as much detail as possible.

We will report our findings to the mayor and board of alderman, as has been requested by the Mayor.

Lastly, we are gravely concerned about the ‘threat of force’ cited in this unsigned and unnamed letter, so we have also shared the letter with local authorities.”

The threat of force mentioned by Chumas occurs towards the end of the document, wherein activists write,

“Change is going to come to this shelter, and it is going to come now. You can be heroes by joining with us and helping to make that happen. We are giving you that chance, and we are hoping that you will take it. But make no mistake: If you do not agree to make these changes by choice, then we will do everything in our power to make it happen by force. We are many, we are strong, we are loud, we are angry, and we…have…had…enough!”

The activists involved in composing this statement later clarified their position to suggest that anyone with a grievance against Families in Transition or New Horizons should engage in peaceful protest and/or file whatever lawsuits may be deemed necessary. They advise against the use of violence as a means of effecting change; rather, they are seeking policy changes through any peaceful means possible.

Of late, New Horizons has seen a great deal of turnover among its staff. At least four documented cases of staff being fired or resigning have occurred within the last week. Still more are the employees who worked at the shelter and have since found other work.

One former staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, came forward to talk about how things have been going for both staff and participants at the shelter. They have since become an activist and supporter of Manchester’s homeless population. The picture they paint suggests dysfunction and frustration.

“They’ve had a lot of turnover,” the activist said. “It’s impossible to work in a place like that with the managers forcing you to be cruel when you’re a kind person.”

The cruelty he speaks of has to do with sleep deprivation, denial of resources, and various forms of targeted harassment. FIT has recently been trying to clear the sidewalk of homeless people in front of its property, where such people would sit during the day, listen to music, sleep, and talk amongst one another.

Staff members, according to them, are regularly asked to perform actions and follow procedures do not seem right in the moment. This has been known to cause undue stress and a difficult work environment. Additionally, high turnover has also led to New Horizon being understaffed- especially during times when high-risk individuals, such as those with active substance use disorders- would seek to utilize the shelter.

More significantly, he mentioned several instances where participants had to choose between keeping their jobs and keeping their shelter. Some folk chose to quit their jobs because they could not obtain the work passes they needed. Others chose to continue working, but to sleep outside in tents.

While there are accommodations for Manchester’s working homeless, these accommodations have been experienced unevenly to the point where couch surfing is preferable for some individuals rather than utilizing the shelter.

At other times, though the shelter claims there are always beds open, they often turn people away on cold nights because they are at capacity. As of this writing, no plan has yet been announced for sheltering Manchester’s homeless population during very cold nights. No overflow shelters have been assigned or expropriated.

Brandon LeMay summarized the New Horizons shelter by saying, “It’s a huge cash grab with abysmal results. The system works as if it was designed by people who have never been homeless. I’d prefer a system where individuals get private sleeping rooms and fewer regulations on check-ins, meal times, and showering.”

Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Thoughtful prose on topics of general interest are welcome for consideration. Send to, subject line: The Soapbox.


About this Author


Winter Trabex

Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester and regular contributor to Community Voices.