The Soapbox: Board of Mayor and Aldermen ill-equipped to deal with homelessness crisis

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

As someone who was homeless myself – three years ago –  I have a unique understanding of the homelessness crisis that our Board of Mayor and Aldermen don’t have. Since I worked remotely before moving up to New Hampshire in February 2016, I was able to continue working while I stayed at the New Horizons shelter at 199 Manchester Street.

My job didn’t pay enough to make a living. Clients were often late with payments, causing me to be late with rent even if the work was turned in on time. My experience with homelessness began after a week-long stay at a mental health care facility. Upon returning, I was evicted.

While I was homeless, I noticed rents rise all out of proportion such that, even if I continued in my previous line of work, I would no longer be able to afford a single-bedroom apartment. In all the diatribe and blame-giving and frustration and anger, I can’t recall a single instance in the last four years when Manchester’s Board of Mayor and Alderman took seriously the threat posed by landlords continually raising rents, some of which comes at the expense of renters who use rental vouchers to pay their way.

A disabled person and/or a senior citizen on a fixed income has no recourse but to try going back to work or becoming homeless if they can’t afford the rent. Apartments have increasingly become luxury items, regardless of whether they are in old, decaying buildings or brand new structures. Only those with high incomes can afford them. Those most at risk for homelessness cannot afford them.

While there is, and always will be, a prevalence of drug use among the homeless community, there are also people who find themselves in a shelter because they can’t afford to live in today’s economy. Nor can their families, many of whom are just scraping by themselves. Mutual aid for renters becomes difficult when no one has discretionary income.

Added to that, New Hampshire is a state where job opportunities often exist in other towns a considerable drive away. This was always the case whenever I went to temp agencies looking for work. I was always invited to accept a job in a far-flung town I’d never heard of. Taking the job meant having a car. Having a car meant having a well-paying job that let me afford yearly maintenance, gasoline, and registration fees for it.

Many of those who are homeless don’t have a car, or if they have one, are living in it. Those without a car cannot access the far-flung towns with their well-paying jobs, much less a job in a different part of town that might represent an hour’s walk each way- something that proves difficult for a senior citizen with mobility issues.

The same tired refrain of “why don’t they just get a job,” from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the State Government is the wrong question. The question ought to be: “Why can’t minimum wage workers afford a single-bedroom apartment in the town where they live?”

This is to say nothing of owning a house of one’s own, a goal that has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for people of my generation and younger to realize.

Those who live in a car, as I lived for a month in my own motor home, don’t have access to showers, central heating, and might have to survive on dry food. I survived by burning through can after can of natural gas from Wal-Mart, each of which would burn for four to five hours in a portable Buddy Heater. I set it to go off when I slept, and woke up in the extreme cold of below-freezing temperatures of February. Huddled under a pile of blankets was enough to keep most of my body warm, but my breath streamed out in front of me while the thermometer read: too cold to exist today.

During my time being homeless, I was able to secure a job due to the public bus system. The public transit system in Manchester, in my own experience, is insufficient for the needs of the town’s working-class people as a means of going back and forth to work. If one wants to go to the mall, or a shopping district, or either of the town’s two hospitals, the Manchester Transit Authority will get you there.

If, however, you wanted to go out to the warehouse district in Londonderry where many people work, that challenge is a bit harder – as I found out personally. While I was homeless, I worked during the day at whatever job I could find and worked remotely in my spare time – in addition to helping clean the shelter in exchange for being allowed to sleep in and stay up late.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen, which recently came down on Manchester Director of Housing Stability Adrienne Beloin might ask our city’s homeless population why they can’t do what I did, try to find work wherever it’s available, no matter what it is. That’s been their prevailing attitude for years. It’s one that misses the point entirely.

Putting barriers in place to gaining work, such as a long bus commute, or jobs available out of town, causes homeless people to not have jobs. Another barrier that’s seldom mentioned: employers want people to have cars. Given that the town’s only car donation program – Good News Garage – isn’t actively going to shelters to find qualified individuals, this barrier isn’t likely to be removed anytime soon.

Shelters also have pesky things called curfews, which force workers into a first-shift work schedule, regardless of what’s actually available. For example: someone seeking work at a fast food restaurant would have to turn the job down if they are told the only availability is at closing time. Homeless individuals may find it difficult to seek second- or third-shift work, given that the expected norm of shelters is for its clients to be awake during the day and asleep at night.

What’s even worse: those who have a job and find themselves with nowhere to go due to the greed of landlords, which happened to a couple living on Dubuque Street, have to get with a case manager in advance of being admitted to the shelter so they can arrange schedule exemptions to keep working. This was something I witnessed in person several times: those who seek shelter either have to give up their job or sleep outdoors while still working.

For people trying to survive through cold temperatures, the choice most often is to give up one’s job.

People living at shelters also aren’t allowed to attend a Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting itself for the purpose of offering public comment. This, in the case of New Horizons, requires caseworker approval, which isn’t easily given. The last time I witnessed a group of folks trying to come down to a meeting, caseworker requests were bounced off from person to person in the Families in Transition organization until it became clear that permission would not be granted.

Some members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen have been around so long that they ought to remember these incidents. They ought to remember all the times activists in the city tried to reach out to them looking for more equitable solutions. If this week’s meeting with Director Beloin is any indication, they don’t remember at all.

The state government under Governor Sununu has been either dismissive of homelessness concerns or openly hostile to them. When faced with an encampment on state property at the courthouse- which was admittedly a mess of tents, clothing, wandering individuals, and outreach workers offering gallons of coffee from Dunkin Donuts- Sununu’s government chose to sweep the camp, and erect fencing around a park bench. All the while, the governor blamed everyone except his own administration for failures in building affordable housing in the state to allieviate the very camp he had swept.

Recently, the state legislature took it upon themselves to make it easier for landlords to evict their tenants which would increase the state’s homeless population even further. Giving landlords – who are already part of the problem – carte blanche to do even more of whatever they please will only lead to more encampments and, in turn, more municipal and state money being spent trying to address the crisis.

The state has not even attempted to experiment with renter protections, such as those passed into law in Minnesota which include expungement of eviction records after three years, a mandatory minimum temperature setting in apartments of sixty-eight degrees, and fourteen days notice from a landlord before filing an eviction.

The state of New Hampshire does not provide publicly-funded defense attorneys to handle eviction cases, which was done in San Francisco and New York in 2021. A trial program to determine its possible efficacy has not even been attempted; instead, tenants are left on their own to defend themselves against well-paid, experienced attorneys who may show up for an extended court session representing different clients in multiple cases.

The state has never really gotten serious about building affordable housing, but has instead inched towards that goal a little at a time as if to show they are trying. Unlike Vienna, whose social housing model has made it “the world’s most liveable city,” the state of New Hampshire prefers to attract retirees from other states to buy up expensive homes while largely disregarding its poorer citizens.

While studying the Seacoast population, Yahoo! News reporter Angeljean Chiaramida wrote that “New Hampshire has the second oldest population in the nation,” because:

“In Seacoast communities, median age levels are even higher than the state average. One reason could be that coastal real estate is usually priced beyond the wallets of young families, often selling to older adults in their high-earning years or to those moving here to retire.

Another reason could be the tendency of local planning boards to welcome 55-plus residential subdivisions while frowning on those that foster young families in hopes of not increasing student populations. The belief was fewer students would keep school budgets from rising, and that older adults had minimal impact on town services.”

In Manchester, there’s a prevailing tendency to send the city’s homeless population anywhere else. This was the case when the city forged a contract with GateHouse Treatment in Nashua only to have the contract terminated by GateHouse themselves.

Previously, Manchester’s fire departments operated a program called Safe Station, which would allow drug users to seek help and treatment. The program cost the city very little, and served people from all walks of life. Those who sought help at their local fire station could receive a ride to a rehab clinic for treatment.

In October 2021, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen closed the program, instead directing people to call 211. In addition, a needle exchange program, which previously used to operate out of Veteran’s Memorial Park, was forced to move elsewhere.

The state’s health department has, at times, taken it upon themselves to prevent citizens from feeding the homeless  I was there for some of the comments citizens made to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Those who have been around long enough should remember the difficulty experienced by people who wanted to use their own time, energy, and money to feed others instead of using up the city’s or state’s money to do so.

For an organization that dislikes spending money on social services, they should at least be doing all they can to encourage alternatives that don’t cost the city anything. However, this is not the stance they’ve taken. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen, largely led by vitriolic Chairman Joe Kelly Levasseur, has made it their mission to make life as difficult as possible for the city’s homeless population.

This was the case during the previous mayoral administration under Joyce Craig, whose efforts saw sweep after sweep after sweep of homeless encampments, which did nothing to discourage homeless encampments themselves, but only made it more difficult for homeless individuals to find any kind of stability- despite the fact they were sleeping outdoors.

Now, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in Manchester find themselves with a problem of their own making: after years of actively trying to make things more difficult for homeless people, they find themselves at an impasse where they are dissatisfied with the Beech Street shelter. People accessing the engagement center aren’t using it to seek out work, they allege. Living in their expensive homes, far removed from the reality of living on the street, they just don’t understand.

Being homeless means learning how to live with defeatism. It’s learning how to live with opportunities denied, situations worsened, and difficulties enlarged. It’s learning to eat food one might otherwise not choose. It’s learning how to deal with sleepless nights as people who should be asleep in the shelters at night find themselves up at all hours, often noisily so. It’s learning how to live with less than what one needs to survive. It’s learning how to wait at different intervals while shelters are closed for cleaning. It’s learning how to go without a shower when the shelter’s showers break down and can’t be used.

The members of the Board of Mayor of Aldermen have never experienced this lifestyle. They have no basis of comparison to judge for themselves what being homeless is like. They don’t know the enormous effort it takes to get out of the shelter system, particularly when vocational opportunities are scarce or unavailable.

They are, in other words, an inappropriate body to weigh in on anything regarding homelessness. Nor is the state government, as currently constituted, prepared to take on the challenge. It’s going to take a serious effort by another group of people, unaffiliated with any state or local New Hampshire government, to tackle our persistent homelessness crisis.

I can only hope that, when such a group does arise, they are not given citations to cease activity that state and local governments are unwilling to do.

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About this Author

Winter Trabex

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