O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
Alderman Will Stewart hosted an open forum regarding homelessness in Manchester Wednesday evening at the Currier. This issue has been, and continues to be, a particular problem for some time. As far as I have been able to tell, it will continue to be an issue regardless of the best intentions of our city and state officials.
At issue in this meeting was home break-ins, theft, and drug activity. Drug activity in particular has long been associated with homelessness. Such activity tends to ebb and flow as people have money or don’t.
Finding needles in parks, especially in areas near public schools, is something no one wants to have to go through. No one wants to see deals being made close to their house at all hours of the night, either. There’s little about drug activity that makes itself pleasant and palatable to the general population not involved in such.
However, starkly missing at the meeting was anyone who could confess to having been homeless and spent time in the shelter or couch surfing, as I had. The meeting was scheduled at 6 p.m., during which time the Families in Transition shelter opens for check-in at night. What is more, it was held across town, a long walking distance away from the shelter.
The chances of anyone getting a late pass to attend the meeting and still keep their spot in the shelter seem slim, at best.
Having been homeless in Manchester for two years, largely as a result of an undiagnosed disability, I’ve seen most of what community members, police officers, fire department officials, and city employees have seen. Camps on public land tend to sprawl out, often leaving trash in its wake. Trespassing and theft do happen. Drug activity is probably worse than anyone not involved in recovery can really guess.
Despite all that – and despite having two bicycles and a moped stolen from me – I still haven’t seen any reason to condemn Manchester’s homeless population as a whole. This population is about as diverse as any other. There are disabled individuals, like myself, as well as senior citizens, young people, working-class people trying to hold down a job, as well addicts and professional criminals.
At the meeting, I saw our homeless community painted as all one thing or another, rather than a diverse group of individuals. There are just as many mental health concerns as there are honest, hard-working folk fallen on hard times.
Part of this has to do with New Hampshire’s economy trending towards minimum wage and maximum rent- a combination that leaves workers with less discretionary income than before to support their favorite businesses. CNBC reported recently on Wal-Mart’s decreased profit forecast citing inflation and COVID-related activity as culprits.
Target, Kohl’s, Gap, Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Bath & Body Works have all issued similar forecasts, suggesting the average American consumer doesn’t have as much money to spend on leisure items as they used to.
An article published in June by WMUR warned of rising rents and home prices amid a “turbulent housing market.”
When rent rises, tenants have no choice but to pay a higher price while cutting back in other areas, or keep their money and become homeless.
Some indicators suggest people are spending more time in motor homes, whether as recreation or as a place to live. For example, Kampgrounds of America reported an all-time revenue in 2020, increasing by 33.2 percent. RV sales have gone up in some parts of the nation as well. For a rent-burdened individual, it may make more sense to live out of an RV with a consistent monthly loan payment rather than in an apartment where, at times, the rent amount may be decided at a whim.
Most homeless people I’ve met and gotten to know in my time were not able to buy an RV. Even when I did so myself, as an attempt to find somewhere to live, the experience was less than ideal. The RV was old and required a lot of repair. I found myself having to sell it off.
In December 2021, an RV fire claimed the life of one woman while totaling the vehicle. The fire started inside the vehicle. The victim was homeless at the time of her death.
She, and many others like her, had just been struggling to survive. There are plenty of people out there living out of their vehicles because they can’t afford anything else. Their wages, if they have raised at all, have likely not raised commensurate with rental prices. Nor can they afford to enter a bidding war for any house which may come available for sale.
These are the homeless people one doesn’t often hear about or see. They are largely people minding their own business, sleeping through the hottest hot days and the coldest cold days. They are people who are outside when the wind is gusting in below zero temperatures, just wondering if they can make it through the night.
While I believe criminal activity should be held to account, and the criminals who engage in such should be deterred from doing so again, I also believe that being homeless by itself should not be inferred to mean criminality. In some instances at the public hearing I attended, there wasn’t much evidence presented that a homeless person had engaged in the theft, break-in, or other behavior.
When my moped was stolen, I was unable to locate the individual responsible for the theft. All the repair costs fell to me. I did find the person who had bought the vehicle, expecting they would own it themselves. I decided not to press charges for felony possession of stolen goods because, in my mind, doing so would ruin that person’s life.
Rather than trying to criminalize aspects of homelessness to the point where a police report is generated for any suspicious activity in the area – such as people talking walks in the middle of the night – I believe a compassionate approach would work better. I was once in the place they are now. I know how difficult it is, how many temptations there are, how desperate people get to feel good in the moment.
Through all of it, empathy and understanding have always worked better than punitive punishment. Hold criminals responsible for their behavior, yes, but also remember that many homeless people will never be someone who would make homeowners lock their doors at night. If someone does steal cushions off a front porch, as was mentioned at the meeting, it could be because they have a sore neck and want at least a little comfort when they sleep.
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