The state’s 211NH helpline ringing with calls for shelter beds that are few and far between

Sign Up For Our FREE Daily eNews!

A man holds a sign at the Hillsborough County Courthouse where homeless people have been living in tents. Photo/Stacy Harrison

MANCHESTER, NH – Since Friday New Horizons has had to turn away 10 people who came seeking shelter from the cold.

Beds are full.

On Monday the NH211 census showed a total of only 9 beds available in the state – five for women, and one “wet” shelter bed meaning anyone actively using drugs or alcohol can’t stay. The beds were in Keene, Plymouth and Laconia, which might make it tough for someone homeless in Nashua or Manchester. If they’re already receiving mental health or addiction services in those places, relocating might not be an option, says Patrick Tufts, President and CEO of Granite United Way, which runs the referral service.

Either way, from experience Tufts knows those nine beds will be gone by sundown. There is some turnover but not much, and as the weather gets colder, the openings, fewer.

“It’s really a capacity issue,” says Tufts.

He adds quickly that this isn’t a new problem, or solely due to COVID-19.

“If you look at the last couple of years we’ve always been at capacity when the weather turns, although it has been exacerbated now because of COVID-19. Shelters like Families in Transition used to be able to work with 140 clients a night and now they’re limited to 107, but we’re seeing that same story across the shelter footprint.”

In the 11 years since NH211 started, the goal has been to provide 24/7 help to those in crisis through a simple three-digit phone call. The information and referral system takes inbound calls from those seeking any kind of assistance, whether it’s shelter, food, legal help. Even if you’re not sure what you need, it’s a starting place. This year they’ve received more than 85,000 calls.

Mayor Joyce Craig, left and Patrick Tufts, CEO of Granite United Way, center, listen to sub-committee reports during a homelessness task force meeting in March 2019. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“What’s complicated with homelessness issues is not that we can’t connect them quickly to beds, but that shelters are already at capacity when people call,” Tufts says. In those 11 years what has changed is the complexity of the need, he says.

“In terms of trends a lot has to do with the collision of mental health issues, substance abuse, COVID, poverty – we have callers calling us in dire straights all over the state. Their needs are basic ones.  We also take thousands and thousands of calls a year for people seeking support with addiction,” Tufts says.

And in some ways, those calls are a little easier to field with the Doorway NH system, which connect people to recovery programs and services.

“As for homelessness, I can’t tell you it’s doubled in five years because that would not be accurate. But the condition of homelessness has become more complicated,” says Tufts, by both the rise in behavioral health needs and addiction issues.

In terms of the immediate crisis, Tufts said communities will have to stand-up surge and winter emergency shelters.

“It’s a short-term solution and situation, but it gets the overflow from traditional shelters and provides a safe place to go,” says Tufts.

Manchester is still zeroing in on a location to house the homeless on sub-freezing nights, an exercise in little more than “fatality prevention,” says Fire Chief Dan Goonan.

So then, what can be done to make sure 2021 is not a repeat of the preceding year?

“In terms of a long-term answer, we do have to revisit coming up with a plan to address homelessness –  not community by community but potentially statewide,” Tufts says. “A lot of the folks currently homeless in Manchester aren’t from Manchester, just as a lot of people end up in the Seacoast or Keene or Concord because they can find some services there,” says Tufts.

And that is the story around the country, wherein larger cities and towns burst at the seams with homeless individuals. It’s the nature of the problem.

Protestors gathered at the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Nov. 16 anticipating the state to vacate the premises. Photo/Stacy Harrison

In this current crisis, Manchester has become ground zero for the extent of the need. Encampments that arose over the summer have spilled over onto the Hillsborough County Courthouse grounds forcing the state to take notice. As of Nov. 16, those tenting on the site were put on notice that they must vacate or face removal.

Currently it looks like the state has enlisted the help of Manchester Community Mental Health to try and find a place for individuals to go

Tufts said he walked by the encampment on Monday and was surprised at the number of protestors who had come out in support of the homeless, urging the state not to remove them without a safe place for them to be relocated to.

“It shows me that people care about people and want to make it better. It’s a difficult situation right now,” Tufts says.

The courthouse situation has illuminated the problem and created some tension between the city of Manchester and the governor’s office. While Tufts declined to weigh in on the particulars, he said from his participation in Manchester working on plans to address homelessness, and one in Concord, it’s not a quick fix.

“These are really big issues and we need to focus on not only the short-term but also in building out a system in the long term that expands resources we need to provide assistance, housing, transitional, supportive and emergency shelter beds, and clinicians,” Tufts says. 

The former Day Center in Manchester for supplemental homeless services was one resource that got off to a good start but collapsed on itself under the weight of the opioid epidemic.

“We tried some five or seven years ago to provide services to the homeless, and it was working well at first, but then the nature of people coming every day started to change with the opioid crisis and behavioral health issues and that solution wasn’t the right solution anymore. What we needed, and what we didn’t have, were those licensed drug and alcohol counselors,” Tufts says. 

If New Hampshire is to move the needle in reducing the number of people who end up homeless due to mental health and substance use issues, it needs to build up its infrastructure of professionals.

“We have a shortage of those who are available to be counselors and working in shelters and providing licensed drug and alcohol counseling. If you call New Horizons or Farnum or Crossroads or any places like that, they can’t find enough staff,” Tufts says.

Reports dating back 10 years from the state Department of Health and Human Services reflect an inadequate inventory of winter shelter beds and a diminishing supply of low-income housing options, with more than 2,000 people recorded as homeless.

Tufts points to the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, which in 2018 opened the doors to a 40-bed winter shelter.

Concord’s Emergency Winter Shelter, built by the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness in 2018, is set to open on Dec. 17. It has room for 40 beds but that number has been “decompressed” due to COVID-19. The new shelter is located at 238 N. Main St. Courtesy of Ridgelight Studio

For many years they operated a pop-up shelter, and then they were able to transform it into a permanent shelter which they open every winter. It took them a good decade from the time they had the idea to where they are today. There were lots of fits and starts and hard work went into creating that resource for Concord. I know how difficult it is but we have to have that dual planning for surges and overflow, and then you have to have a long-term plan,” Tufts said.

When the Concord shelter closed in the spring it led to the annual appearance of tents and campsites tucked around the city, much like in Manchester, and other larger communities. Despite constructing a $500,000 40-bed winter shelter – for which capacity has been reduced this year due to COVID-19 – the need for a long-term solution remains.

“I’ve been at this job for 15 years. It’s very tough and when we do start to make progress then something like COVID or addiction issues make a problem that’s complicated more complicated. And then a worldwide pandemic descends on your state. It’s hard to preplan for that,” says Tufts. “It makes it that much more complicated. I don’t envy people in state service or in Manchester right now.”