Woman with a plan: Homeless Initiatives director seals the deals for housing projects and more

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The city’s Director of Homeless Initiatives Schonna Green makes a presentation to the Board of Aldermen on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

MANCHESTERMANCHESTER, NH – When it comes to art of the deal, Schonna Green has proven herself a master.  Inside of one year as the city’s Director of Homeless Initiatives, Green has learned the ropes, forged alliances, extended olive branches, gone out on some limbs, drawn a few lines in the sand and built the sturdy bones of bridges connecting developers, non-profits, local businesses, government, and faith communities with people clamoring for affordable housing options.

She’s also secured several housing projects that will result in nearly 300 units, including the conversion of a hotel and a police station, into affordable and transitional housing.

Green gives credit to the many hands already on deck, noting that she has welcomed new partners as well – those who have seen her plans and want in on the seachange toward affordable housing happening in the state’s largest city. Green has presented her plan publicly before the Board of Aldermen and continues to build momentum and broker meaningful connections – between people in need and people with the capacity and urgency to help. She has been meticulously ticking off the boxes on her proposed timeline, and everything’s on track.

If it all works to plan, she says, the system will be self-sustaining.

But as Green will tell you like a confidant about to give you the scoop, she could not have done it alone.

“My three fire chiefs – Chief Parent, Chief Lamont, Chief Cashin – and fire Marshal Pete, have been my rock. I get teary-eyed when I talk about them,” says Green.  They took me in as part of their department and got up-to-speed with affordable housing in record time. Anything I asked for, they were there for me. They were the first donors for our HOPE Initiative. Without them, I’d be nothing.”

The secret sauce Green brings to the table is her ability to see the city with fresh eyes, her vision magnified by her decades of past successes. It’s about being moved by the spirit of innovation and mapping out ideas. It’s about knowing how to gain buy-in and connecting with like-minded people. It’s about striking a balance between reality and practicality, thinking outside of boxes, and working within constraints, all buoyed by hope – as in HOPE – Housing Options Promote Empowerment [tagline: For All People and Incomes] a site where people can find resources, review documents, ask questions and report encampments.

“This is the first time something like this has ever been done, and the instrument created as part of this framework can become the tool,” says Green. “If we got it right it could be a pilot program that could be replicated anywhere and, honestly, I could leave and it would be able to continue.”

The HOPE Initiative has been presented as a three-phase plan which has a lot of moving parts and some of which are moving simultaneously, including:

  • Phase 1: The Chronically Homeless Population
  • Phase 2: Empowerment Capacity Building
  • Phase 3: Community Awareness Outreach Campaign/Deliverables

Last week Mayor Joyce Craig used her State of the City address to reinforce the focus on affordable housing:

  • $8M investment of federal dollars to develop new affordable housing
  • $2.3M to construct 48 units at Kelley Falls (MHRA)
  • 101 units renovated in the Elm Street Brownstones and Straw Mansion Apartments (NeighborWorks)
  • 3 studio apartments for young, at-risk adults (Waypoint)
  • 12 units for single men at Helping Hands

And through Green’s initiatives, the following partnerships have now also come to the table:

  • An agreement with a development company to transform the former Manchester Police Station at 355 Chestnut St. into 110 affordable units. In addition, that company will build 50 mixed-use apartments on two underutilized city parking lots.
  • An agreement with Comfort Inn Suites and the Community Loan Fund for 96 units of cooperative housing to be “condoized” under the ownership of various organizations in need of affordable/transitional housing for their clients
  • 168 Merrimack St. – A former nuisance rooming house is in the process of being rehabbed into 17 single-bedroom/studio apartments providing housing for encampment tenants and other homeless persons
  • 35 High Street- five units of affordable housing in the works by a private developer
  • A proposed 27,000-square-foot building for special needs housing 100-percent affordable

At the same time Green has been working with local service organizations toward the elimination of encampments, an uncomfortable process for all involved – including Green.

“We’re asking people to pick services over the sweep,” Green said, noting that just two weeks ago there was tangible progress with direct outreach to those who come through 1269 Cafe to get out of the elements and eat a hot meal, or a drink cup of coffee.

“We’re sticking and moving over at 1269, I think we’re up to 13 people who’ve come forward for services,” in the past two weeks. “It’s a lot of hard work. Don’t get me wrong – I understand how people feel about encampment sweeps.”

Green said there have been 187 reports of encampment activity from the public using a new form on the HOPE site and of those 87 total documented previously by the city, 65 have now been closed. Site clean-ups are scheduled for April. The remaining 22 encampments will be handled case by case.

In addition, thanks to HOPE’s partnership with GateHouse addiction treatment center’s street outreach 38 people accepted the offer of help and moved out of encampments and into treatment in Nashua.

“And only three returned– all the rest are in respite and went through a positive journey and did not return to Manchester,” Green said.

Having placements available here in Manchester is one of the greatest challenges, which is why her plan includes capacity building for all, but especially those who are presenting multiple barriers. And that’s where another initiative comes in.

The Heart of Humanity

Just like the perpetual motion of a wheel mill, the moving parts involved in creating more housing are only one aspect of ending homelessness. There has to be healing.

Green believes the people living with addiction and mental health challenges who are often the least likely to seek out help, need to find relief and recovery; people longing for stability and security need to get in motion and take advantage of what is being offered: a fresh start.

Housing is the obvious need, but there is so much more needed.

To this end, Green has also begun mapping out a collaborative spiritual initiative she calls The Heart of Humanity, which is also known as the Manchester Spiritual Initiative 2022. She has been inviting local churches and communities of faith already involved in meeting the “basic needs of humanity” to partner with specific non-profits and businesses. The congregations commit to focusing for one year on one “red dot” of identified need and then team up with a non-profit that serves that need.  Faith communities boost the non-profit in any way they wish to, through charity, fundraising, events, volunteering, and raising awareness.  A third aspect involves local businesses and friends doing the same.

It’s a coordination effort that she first visualized in the shape of a heart – involving all denominations and faiths in a common goal.

“It came to me in such a way that it wasn’t something I worked on all at once. It came in pieces, like a puzzle,” Green says.

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Making those solid connections between social services and the faith communities will increase the capacity for human kindness while making sure efforts aren’t being duplicated, and all needs are being met.

Sweeps, and progress

Alderman Pat Long said he has called retired Fire Chief Dan Goonan to thank him for hiring Schonna, one of his last official duties before hanging up his fire helmet one last time.

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“Schonna has gone above and beyond what I expected hiring somebody for $94,000 a year. Within a year there is nobody I can think of that we hired who has done so much so fast. I give Goonan the credit. I called him up to say ‘Man, do you freakin’ know how to hire people.’ She’s well-liked here, and she met with the governor and the head of DHHS and they loved her, too. Her ideas were things they’d never thought of,” Long said. 

When you do the math, Green’s $94,000 salary divided by the 246 new housing units in the pipeline means the cost to the city is just $382 per unit.

Not a bad return on investment, Long says.

And he agrees with Green that no one thing is going to work.

“We have to try an idea and see what works, and then maybe go to the next idea – nobody has it figured it out but, idea by idea, we’ll find the right combination of solutions. And I agree with that.”

Fire Chief Andre Parent, who took over as chief around the same time Green started working, says he also commends Goonan for making the right choice.

“Schonna came into an environment where she didn’t know the city, or the players, or the politicians or businesses out there.  She made those connections,” Parent says. “Deputy Chief (Ryan) Cashin helped her with that and she reports to him once a week. She’s taken the reigns and is running with it. These encampments were new to her, but she’s come up with a tracking system and developed it so we know whether they’re on city, state or federal land.”

Schonna Green visited the Douglas Street encampment, which was “swept in June of 2021.” File Photo/Cameron Johnson

In addition to working with existing city services tasked with clean-up around encampments, Green’s own HOPE team focuses on outreach to the homeless people, Parent says.

When it comes to the “sweep” Parent acknowledges how hard they are hard for Green.

“That eats at her. She’s a very compassionate person but she’s got a job to do and when these encampments become a burden to the citizens of Manchester and are an unsafe environment for those living there, they’re offered services and a bed to sleep in,” Parent says. “We do offer wrap-around service, but many don’t accept the offer.”  

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Fire Chief Andre Parent.

Green has encountered pushback, primarily from those who are vocal about the sweeps.

She has met with those who advocate for leaving the encampments put until there is a better solution including alternative housing and she appreciates their efforts and involvement; it shows how much they care. She wants them to stay involved, even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye because listening to one another is the way to understanding.

But Green says taking a hard line on encampments “is not what anyone wants to do” however, the philosophical question of knowingly allowing fellow human beings to live in inhumane conditions has to be a factor. And when it spills over into neighborhoods and residents feel afraid to walk around, or experience litter and see unsanitary or unsafe conditions, a line has to be drawn.

Brandon Lemay is one of those advocates. He’s deep in the trenches of the issue of housing justice through his work as an organizer with Rights & Democracy NH and says his fundamental issue is with the city’s sweeps, which ultimately force people from one place to another to another, with no place for them to go and no real plan.

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He’s cautiously optimistic that Green’s created a map that will lead to someplace better.

“Until there’s capacity, why move people?” Lemay says. “I wouldn’t be opposed to sweeps if there was a humane alternative, like a sanctioned campground where there could be outreach and a process of moving people to the next level. It’s wrong to say go to the shelter, get arrested or go somewhere else. If we had a sanctioned campground we could have those who aren’t ready for four walls and a roof – and this is something Schonna talks about all the time – that there are some who just aren’t ready for the loneliness or responsibility of their own apartment. I would like to see more alternatives. Right now I see it as ‘do what we want or we’re throwing the balance of the city or state police resources at you to throw you out.”

Lemay says he is most interested in harm reduction efforts.

“Why are people still sleeping outside? Either something is fundamentally wrong with them, and they can’t deal with being inside, or else the services don’t appeal to them,” Lemay says. A lot of people won’t agree with this but if that shelter bed is dirty or it’s loud or you have to be in and out by a certain time, that doesn’t seem like a good option. There’s a huge disconnect between what’s being offered and what some of these houseless people can handle.”

He says at the heart of the problem is the commoditization of housing, which he regards as a basic human right.

“I genuinely think that inelastic goods like healthcare and housing should be at least partially de-commoditized, if you’re a landlord charging $1,800 to someone who can barely afford it, they’re basically siphoning all their wages and that person will probably need food stamps so their profit is taxing the Welfare system,” Lemay says.

“If I’m being optimistic, Schonna is doing well with the tools she has. It’s more than anything else that’s happened in years. What I’d like to see is a reinvestment in public housing,” he said.

Early on he sat in on Green’s HOPE committee and then stepped away at some point. His skepticism about meaningful change gets the better of him. But given what he’s hearing about the city’s plans, and what he knows so far about Green’s commitment, he feels the pull to try again.

“I will always be skeptical, but if I had to say something positive, I’d say what Schonna has accomplished so far is a good start. However,  we don’t want to be like George Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln hanging a ‘mission accomplished’ banner before the war is won. I’d say it’s a good start; let’s see where it goes.”

HOPE Initiative can now receive tax-deductible contributions that will go toward standing up a centrailzed donation center for all local non-profits and to help fund the 2022 warming station. For now, checks made out to City of Manchester HOPE Initiative can be mailed or dropped off to the Manchester Fire Department, 100 Merrimack St., Manchester, NH 03101. The city is in the process of creating an online contribution portal, Green said.

Anyone with available land interested in discussing future development for affordable housing, or to connect with an organization in need of volunteers can contact the HOPE Initiative at (603) 792-3859 or email hope@manchesternh.gov.


About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!