Cross Roads House shelter sees rising demand

PORTSMOUTH — Until it got cold, Phil Molbeck slept in the passenger seat of his two-door 1995 Ford Mustang.

“I’d look for a place where I wouldn’t be a bother,” he said.

But in the day of opioid overdoses, it was not uncommon for him to be awakened by someone trying to save his life.

He’s been homeless since this summer. He had been living in an apartment complex in Farmington, but he said he and the other tenants were evicted for a renovation. The car was his safety net, which he slept in for about three months.

“Not bad to sleep in. Plenty of room,” he said of his car.

When Molbeck came to Cross Roads House, the emergency and transitional homeless shelter was over capacity. But he wasn’t turned away. Instead, he and others sleep on mats in the shelter’s dining room.

Overcapacity is an increasing problem at the Cross Roads House on Lafayette Road. Over the past year, the shelter was over capacity about 87 percent of the time, said Executive Director Martha Stone.

The shelter holds a little less than 100 people, though the capacity can change depending on how many families are at the shelter at any given time. The nonprofit serves eastern Rockingham County, Strafford County and southern parts of York County in Maine.

Stone said the issue of overcapacity began last winter, which was milder than recent winters. Because of the increased demand, the shelter began housing men without beds in the dining room. Women without beds are housed in a separate room. In general, men in need of emergency shelter outnumber the women by a two-to-one ratio.

The demand for emergency shelter at Cross Roads House has increased during a time of relative prosperity in the state. The state’s unemployment rate continues to drop. Last month, New Hampshire had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.8 percent.

But the positive economic news continues to put a demand on the region’s housing. The cost of housing and the lack of affordable housing is what Stone points to as the main culprit for the most recent increase in demand.

The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority stated in its June report that the average cost of housing has increased over the past five years. In Strafford County, the monthly median gross rental cost increased 11.3 percent with the current median cost of a two bedroom unit at $1,083 a month. In Rockingham County, the rental cost increased 10.1 percent to a median cost of $1,321 for a two-bedroom unit.

Stone said many of those at the shelter are working full time, but the wages they earn are not high enough to pay the rent. The waiting list to get subsidized housing often takes months.

“They are stuck here in the shelter while they’re waiting,” she said.

Each person coming to Cross Roads House must go through the state mandated Coordinated Entry intake process, which helps the shelter identify its most vulnerable population and prioritize the needs of those seeking help. The intake process also helps identify those who may need assistance to help prevent them from becoming homeless. Ideally, Cross Roads House is seeking to divert homelessness whenever possible.

While Cross Roads House is well regarded statewide because of the services available, Stone said the shelter’s reputation is not driving the increasing demand.

“We are proud of our reputation and take pride in the services we deliver and the quality of services we deliver,” she said. But, she added, “No one comes to Cross Roads House because it’s a really nice place to stay. It’s still a homeless shelter.”

In fact, she said, the demand for shelter in Cross Roads House’s service area has increased. In fiscal year 2015, Rockingham County made up 44 percent of those looking for shelter. In 2016, it was 54 percent. Strafford County remained the same at 30 percent, while the demand from beyond the Seacoast and outside of the state decreased, she said.

“We are trying to reserve our beds for those who are absolutely out of options,” Stone said. “We are a last resort.”

Associated risks and threats

The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness earlier this year released a report that looked at homelessness in the state and issues associated with not having a stable living environment. Mental health and substance abuse and misuse both factored into rising homelessness, according to its report.

The coalition, along with the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, Families in Transition and New Horizons for NH, came together in May to discuss an increasing number of individuals facing homelessness and significant mental and physical health challenges.

According to the study that led to the report, it is not uncommon for individuals suffering from homelessness and chronic health challenges to seek assistance from multiple service providers including emergency service providers, homeless service providers, and mental health care providers, among others.

The report stated that without a stable place to live, compounded by untreated mental health disorders, substance misuse and abuse, or chronic physical illness, individual case studies that made up the report represent a strain on the social services delivery system in New Hampshire. Fragmentation of services increases costs of treatment and can harm individuals through delayed, inappropriate, or incomplete treatment, the report stated.

Due to their extreme vulnerability, those suffering homelessness often need a higher level of care than what can be provided in the emergency shelters and traditional homeless service programs, the report stated, summarizing “The lack of appropriate housing and services for this population has resulted not only in prolonged suffering, but also in significant financial cost to the community.”

To view the full report, “2016 Case Study: The Personal and Financial Costs of Insufficient Housing,” visit http://bit.ly/2gdkBy9.

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