As emergency shelter closes, officials look to future winters

Clothing available to guests and rows of sleeping cots are seen at the cold weather shelter at St. Peter's Church in Concord on Feb. 17, 2016.

(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)
Clothing available to guests and rows of sleeping cots are seen at the cold weather shelter at St. Peter’s Church in Concord on Feb. 17, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Saturday, March 26, 2016
(Published in print: Sunday, March 27, 2016)

Brett Swain gave away his tent Friday.

Someone else needed it more than he did, Swain said.

“It’s a hard time, and people don’t always make it out of this,” Swain said. “The only way you survive it is the help of the community.”

The 38-year-old man has been staying at the emergency homeless shelter at St. Peter’s Church in Concord for about two weeks. He is hoping to get into a rooming house soon, but he’ll probably have to camp in the interim. So he needed a replacement for his tent, because Saturday was the last night at the shelter for the winter season.

As guests settled in, a night manager handed out tents, tarps and sleeping bags for those who would be sleeping outdoors in 24 hours. But Swain said he would wait until everybody else got one, just in case they ran out.
“Do you have a host of them?” Swain said. “I have some money.”

Just a few months ago, this shelter seemed improbable.

Without the traditional shelters at First and South Congregational churches this winter, Mayor Jim Bouley and other community members organized a last-minute alternative for the city’s most vulnerable.

The Catholic Diocese of New Hampshire offered a vacant church on North State Street. The Friends Program, which runs a family shelter and other volunteer programs, agreed to manage day-to-day operations. Granite United Way stepped forward as a fiscal agent. The Concord City Council okayed $30,000 from a budget surplus, and other donors contributed money and services. All told, Bouley estimated the effort cost about $60,000.

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Since the shelter opened in January, it has averaged 30 guests – men, women and children – per night.

“From the numbers I’ve looked at, I’m very pleased that we were able to bring this together this winter,” Bouley said Friday. “Clearly, it filled a need in the community.”

But the last-minute shelter is also temporary, and as soon as it opened, Concord’s homeless advocates and officials turned their attention to next winter and beyond. That sense of urgency is a contrast to this time last year, when the First and South Congregational church shelters were closing for good but few had rallied to find a replacement.

“There are several lessons from it, but the most important lesson is that we’ve already starting planning for next year – what the alternatives and possibilities might be,” Bouley said. “In the meantime, we have to continue focusing on finding housing for folks, and that’s obviously the ultimate goal.”

Ellen Groh, the executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, said she has met with city officials to talk about Concord’s zoning and possible locations for a more permanent shelter, at least during the winter. St. Peter’s Church, which is owned by Concord’s Christ the King Parish, was only available this year because it is vacant and on the market for sale.

Still under consideration is the building where the coalition and its day center – the Concord Homeless Resource Center – are located on North Main Street. But because that building is not code compliant for a shelter, it is not ideal.
Groh has also begun or scheduled meetings with social service agencies throughout the state – Families in Transition – New Horizons, Harbor Homes and New Horizons.

“Part of talking with these agencies is seeing if they want to come up and operate (a shelter), and getting their input on operating it,” Groh said. “The shelter this year was run very differently than the cold weather shelter last year, so finding the balance – what would be the recommendation as the best practice, the best model?”

Rather than wait until the last minute, Groh said she would like a plan to be underway this summer for a more permanent solution to be carried from year to year. She’s not yet sure what that looks like.

“In my ideal situation, another agency that has experience with running a shelter would take over that piece of it, and we could work in collaboration,” she said.

The scramble to find a shelter for this winter convinced Groh of its necessity. When no one had agreed to manage or host a shelter by November of last year, the coalition started working on an overnight warming center where the homeless could come inside from the cold. That area would not hold beds or act as a shelter; rather, guests would spend the night in chairs or awake. But some service providers balked at the idea, prompting the mayor to find an alternative with the Friends Program at St. Peter’s Church.

“My experience this fall solidified in my mind the need for a low-barriers shelter, at the very least in the winter,” Groh said. “Because there are people who are really vulnerable who, there is no other safety net or last resort that’s available to them.”

Michele Talwani, vice president of economic development and marketing for Families in Transition – New Horizons, said discussions so far have been “very preliminary, very exploratory.”

“In Concord, we have been approached (by the coalition),” Talwani said. “We are very much in the exploratory phase as to, one, what the needs are in the community and, two, is there a place for such a facility.”

Families in Transition – New Horizons does run a year-round emergency shelter for families in Manchester, alongside a resource center for food and services. The organization also provides housing to families and single individuals in Manchester, Concord and Dover.

“For anything like this to happen, we would absolutely need city support, as well as community support,” Talwani said. “There’s no way we could do the project without those two pieces coming together.”

By Saturday night, Friends Program executive director Jerry Madden estimated the shelter served 160 different individuals over the course of the winter. More than 150 people have volunteered for check-in or overnight shifts.

“We could have had everything in place but had no volunteers, and then this would have been an absolute nightmare,” Madden said. “Honestly, I’m very much impressed with the support we got from people.”

His staff and board will debrief on the shelter effort in coming weeks. Whether the Friends Program would be involved in an emergency shelter again, Madden couldn’t say.

“No one’s asked yet,” he said. “And I am not offering because it depends on what approach would be taken. . . . I think it’s premature to give you an answer on that.”

And while Groh is in talks with organizations like Families in Transition – New Horizons, a shelter is not the top priority for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. With the help of grants from the federal government and the city, the coalition has expanded its hours and grown its staff in the last year. But its primary focus is finding permanent housing for the city’s most long-term homeless.

Their strategy – called Housing First – turns the classic paradigm of intervention on its head. Rather than forcing participants to show substantive change before getting housed – by getting sober, for instance, or holding down a job – it hands them the keys first, and then follows with intensive support from a caseworker.

Especially when a winter shelter seemed improbable, Groh said agencies across the city – including the coalition, Families in Transition – New Horizons, the Community Action Program of Belknap-Merrimack Counties and Concord’s human services department – have aggressively worked on housing those chronically homeless people. Through a partnership with Concord Housing and Redevelopment, as well as new housing vouchers awarded to Families in Transition – New Horizons, Groh said 17 people from the list are now in apartments.

“Our goal is absolutely still permanent housing,” Groh said. “That is the way to end homelessness. Bringing in additional resources to make that happen is really important. The low-barrier shelter is critical part of the safety net that can’t be ignored, but it doesn’t end homelessness.”

In the meantime, the last night at the St. Peter’s shelter started quietly. The night manager ordered pizza, a rare treat as the shelter usually didn’t allow food. Gregory Stevenson, 66, played the flute to a round of applause from the guests and volunteers. A man who would only give his first name – Rich – shuffled a deck of cards to play a round of solitaire.

“I’ve never been homeless before,” Rich, who is 61, said. “I wish they would have programs more to get jobs, and get back on your feet.”

Rich stayed at the Concord shelter for about a month. Medical debt and physical limitations put him on the street, but he has been embarrassed to tell most of his family members he is homeless. He said he’s not sure where he’ll sleep next.

“Some of ’em are experienced at this,” he said of the other shelter guests. “Some of ’em went to shelters in other cities. Some are like me, don’t know what to do.”

He shuffled the cards again, and then quietly began to deal.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321, [email protected] or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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