Homeless in Concord: A year of effort, and another death
Robert Glodgett, 52, arrived at First Congregational Church in Concord on the first night of the cold weather shelter on Saturday evening, Dec. 13, 2014. Glodgett has been coming to the shelter for the past five years. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)
By JEREMY BLACKMAN and MEGAN DOYLE
Saturday, December 12, 2015
(Published in print: Sunday, December 13, 2015)
Robert “Red” Glodgett survived the past six winters on a foldout cot in the basement of First Congregational Church.
This winter was supposed to be different – for two reasons.
After a decade of harboring those most in need, the downtown Concord church and its sister parish, South Congregational, shuttered their cold-weather shelters. For months, outreach workers fanned out across the city and into neighboring communities with a stiff notice: “There will be no emergency shelter. Plan accordingly.”
But for Glodgett, 53, this year also brought new hope of permanent housing. Through a federal grant and an emergent focus on those just like him – homeless for years, struggling with addiction or mental illness – Glodgett was on the cusp of finding a place of his own. Toward the end of last month, caseworkers had nearly all his required documentation in order. They arranged a meeting with a landlord.
It never happened. Glodgett, a chronic alcoholic, was arrested Nov. 22 after police caught him drinking, yet again, on state-owned land. Three days later, on Thanksgiving Day, he died in a hospital bed, reportedly from complications of pneumonia.
While Glodgett’s death has shaken the homeless community, it has simultaneously provided a glimpse into the challenges and urgency caseworkers face as they scramble to house the city’s most vulnerable population before the worst of winter hits.
“It takes time, and we don’t have time,” said Stephanie Savard, who oversees supportive housing programs at Families in Transition.
Despite months of searching and reported dead ends, a last-minute plan has taken shape for a shelter at the now-vacant St. Peter’s Church. While some worry it could delay long-term goals, they and others note safety is an immediate priority.
At the same time, homeless advocates on the ground are tempering their talk of progress after a year many had hoped would bring great change.
“We’ve made some progress,” said Ellen Groh, head of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s hard to know exactly how much. We are trying to shift the whole community’s perception of what the solution to homelessness is. A shelter is not the solution to homelessness.”
Glodgett was one of about three dozen people identified last year as potential candidates for a new initiative to house the city’s chronically homeless. Many, like Glodgett, are alcoholics. Others have serious mental illnesses.
The program, 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 like Thompson.
The model has received national attention, but it is expensive and can be complicated to implement in a city like Concord, where affordable housing is hard to come by. Proponents argue it will save money in the long run by reducing dependency on expensive resources, such as first responders, emergency rooms and jails.
Groh and the coalition have spearheaded the effort. A lawyer trained in public health, Groh arrived last year and has emerged as a leading voice in the push for a post-shelter era.
Over time, she and others warn, emergency shelters become counterproductive – a crutch for a city and its surrounding communities to lean on, rather than address the real causes of homelessness, like substance abuse and mental illness, unemployment and access to medical care.
Last winter, the coalition and fellow nonprofits began targeting a host of immediate and long-term goals. Among their top priorities were securing a small transitional shelter for this winter and moving the coalition’s resource center to a bigger, more easily-accessible site downtown.
They have succeeded on some fronts. The center has opened anew in a spacious two-story building on North Main Street. More than a dozen churches have launched a network to shelter individual families for short stints at a time. The McKenna House, a permanent shelter on South Fruit Street, is moving forward on a 16-bed expansion.
But the Housing First model has yet to take off.
This fall, the coalition hired a full-time caseworker, Jackie Thompson, to work directly with homeless candidates. It applied for federal housing vouchers, but those won’t be awarded until next year. In the meantime, Thompson and fellow outreach workers like Andy Labrie of the Community Action Program of Belknap-Merrimack Counties are struggling to find emergency money for rentals.
Thompson successfully placed a handful of people on the waitlist for apartments with Concord Housing and Redevelopment, though it’s backlogged. She has been working on harder cases like Glodgett’s since last winter; she visited his camp last month with final paperwork and her notary stamp. Another man could be housed soon, Thompson said.
But both the coalition and Families in Transition are struggling to find affordable vacancies. Savard, with Families in Transition, said they got funding this year for 12 spots around the state but have only housed five so far; two from Concord had to go as far as Franklin. Thompson said two landlords have agreed to work with her, but nothing has materialized yet. One just rented an opening to someone else, she said.
“I can have a check in my hand and still not be able to find a place,” Thompson said.
Other ideas discussed last year – apartment complexes, shared homes, a fleet of tiny mobile homes – have fallen by the wayside.
Groh, meanwhile, has openly recognized the need for a safeguard this winter, but in recent weeks she began peddling a different approach than the mayor’s: an overnight warming center. Pointing to models in neighboring states like Maine, where the accommodations are few – a chair, a bathroom, a television, for instance – she said a small heated space would do enough to protect people without attracting others from surrounding communities, many of which have been shipping people to Concord for years.
“The challenge of a 60-bed shelter is that it is absolutely going to draw people in from other communities and make it very hard to discern what is the true need in Concord,” she said.
But her alternative raised safety concerns – an issue that could still materialize at the shelter now proposed, which will accept anyone, sober or otherwise (as the church shelters have done for years).
More important, though, the debate exposed a rift between the coalition and Bouley, who has the city’s public image to consider and who expressed open disagreement with Groh’s plan at a forum last month.
“They have been a key partner in trying to bring people together to find a solution, short of having a shelter,” Bouley said Thursday. “If (a warming center) was going to be the only alternative, that was going to be the best we had. I thought we could do better.”
But Groh cautioned that if the city doesn’t slim down its emergency response – Bouley’s shelter will have nearly the same number of beds as last winter’s – the problem will simply persist.
She agreed, though, at least some safe haven should be available.
“Even when Housing First is operating perfectly, even if we had all the resources . . . in the winter, you need a place inside,” Groh said. “That’s a gap we have to face head-on before next winter.”
On Wednesday, nearly a year to the day since Glodgett arrived at First Congregational Church for his final winter, a handful of friends and shelter volunteers returned for a candlelit memorial service.
They recalled a fragile drifter, a hapless flirt, a tiny redhead with a mischievous smile and a nasty drinking problem. Glodgett had spent decades on and off the streets – in Laconia and Suncook before arriving in Concord – and had talked at times about an estranged daughter.
“I think everybody can take Red’s story and take something from it,” said Ryan Smith, 26, who slept in the cot next to Glodgett’s last winter. “Maybe Red might want us all to do a little bit better than he did.”
Thompson sat quietly in the back.
She knew there had been no guarantee they would find Glodgett housing this year, or that it would have stuck even if they did. But she also knew that when someone has been outside for so long and is finally brought into a space of their own, and then given the tools to succeed, “that taste of security is very motivating.”
“It was really terrible to hear that Red died, when we were so close to getting him housed.” Thompson said. But she added, “He died knowing that we were doing something, that he wasn’t abandoned.”