Reimagining the neighborhood, and how the homeless shelter can ‘be a better neighbor’

Manchester Ink Link
June 28, 2019
Pat Grossmith

North Sturtuvant of Plan NH, right, talks about how Families in Transition/New Horizons asked his organization to design a plan to renovate the 199 Manchester St. facility with input from the community. Photo/Pat Grossmit.

MANCHESTER, NH — Education programs, green spaces, safe outdoor space with benches and artwork were some of the ideas community members said were needed to make the Families in Transition/New Horizons shelter work for the people who need it.

North Sturtuvant of JSA Architects of Portsmouth, working with Plan NH, said the organization has held more than 60 charettes across the state (discussions about what is needed for a particular project.)  FIT/New Horizons asked the organization to help them in a renovation of the shelter, soup kitchen, pantry and clinic located at 199 Manchester St. Part of that process is to ask the public how they view the shelter, what they think is needed and what its future should be.

The shelter wants to know how it can be a better neighbor and how to provide safe and welcoming accommodations to the people served, he said.

Sturtuvant said right now the shelter is being overwhelmed by the number of people from out-of-state who have heard about it.  Currently, the shelter is being renovated and reconfigured to provide individual rooms to make it safer.

“There’s a lot of need and faculty is being stretched,” he said.  “My gut feeling is it is half the size it needs to be.”

There are two abutting privately-owned properties which could be acquired, if funding is found, to enable expansion, he said. But what is needed, and the reason for the public meeting, is to get residents’ input.

More than 60 people attended an afternoon session Friday at Central High School — a second session was planned that night — and on Saturday another meeting is being held to discuss recommendations.

The 2½-story building currently houses a soup kitchen, providing breakfast for those who stay overnight, and serves lunch and dinner.  A food pantry is located there as well as Healthcare for the Homeless, a clinic operated out of the basement by Catholic Medical Center, and a laundry center. It serves about 700 meals a day, according to Michele Talwani, vice president of marketing.

“We don’t want our own perspectives.  We want to hear from people who would be impacted,” said Christopher Wellington, director of housing development, 

People were sorted into groups of 10 each to discuss how they viewed the shelter, what was needed and what they viewed its future should be.

The participants described the shelter as being a concrete jungle with people lining up on sidewalks with nowhere to go.  It has an industrial feel, is not welcoming, no greenery, and is bursting at the seams. Suggestions included developing a campus with green space and various programs housed in separate buildings. 

In one group, a woman said she was uncomfortable driving near the shelter because of panhandling and the fear that she might hit someone darting out into the street.

Helen, who volunteers at the shelter in the greenhouse, said there is a core group of people – regulars – who formed their own community and look after each other.  “They are very, very kind,” she said. She said there are only a few in the general population who aren’t.

About 60 participants attended the first of two community charrettes at Central High School Friday. Photo/Pat Grossmith

Others said the shelter looks like it is in an industrialized area of the city with no beautification going on.  What is needed, some said, is lighting, waste disposal, toilets, a safe green space, an outdoor area where they can sit on a bench and view an art installation. “It lacks art,“ one man said.

If money were no object, one person said a building with a courtyard would be ideal, providing a safe environment with both indoor and outdoor spaces.  

What the designers need to know, one woman said, is the shocking number of young people that use the facility. While one person said a path to permanent housing is needed, another woman said they have to have training and jobs first so they can pay the rent.  

Reverend Dr. Marjorie Ann Gerbracht-Stagnaro, the rector of Grace Episcopal Church, said she and members of her church no longer volunteer at the shelter after she was disciplined for singing Happy Birthday to an individual receiving services.  The church, she said, started its own program called Laundry Love, a community outreach program for the poor and homeless with volunteers doing laundry for those in need

FIT/New Horizons staff encouraged her and her parishioners to return, assuring her that things had changed since the merger.

One man said the food being served wasn’t the same as what is stocked in the pantry. Stephanie Savard, Chief Operating Officer, assured him that that was not the case.  The soup kitchen has changed what it serves with its chief dietician coming up with well-balanced nutritious meals that include vegetables grown in its own greenhouse, according to Savard.  Pastries, she said, are only served on special occasions.

Robin LeBlanc, executive director of Plan NH, said she and others had lunch there on Friday and were served a salad, chicken and rice soup and rolls.  Dinner Friday night, she said, was pork loin.

Yash Pal, the owner of The Chateau restaurant on Hanover Street, said he has been trying to sell the restaurant so he can retire after 40 years. He had three potential buyers but the sales fell through when they took a look around the property.  Homeless people, he said, defecate and urinate around the building and abandon property. It was so bad he couldn’t hire anyone to clean up the area. It took him 16 hours to clean it.

After the session, Pal said he believes he has found a buyer but that the building is so big at 13,000 square feet that it will have to be divided into three sections. 

Thanh Ho, owner of Saigon Asian Market at 476 Union St., said another problem in the area is parking.  He said whenever the shelter has an event, people park in his lot which means there is no parking for his customers.

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