Downtown: Winter shelter for Concord’s homeless opens next week

  • St. Peter’s Church on North State Street in Concord will open as a cold-weather shelter Monday. —Monitor file photo

Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

After two years of scrambling for a place to house the city’s most vulnerable denizens in cold weather, the winter shelter situation in Concord is looking as stable as ever.

For one, the shelter will be at the same location it’s been the last two years – Saint Peter’s Church at 135 N. State St. – while the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness continues to build its own permanent shelter. And though this is the first year the coalition will own the shelter, familiar faces such as Jake King from Thrive Outdoors and Arolyn Chappell from the Friends Program will be running the show as they did last year.

Other familiar elements will be in place: The hours of operation will still be 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the shelter will still be low-barrier, meaning those who show up high or intoxicated will not be turned away, although consuming alcohol or using drugs on the premises is still not allowed.

Guests will still be separated by gender via a divider made of chairs in the church’s programming hall, and families – up to five, King estimated – will be housed in the church’s basement in their own private rooms.

That stability is thanks to having more time to plan, King said, unlike the previous two years when the city’s homeless advocates had to scramble to fill the void left by the First and South Congregational churches.

But the shelter’s organizers don’t want people to get too comfortable. They have a message for their future guests: Next year, things will be different, so prepare accordingly.

The coalition’s shelter will be able to take only 40 people maximum. That’s enough to house the 35 people King expects the shelter will see this winter on average, including family units, but not enough for the really cold nights, when the shelter’s population often swells to the low 50s.

“The goal is to really work toward diversion,” King said. “We’re really trying to show them that there’s got to be a better way, got to be alternatives to the shelter. We’re really going to work with them on finding something else.”

To prepare for the lack of space, King said a major goal of the shelter’s operators will be to get the city’s homeless population on the path to more stable, permanent housing. They’ll try to accomplish that by training staff and volunteers in Thrive Outdoors’s stress management and coping techniques, which they’ll then use and pass on to their guests.

Surmounting the challenges the homeless face will be more difficult for some than others, King said. But that’s because the region still lacks the mental health and substance abuse resources needed to effectively tackle and prevent homelessness, he said.

“It’s going to be difficult for people to adapt, yes,” he said. “But that’s a big part of the issue we’ve been dealing with forever. ... Homelessness really starts before being homeless, and there are issues that aren’t being dealt with that are always going to be prevalent in this community. It’s going to be difficult for those who have been homeless for years to transition to something else, who may not be able to get in next year.”

Difficult, but, King added, “not insurmountable.”

A local focus

Ellen Groh, executive director of the coalition, said she wants to make it clear that the shelter will not turn away anyone who needs help.

But resources – and funding – for the shelter are limited, she said, and that’s why the shelter is intended for residents of the Concord area only.

Otherwise, she said, communities that don’t have winter shelters of their own will send their homeless to the city.

“We’re not lacking compassion, but when the new shelter is built there’s only going to be a max capacity of 40 people,” she said. “We’re worried that people will go, ‘Oh, there’s a new shelter!’ and send people here when we don’t have the services to help them.”

Seeing people from as far away as North Conway or the Seacoast show up in need of a warm bed was common when the First and South churches ran the shelter, Groh said. But the churches also were partly funded by state money, and were listed on the state’s 2-1-1 hotline, which connects callers to information about health and human services available in the state.

About two-thirds of the city’s 192 cold-weather shelter visitors during the 2014-15 winter had last had permanent addresses from outside Concord, Groh said. Contrast that with the 2016 winter shelter – when the shelter’s last-minute establishment meant there was no time to secure state funding, meaning the shelter wasn’t listed as a 2-1-1 resource – when the shelter saw 162 visitors, 124 of whom had Concord as their last permanent address.

But the shelter survived the last two years without state funding, Groh said. And when the coalition’s shelter opens, it will be entirely funded on local dollars and private donations, she said.

Thrive Outdoors is being subcontracted by the coalition to manage the shelter for about $48,000, King said. The city of Concord, Granite United Way and Lincoln Financial Foundation have all contributed funds to the shelter, Groh said.

The shelter will be open from Dec. 18 to March 31.

There will be about eight employees, but the shelter is still heavily reliant on volunteers; those interested in donating to or volunteering for the shelter should visit concordhomeless.org.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)