Editorial: The hidden face of Concord’s homeless challenge
When the Concord City Council wrestled with new rules to curb panhandling by homeless people, the debate didn’t affect Anmarie Kemp personally.
When homeless people were injured or killed in and around the Merrimack River, it wasn’t part of Kemp’s life. Neither was she affected by the police clearing out homeless camps on private and state land. Nor by the extraordinary efforts to finance a family shelter during the winter months – or the inability to continue it. Nor by the community’s generous contributions to the new Friendly Kitchen facility, nor by the selfless volunteers at Concord’s two cold-weather shelters at First and South churches.
Yet Kemp, much like the beneficiaries and victims of such high-profile efforts, is effectively homeless, living hand-to-mouth and relying on the kindness of an ex-boyfriend for a place to sleep and to shelter her children, the most recent of several couches she’s used as a not-so-temporary solution to an untenable problem.
Kemp’s story, chronicled in the Sunday Monitor by reporter Laura McCrystal and photographer John Tully, should underscore for city officials, homeless advocates and policymakers at the state and federal level just how complex the problem is, even in a relatively prosperous community such as ours. Concord’s Steering Committee to End Homelessness recently issued a report on steps the city might take to ameliorate the problem. But as Kemp’s story shows, the individual circumstances, bad luck and bad choices that land a person in such a state defy easy solutions. Consider:
∎ City welfare rules allow the government to help desperate residents, but only if they agree to certain rules. Kemp refused to agree to take shelter anywhere in the state because she didn’t want to move her teenage daughter away from her life here, particularly the support she receives at school for learning disabilities. And she balked at a requirement that would have prohibited her from making car or cell-phone payments, not to mention fast food or cigarettes.
Are the rules too rigid? Were Kemp’s decisions foolhardy? Should taxpayers help finance a cigarette habit? On the other hand, can a parent – or any adult – reasonably live in New Hampshire without a car? Shouldn’t a child’s schooling be part of the equation?
∎ From the comfort of our own homes, it was plenty easy to read Kemp’s story and criticize the way she handles her personal finances: burning gas by driving aimlessly around town; driving her kids to school in the morning; paying for pricey iPhones and cups of coffee. But imagine how much harder the path out of poverty would be without a car or cell phone. And imagine how useful a course on basic home economics might be for a person in her shoes.
∎ An injury nearly 20 years ago has kept Kemp from looking for work, unable to imagine a job without repetitive motion that would exacerbate the pain and swelling in her hands, arms and shoulders. Given today’s economy, able-bodied unemployed people are encountering a terrifyingly tight job market. But imagine how useful an employment coach would be for a person in her situation.
The solution to homelessness isn’t as easy as more housing – as if that were easy! And it’s not as simple as more treatment for alcoholism and mental illness, though those disabilities hobble many of the homeless people who make the headlines and the police log. Anmarie Kemp deserves thanks for her bravery in putting her complicated personal situation in front of the community. Her hard life is a sobering reminder to those working earnestly to end homelessness that in addition to broad-stroke efforts, Concord’s homeless residents also need individualized attention to untangle the messy circumstances that they’ve been unable to fix on their own.