As N.H. shelters close, one question: ‘Where are we supposed to go?’
Terry Locke makes her bed at the South Congregational Church's winter homeless shelter on Wednesday night, March 19, 2014. Regardless of the weather, Concord's two winter shelters close for the season on Saturday morning.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Terry Locke smiles and lifts her arms showing she has checked everything in at the South Congregational Church's winter homeless shelter on Wednesday night, March 19, 2014.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Terry Locke enters the common room from a smoke break at South Congregational Church's winter homeless shelter on Wednesday night, March 19, 2014.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
It was just after 6 p.m. Wednesday at the winter shelter at the First Congregational Church in Concord, and Terry Locke was next in line at the check-in desk.
Locke’s smile was wide and toothy, her hair pixie short under a wool rainbow hat. A volunteer, pen poised to take the 53-year-old woman’s name, asked how she was doing.
“I’m almost perfect,” Locke said. “I’ve got to have something to work on.”
On Wednesday night, Locke slept in one of 68 beds available at one of two winter homeless shelters in Concord. When those shelters closed for the season yesterday morning, she joined a homeless population that doesn’t have a bed, or money to rent an apartment, or even a sanctioned place to pitch a tent.
Terry Blake, director of the First Congregational shelter, said her staff and the shelter staff at South Congregational Church were working with local service providers to find some kind of housing for their guests.
“We’ll see what happens Saturday,” Blake said. “There’s no good solution. It’s going to be . . .”
She let the sentence trail off. She was silent for a moment.
“I don’t know,” Blake said finally. “It worries us all.”
Locke had plans to sleep in a friend’s truck last night. But she did have something to work on, she said: ideas for those homeless people sleeping in the other 67 beds at the shelter.
“I have some immediate suggestions,” she said.
The State House could double as an overnight shelter for the city’s homeless, she said. Or Concord hotels could rent rooms at a discounted rate, charging four people the price for two.
Locke’s tone was excited and hopeful. But her enthusiasm did not hide her need.
“If you’re going to kick me out on the street, you’re going to give me some options, baby,” she said.
‘Counts we can’t count’
Ten years ago, First Congregational began opening its doors for the homeless when temperatures dropped below zero. Today, both church shelters stay open for the season and run on $30,000 in state and city money. They share a sign-in table at First Congregational, and both close at the beginning of spring for lack of resources and volunteers, to make way for classrooms and church meeting space.
“Most people know (the shelters exist),” Blake said. “But they don’t think about it, that there is no other place for these people to go.”
A few year-round shelters operate in the Concord area. The Edna McKenna House has 26 beds; the Friends Emergency Shelter can take eight families at a time. Riverbend Community Mental Health and the Community Action Program of Belknap and Merrimack counties are among the service providers that try to help the homeless find housing. The Homeless Resource Center, run by the Coalition to End Homelessness, works with the homeless or those in danger of losing their homes. Those in need of help can also turn to the city’s welfare office or the 211 housing hotline.
But 508 homeless people sought shelter in Concord facilities in the last fiscal year, according to state data cited in a recent report to the city council. And the need is greater than the services the community provides.
“The bottom line is, there’s such limited places where people can go,” Homeless Resource Center Director Ellen Groh said.
Recent reports from the Coalition to End Homelessness and from Concord Mayor Jim Bouley’s task force to end homelessness circled the issue as well. Their suggestions – more case management, more low-income housing, expanded services at the Homeless Resource Center – also note how difficult it is to track a population that comes to the city’s streets from many different paths.
As Locke said, “There’s a lot of counts we can’t count.”
Last winter, 130 people signed in at First Congregational alone. This year, Blake said that number increased to 147. But the real jump came in the shelter’s statistics for “bed nights,” the total number of nights those individuals stayed at First Congregational. Last year, the number of bed nights was 2,772. This year, the number of overnight stays shot up to 3,866.
Bad weather can account for part of that increase, Blake said. But some people come to the shelter because “no trespassing” and “no camping” signs are now posted on state-owned land where they used to camp outdoors – in the woods off Hazen Drive, off Loudon and Gully Hill roads, along Stickney Avenue, and behind Everett Arena. Last July, a Merrimack County Superior Court judge ruled the state can evict homeless residents from its land in Concord.
The Open Hands Resource Center will again distribute tent kits containing a tent, tarp and sleeping bag – this year, at a cost of $20. For those who will still need to camp, Blake said she can only advise them to stay away from posted areas and not set up tents in large groups.
“Nobody gave them specific areas to go,” she said.
When the churches close their shelters at 8 a.m., guests usually head to the Friendly Kitchen for warmth and breakfast. Director Jennifer Lombardo said anxiety about the winter shelters’ closing is palpable.
“They come here to eat, but they talk about – they don’t know where to go,” Lombardo said.
‘Everybody’s kind of on edge’
The soup kitchen opens weekdays for breakfast during the winter, and will continue to do so until Friday, Lombardo said. On cold days, the Friendly Kitchen’s tables have been a haven for those with few other places to go.
Locke sat down Thursday morning at her table, a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of orange juice on her tray – “gold, pure gold,” she said, pointing at her drink.
It was the first day of spring, but snow had fallen the night before. Locke planned to spend her day inside, at the State House, counting floor tiles. She wanted to know how many beds the building could fit. But the night before, on the steps outside the South Congregational Shelter, smoke from her cigarette clouded her hope for that plan for just a moment.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Locke said. “I don’t know.”
‘Long, complicated, involved and sad’
Assistant Shelter Director Susan Gagnon walked through the makeshift rooms in the basement of First Congregational on South Main Street.
It’s been a long and wet winter, Gagnon said. It’s been a winter of lost toes, of not enough flu shots, of squeezing in an extra bed here and there, and of listening.
“Everybody has a different story that’s long, complicated, involved and sad,” Gagnon said.
There was Roseanne Ferrante, 69. Her lips were unsmiling and tight, and she repeated the same three sentences over and over to make sure the words were heard.
“My son is in Raymond, New Hampshire,” she said. “And I want to live with him. I have not seen him in 20 years.”
A homeless man walked through the shelter, telling anyone who would listen that he had filled out an application for an apartment that day.
“I’m hoping I get this apartment,” he said, stuttering slightly as he spoke. “It’s got one bedroom.”
“I have no furniture,” he added.
Joe Bard just turned 30. He works for a buddy of his, doing painting jobs, work he said he likes. Once he gets paid, he said, he’ll get his own place.
“Once I get my own place, I’ll be back on my feet,” he said.
Heidi Sweeney, 35, didn’t think she and her fiance would be able to find $20 for a tent kit. She’ll get her disability money at the beginning of April, but she didn’t know what she would do until then. Her 7-year-old son is staying with her friend for now, because the shelter takes only adults.
“I don’t know how people do this,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for two months. I’m about to sign myself into the hospital. I’m going crazy. I don’t know how people do this for a long period of time.”
As she tells it, Locke’s story is also long, complicated, involved and sad. She’s been married, divorced and abused. She said she had three DWIs on her record, each in a different state, before she got sober 23 years ago. She’s been homeless about half a dozen times since she was injured on the job in 2007, she said. She’s in a legal fight with her former landlord, the owner of the home she lived in until February. She’s living out of her friend’s truck while he’s in the hospital, and she just spent the last of her cash on gas.
“Every time I start that truck, I hear a dollar go ding,” she said.
But her blue-gray eyes are bright, and that toothy smile gets wider when she talks about the foundation she’s going to start for human rights and the homeless when she can pay the filing fee.
“I’m the happiest I have been in my life,” Locke said. “I am only supposed to plan for now.”
Wherever now is, wherever now goes.
“Where I’m at is pretty much where I’m at.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or email@example.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)