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Seeking Shelter: Critical mass of people focused on homelessness in Concord



Last modified: Thursday, December 18, 2014
When First Congregational Church opened its cold weather shelter for the season Saturday, the volunteers saved Bunk No. 1.

Bunk No. 1 belongs to Red.

Red’s real name is Robert Glodgett, and he is 52 years old. He would like a place of his own. But after years of drinking and camping outside, the path to get there is steep.

In the winter months, Bunk No. 1 is the closest place he has to a home.

“We ain’t out to hurt anybody,” Glodgett said. “We’re out just trying to survive.”

Ellen Groh, executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, wants to help him do more than survive.

“We can shift this paradigm,” Groh said. “There will always be someone who has just become homeless, but this long-term homelessness . . . that can be reduced astronomically.”

Groh came to Concord in February, as a perfect storm began to spin. The number of chronically homeless in the city has risen, but the city’s two cold weather shelters will close for good after this winter. The network of service providers for the homeless is disjointed, but the state wants those agencies to develop a more coordinated assessment of their clients and share data more regularly.

The Concord City Council has appointed a steering committee and approved a plan to end homelessness, which focuses more on creating housing and less on emergency shelter. But no one solution will be the right fix for every person living on Concord’s streets, and some cases seem impossible.

So who leads the way? Groh and the coalition have stepped into the foreground.

“I see us as the group that can keep seeing the bigger picture and pulling people in toward that,” Groh said.

Fragmented network

When Groh joined the coalition, she asked case manager Jackie Lewis for the basic checklist she uses for intakes at the Homeless Resource Center.

“She just laughed and said, ‘There’s no basic checklist,’ ” Groh said. “We have a computer document that’s 60 pages long of the different places you can send people.”

Groh began her career as a legal services attorney in North Carolina, has worked in affordable housing development and has a master’s degree in public health. In more recent years, she was part of a volunteer effort to start a bus service to transport low-income residents in rural parts of Hillsborough County to medical appointments.

But this is her first experience working with a primarily homeless population, and “it has been a steep learning curve,” she said.

For one, she was surprised to find a fragmented network of service providers and resources – a homeless person needs to travel from office to office to get help, dragging his or her story from one door to the next. One of Groh’s goals – and one of the goals in the city’s plan to end homelessness – is to expand the Homeless Resource Center, and to include more service providers on-site.

Groh was also taken aback by the shift in her own attitude.

“My mindset coming in was that this is an endless problem, and we just do the best we can,” she said. But through research and experience and conversations with other organizations and homeless people, Groh is now convinced Concord could see an end to chronic homelessness.

“We’re not a huge city,” she explained. “We don’t have thousands of homeless people.”

Not that it will be easy. Among other ideas, Groh has seized upon Housing First as an option for Concord. But neither the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness nor the city’s steering committee is prepared to be a shelter or a housing provider. Organizations like Families in Transition have expressed interest, but the necessary money is hard to come by.

“There’s no agency that I’ve found that, that’s their job and their role,” Groh said. “There’s no pocket of money just for that.”

No matter the model, many agree that creating more affordable housing for the homeless is the long-term solution. To do that, however, the coalition will have to unite a network of service providers as diverse and dispersed as the homeless population itself – and make it stick.

Goals emerge

In August, Groh hosted a meeting at First Congregational Church in Concord. Seated in rows of folding chairs were outreach workers and police officers, shelter staff and members of the board for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness.

The questions were many and wide-ranging. Some wondered about an idea Groh borrowed from communities like Madison, Wis., and Austin, Texas – tiny low-income homes, with just a couple hundred square feet of living space. In other communities, these miniature homes have proven to be an inexpensive and stable place for some homeless people to live. But one woman asked, could we establish tiny homes without making them into shanties or slums?

Another person wondered about how to make sure the formerly homeless are clean tenants and respectful neighbors. Could we persuade everyone to go into housing? How do we get the larger community on board?

Another guest mentioned the homeless who don’t want to be housed at all – what about them? And homeless sex offenders – where do they go?

“That’s a really difficult one,” Groh said. “I know many programs are hesitant. They don’t want the liability.”

And how do we pay for it all?

Since that meeting, the city council appointed some of the community’s powerbrokers to implement the city’s plan to end homelessness. Its members include Peter Evers, CEO and president of Riverbend Community Mental Health; Ward 4 Councilor Byron Champlin; Concord developer Steve Duprey; Episcopal Bishop Robert Hirschfeld; city and county officials; and other local leaders.

At its first meeting, the group set two short-term goals: find an alternative emergency shelter for next winter, and expand in the Homeless Resource Center in a new and larger location. But their true focus is still a long-term goal to create permanent housing for the chronically homeless, through Housing First and other models.

Part of the committee’s purpose is to connect the coalition with community leaders, who can then facilitate its work, Champlin said. The committee, which gathered for the second time this week, will post notice of future meetings on the city website so members of the public can attend.

“This is not a sprint,” Groh said. “This is a marathon.”

A critical mass

Finding places for the homeless to live – whether in existing apartments or future developments – is just one challenge. Finding the money to house the homeless – and keep them housed long term – could be even more difficult. Maureen Ryan, administrator for the state Bureau of Homeless and Housing Services, called this a “tough financial environment.”

“I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s definitely a challenge to get something like this going,” Ryan said. “But I think the biggest piece of it – if you can get through (not-in-my-backyard sentiment), if you can get through zoning, if you can get through all that – is the long-term housing subsidy.”

But momentum is building.

Concord Mayor Jim Bouley, who helped open a winter shelter for families for several years, recalled this summer when the city condemned the former Vegas Block building on North Main Street. More than 20 low-income tenants and squatters were evicted with barely 24 hours’ notice; the city found housing for some, but others slept outside.

That experience woke up members of the community to the squalid life inside one of downtown’s most recognizable buildings, the mayor said. And when First and South congregational churches announced their winter shelters would not operate beyond this season, Bouley said he heard from residents who were alarmed to learn those two basements are the city’s only emergency refuge from cold weather.

“There’s a tremendous lack of information or lack of knowledge. . . . Nobody is putting the pieces together until you have a crisis,” Bouley said.

J. St. Hilaire was homeless for about 25 years, but with the help of an intense supportive housing program with Families in Transition, she has lived in her Concord apartment for 10 years. This summer, she joined the board of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness.

There’s good work happening in Concord right now, she said.

“There’s enough people that care, a critical mass of people that care,” St. Hilaire said. “If you can support them, support them.”

“There’s a force here.”



SERIES OVERVIEW PHOTO GALLERY Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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