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Homeless in Concord: Cold weather shelter to open, but not seen as long-term solution

Last modified: 12/13/2015 11:10:38 PM
While outreach workers and officials have warned for months no cold-weather shelter would open this winter, Mayor Jim Bouley has struck a deal to host 60 beds for the homeless at St. Peter’s Church in Concord.

That number is comparable to the total beds for homeless adults last winter. An open date has not yet been set for the shelter, which will be managed by the Friends Program and requires some financing from taxpayers.

The mayor led the last-ditch effort to open such a space, which even three weeks ago looked improbable.

Not everyone, however, believed a shelter was the best solution for this winter.

“A shelter is not the solution to homelessness,” said Ellen Groh, the executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. “Some people think, ‘Everyone’s sheltered. That problem is taken care of.’ . . . The solution to homelessness is housing.”

But Bouley felt something had to be done. At this time last year, one of the city’s two shelters was opening for the winter.

Without the traditional cold-weather shelters at First and South Congregational churches in downtown Concord this year, the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness worked through the spring and summer to find a smaller emergency shelter to no avail.

When no one agreed to manage or host such a shelter, the coalition started working on an overnight warming center where the homeless could come inside from the cold. That area would not hold beds or act as a shelter; rather, guests would spend the night in chairs or awake.

But at a planning meeting of service providers last month, the mayor expressed uneasiness about the idea.

“If people are lacking in sleep, they don’t always make the best decisions,” Bouley said, adding he worried about the effect on organizations like the Friendly Kitchen and downtown businesses.

While he wasn’t sold on the idea, Bouley said he appreciated the coalition’s efforts to open a warming center.

“They have been a key partner in trying to bring people together to find a solution, short of having a shelter,” Bouley said. “If (a warming center) was going to be the only alternative, that was going to be the best we had. I thought we could do better.”

While the coalition pursued the warming center, Bouley worked separately with the Catholic diocese and Christ the King Parish in Concord to open a shelter in the North State Street church, which is vacant and for sale. He credited the diocese with opening the space for a shelter; the coalition had not been able to find a willing host among other churches, public buildings and private landlords.

“This is not a permanent solution, but at least we’ll be a help for now,” Fr. Richard Roberge, pastor of Christ the King Parish said. “It’s a good use of the building during the winter months.”

Bouley does not yet have a firm budget for the shelter. But he said the Granite United Way will take on some of the insurance costs and act as a fiscal agent, and the mayor is raising money through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and other sources. On Monday, he will also ask the Concord City Council to front $30,000 for operating costs.

“I think it’s a reasonable ask,” Bouley said.

Concord Hospital will provide cots and linens. The Friends Program, a local nonprofit that runs a family shelter, has agreed to manage the staff.

Jerry Madden, the executive director of the Friends Program, said the organization has considered helping with the emergency shelter in the past. But with limited resources to run its own programs, the nonprofit couldn’t take on the added liability and cost.

“Two weeks ago, I thought we weren’t going to have an active role,” Madden said.

When Bouley called to tell him other partners like Granite United Way stepped in, Madden said he felt more comfortable getting involved. The nonprofit will also be compensated to cover costs incurred by taking on this project, Madden said.

The director of the Friends Program family shelter, Arolyn King, will oversee a small staff of emergency shelter managers hired by the nonprofit. Those paid positions will be supplemented by overnight volunteers. The operation will be separate from the day-to-day work of the family shelter and other Friends initiatives.

“The big challenge is mobilizing volunteers to assist in this effort right away,” Madden said. “The greatest challenge is getting this thing up and running pretty quickly, which is what we’re all talking about right now.”

Greg Lessard, a board member at the Friends Program the director of development at the Concord Food Cooperative, will coordinate volunteers.

“The Co-op is proud to offer our help toward providing this critical service,” Lessard said in an email. “Finding individuals that will donate an evening of their time, as well as coordinating coverage for what could be 90 nights, is a critical piece that still needs to be worked out before this temporary shelter can open.”

St. Peter’s allows for two separate areas inside the shelter: a section for sober guests, and a section for guests who have been using drugs or alcohol. In the past, First Congregational accepted those under the influence; South Congregational took only sober individuals.

The coalition and others have worried the Concord shelters were a magnet; other towns and cities often sent their homeless to the capital for help.

“Under New Hampshire law, every municipality is responsible to those people who present to the human services department,” Bouley said. “At the end of the day, if someone’s cold, I think it’s morally wrong to leave them outside.”

The North Main Street building where the coalition has its office and runs the Concord Homeless Resource Center could have hosted 16 beds, though its layout was not ideal. But in recent weeks, Groh, the executive director of the coalition, worried that limited number would not be enough.

The warming center, she said, was born from a desire to avoid turning anyone away.

While Groh said she was “thrilled” at the news, she is worried the cold-weather shelter, which 10 years ago started as a temporary solution, will detract from the goal of finding permanent housing for its guests.

Bouley said he agreed housing is the ultimate goal.

“I still feel Housing First is the appropriate long-term solution,” Bouley said. “But we have a gap this year, and we need to fill the space.”

Because St. Peter’s Church is on the market, Bouley said, this option will not be available in years to come. In the spring, he said he will want to regroup with the coalition and local service providers.

“In the meantime, we gotta get through this winter,” he said.

How to help

To be a volunteer at the cold weather shelter, email Greg Lessard at greg@concordfoodcoop.coop. Interested volunteers who do not have easy access to email should leave a voicemail at 228-7620. In that voicemail, leave your name, phone number and the best time for a return call.

Anyone wishing to donate to the cold weather shelter should contact the Granite United Way at graniteuw.org or 224-2595.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321, mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle. Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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