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While the homeless struggle, hope sits on the horizon

  • Janet Pogor waits for the shelter to open at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness on Thursday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Pappilion Mains waits for the shelter to open at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness on Thursday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Saturday, December 22, 2018

Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger has been around, seen a lot and tried to help.

He’s the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord. He received his master’s of divinity in Chicago, where he saw big-city homelessness up close. He saw it in New York City and San Francisco as well, saw its effects on people, on resources, on the general mood of these major metro areas, the indifference of people mixed with the empathy.

Closer to home, Leuchtenberger chairs the board of directors for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, the group that has been on the front lines in recent years, fighting a seemingly never-ending battle against a demon that is equal parts addiction, mental illness, bad luck and bad attitudes.

We should listen to Leuchtenberger. Especially because you’ll like what he has to say.

“Here, there are a limited number of (homeless) people, and we know who they are,” Leuchtenberger told me by phone. “If the community decided to do something about it, we can solve this, which is what energizes our current board.”

The minister, a German native who studied in Singapore, graduated from the Ivy League and is president of the Northern New England Chapter of the Unitarian Ministers Association, is a central figure in this central problem.

He said the coalition has helped house 15 chronically homeless people in recent years, combining vouchers from Housing and Urban Development with available income from benefits, usually a 70-30 ratio.

This guarantees that landlords will receive their rent. It ensures they will have a caseworker as a point of contact if there’s a problem. But with homelessness as with mental illness, a stigma, like hunger and cold, is never far away.

“The biggest challenge has been finding housing because the rental market is so tight,” Leuchtenberger told me. “We need to find landlords who are willing to rent to people who have challenges. They are working with a population that because of circumstances the landlord might be reluctant to rent to.”

Leuchtenberger has joined hands with people like Ellen Groh and Jake King, leaders of the coalition, and Arnie Alpert and Maggie Fogarty from the American Friends Service Committee, all symbolically serving as roofs over the heads of the homeless, all involved in the issue in one way or another.

They’ve been promoting a new way to look at the problem, a fresh prism over the past five years. House the chronically homeless population first, ask questions later. They’re the ones who tax the capabilities of the hospitals and the police and the mental health institutions.

Give them a place to call home. Give them access to resources once they warm up. Get them off drugs and alcohol.

Give them hope.

Then worry about their return to society.

“Chronic homelessness, those are the hardest people to house,” Leuchtenberger said. “That is our niche for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. They have a big impact on the community. If we find a way for supporting housing, then that frees up the rest of our system to take care of the short-term people.”

To nudge the concept along, Leuchtenberger and the others mentioned above joined hands Friday night in front of the state house, as they do every year at this time, paying tribute to a forgotten segment of the community.

Leuchtenberger served as master of ceremonies, reading the 58 names of homeless people statewide who died in 2018.

Each name was accompanied by the bong of a bell. Each name was given dignity and identity in a world, their world, the homeless world, that often offers neither. Ten of the names were connected to the Concord area.

“It brings back what could be an academic issue back to reality, what life on the streets can be if the resources are not there,” Leuchtenberger said. “In certain cases it’s been a life or death situation, and for the community to hold a moment to remember them is special.”

The two-building complex on North Main Street – the Resource Center and new shelter – opened for the winter last week and aims to shorten that list read Friday.

In the past, the South and First Congregational Churches opened their doors for the homeless in winter, but that was never seen as a permanent site. St. Peter’s Church took the reins the last two years.

Now there’s a new facility with room for 39 people, with bunk beds, blue polyester fiber mattresses, two long, narrow aisle ways, a thermostat that digitally reads 70 degrees on the back wall and a registration office near the entrance that includes numbered bins for storage – cigarettes, jackets and coats, prescription medication.

Guests during the first three nights totaled 13, 19 and 16, and, as Groh, the executive director of the coalition, pointed out, “Every winter it starts slowly. The shelter does not have the capacity to care for everyone in the state. This is Concord money, supported by Concord people.”

Groh’s organization won unanimous backing from the planning board in May of 2017 to build the 1,480-square foot shelter. Money has come from lots of sources: the sale of tax credits; the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, which does not require repayment; city, county and state funding; grants; and, of course, your generosity and local business sponsorships.

One of the shelter’s overnight managers is Jake King, a lean-and-strong looking former cop and Army Ranger who founded a company called Thrive Outdoors. He calls the people who sleep there “guests,” and incorporates his business model into the shelter’s culture, promoting inner strength, leadership and cooperation to change the landscape often associated with the homeless.

“We set the standard and policy on how it will run,” King said shortly before the shelter’s 7 p.m. opening last week. “It’s a social justice model more than a punitive model, explaining how everything they do affects everyone around you. You do something negative and it in turn has a negative effect on others whether you realize it or not. You live in the same community and atmosphere.”

By then, with the sun gone and the temperature dropping, guests had begun gathering outside, sitting on the long wooden bench attached to the front of the shelter.

One was 63-year-old Janet Pogor of Concord. She was a bus monitor in the Merrimack Valley School District for 10 years. Since then, she says she suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and has had emotional breakdowns, leading to unemployment and homelessness.

She has plans and dreams. She hopes to finish a program at Riverbend Community Mental Health, at which time she says she’ll get help from a caseworker and psychiatrist. She hopes her next social security disability check will allow her to rent her own place.

Last week she slept at the shelter, which opens at 7 each night and closes at 7 the next morning, then had no place to go, telling me, “I’ve been bouncing around just like a ball has been bouncing around. This place has been good to me.”

I also met 32-year-old Pappilion Mains, who says he tried to hang himself from a tree recently after he no longer could afford his prescription medication, needed to fight bipolar disorder. He says a cop saw what he was doing and “rushed over and scooped me up.”

He spent time at the New Hampshire State Hospital, feeling lost. He says his mother abused him growing up, so he left home in Brockton, Mass., at 15 years old and has been fighting the demons caused by mental illness ever since.

“A crappy feeling,” Mains said. “Lonely, and people die from loneliness. I was sad, feeling hopeless, had nightmares and memory loss.”

He said he’s back on his medication and had an upcoming interview for an auto mechanic’s job.

“It’s time for me to get back in gear,” Mains told me. “I hope to have my own apartment within a month.”

Leuchtenberger says that’s not far fetched. He’s seen bigger problems, in bigger cities. He says Concord’s intimacy will work in our favor.

“This is not like New York City or San Francisco,” he said. “This problem is a solvable problem.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @RayDuckler.)