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Spring’s return comes with familiar shelter problem for Concord’s homeless

  • A shopping cart full of clothes and blankets in front of homeless camp site off of Fort Eddy road near the Merrimack River on Thursday, April 18, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A homeless encampment off of Fort Eddy Road near the Merrimack River in Concord on Thursday, April 18, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A homeless encampment off of Fort Eddy Road in Concord is seen Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Lois Potter and Robert Potter of Concord currently live in their car.

Monitor staff
Published: 4/18/2019 6:44:45 PM
Modified: 4/18/2019 6:44:34 PM

It was the end of March, and Concord’s homeless community was preparing for spring.

In the days leading up to the closure of the cold weather shelter on March 31, several people checked with the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness to see if the local or state housing waitlists had budged. Others made sure their food stamps were all set because winter breakfast at the Friendly Kitchen was ending.

Some had transition plans, but many told caseworker Julie Green they would have nowhere to sleep at night when the shelter closed.

On April 1, some headed out into a brisk spring morning armed with bright-blue tents and sleeping bags provided by the Community Action Program for Belknap and Merrimack counties, and some words of advice from Green:

If you camp, stay low, stay hidden. Don’t trash your campsite. No fires or big parties. And know what the consequences might be if you get caught.

It’s a frustrating time of year for everyone involved in the homeless community. Coalition providers know many of the homeless they work with will end up outside again once the shelter closes, often heading to the same locations around the city.

Eventually, the police show up and tell the homeless they have to move along. Concord police on bicycles visited some camps last weekend and gave people a one-week deadline. On Saturday, they’ll visit those camps again to give second warnings, possibly some citations, said Concord police Lt. Sean Ford. It’s the same spring routine.

“It almost feels like Groundhog Day at times,” Ford said.

The Coalition says the situation doesn’t have to be inevitable. But it will take the same kind of community involvement that brought a permanent winter shelter to their backyard to make a difference.

Out on their own

Individuals who don’t have a place to go when the winter shelter closes often head into Concord’s woods, under its overpasses and behind its shopping centers.

That’s what Justin Patrick, 33, did. He and a few others camped out about 20 minutes away from downtown. He thinks the police know where they are, but they haven’t been bothered yet, he said.

He thinks that’s because they take pains to keep quiet and clean, with no fires. He said he searched for a location that wouldn’t bother surrounding residents, something he doesn’t think everyone tries to do.

“It’s an out of sight, out of mind type of thing,” he said.

But a good spot doesn’t alleviate the challenges of homeless living, which Patrick said can be “pretty rough,” best lived on a “day-to-day, sometimes hour-by-hour” basis.

Others, like Lois Potter, 60, and her husband, Robert Potter, went back into their Buick, which they’ve lived in for about three years now. They park it wherever they can find a place that won’t kick them out.

Lois Potter doesn’t want to live anywhere without Robert, who she’s been married to for 19 years. But she said landlords won’t accept him because Robert Potter is on parole for his involvement in the beating of a homeless teenager in 2009.

“He knows what he did was wrong, but nobody wants to give him a second chance,” she said.

Living in the car is difficult – it’s cold at night, and provides little space. It’s become exhausting for Potter.

“I just can’t do it no more,” she said. “I’m getting sick; I’ve had a cold for almost a month, and I can’t get rid of it.”

Potter grew up in Concord and doesn’t remember the city having a homeless population. In hindsight, she wonders if those who were homeless were too ashamed to talk about it.

“All my friends, they never said anything,” she said. “They probably never talked about it, because they were embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about the situation.”

Both Patrick and Potter say people should try to be more understanding of the situation homeless people are in.

“We were all somebody before we were on the street, you know?” Patrick said. “You talk to people, and they have families, they have kids. People had houses, they had jobs, businesses, cars, you know? We all had something.”

Preparing for spring

The week of April 15 has been particularly rough on the homeless community, Green said.

The police warnings coincided with heavy rains that raised the Merrimack River and washed several people’s tents away.

“I feel like people have been on a rollercoaster this week,” she said. “They’re been either angry, giddy, happy or crying.”

Green knows people aren’t allowed to camp on public or private property without permission, but housing for the homeless is scarce, either because it’s too expensive or landlords are unwilling to work with homeless individuals.

“There’s such a stigma, and people can’t get over that,” she said.

They might be able to find space at the McKenna House, the year-round shelter operated by The Salvation Army, but the dry shelter doesn’t allow people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The Coalition’s winter shelter is low-barrier, meaning anyone can stay if they aren’t presenting a danger to themselves or others.

Even advance warning that the shelter would be closing did little to help, Green said.

“I don’t think I did enough, to be quite honest,” Green said, sitting in her office at the Coalition’s resource center. “We did a lot of prep work ... but there were definitely days when we were feeling like, ‘The shelter is going to close, and where do we go?’ ”

Green doesn’t fault the Community Action Program for handing out tents and sleeping bag. But she questioned whether those resources could be better used elsewhere.

“It’s like the money is almost a waste,” she said, “because those tents get trashed, torn up and stolen. It makes you think, what could we take the money for those tents, and where could we put it?”

There are some private property owners who allow the homeless to camp, Green said. But she doesn’t know who they are, and the people who are in that situation don’t broadcast it, she said.

CAP Belknap-Merrimack’s homeless outreach coordinator, Joshua Freedmen, referred all questions to program officials. Phone calls and an email to CAP Belknap-Merrimack executive director Jeanne Agri were not returned.

The situation is challenging for police, too. Police usually have decent interactions with the homeless community, but this time of year causes stress.

“We try to meet people in the middle,” he said. “We try to be sensitive, but at the same time if they don’t have the right to be on a piece of property, they can’t stay there.”

Moving people from camps is usually spurred by complaints from private landowners or residents, Ford said. But some of the work is preventative because police know where the camps are.

“We’re the enforcement arm of this,” he said. “At the end of the day, we don’t have the authority to make a solution for it. There needs to be a village solution.”

Coalition Executive Director Ellen Groh agrees. After years of scrambling to pull together an emergency winter shelter, the Coalition opened its own seasonal shelter this winter season. It operated for about 104 days and served 192 unique guests.

The solution isn’t a year-round shelter, she said, but permanent, low-barrier housing. And the whole state needs to get involved to end homelessness, not just a few motivated people in Concord.

“We need political will from the community as a whole to be energized and working towards the same goal as a whole,” she said.

It was that kind of will and community involvement that made the shelter materialize after 2 ½ years of location searching, zoning regulations navigation, funding and construction. It will take more to fulfill Groh’s hopes for the Coalition’s next step – a multi-unit apartment complex with rental assistance.

It’s just a dream now, but Groh said the Coalition’s been looking around for places where such a project could land. They’ve visited Preble Street, an organization in Portland, Maine that provides three permanent housing to persistently homeless individuals, among other services.

It’s an ambitious program, Groh said. But a similar solution could make a difference in Concord.

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