Pandemic reduces Concord homeless shelters’ capacity heading into winter months

  • Mary Terese Shelbly from the Concord Homeless Resource Center serves up some coffee to Shawn Sullivan of Concord on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. Sulivan lost his job in the spring because of the COVID pandemic and became homeless but has since found a job and is getting back on his feet. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mary Terese Shelbly from the Concord Homeless Resource Center serves up some coffee to Shawn Sullivan of Concord on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. Sulivan lost his job in the spring because of the COVID pandemic and became homeless but has since found a job and is getting back on his feet. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Shawn Sullivan gets coffee at the Concord Homeless Resource Center on Wednesday. Sullivan lost his job at the start of the pandemic and became homeless but has since found a new job. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/26/2020 2:04:49 PM

With the winter season fast approaching, Concord’s social service agencies are working together to find innovative ways to safely provide shelter and warm meals to those in need during a pandemic.

Due to social distancing requirements, the capacity at the city’s homeless shelters will be reduced this year. Experts fear that decreased capacity coupled with an increased need for beds and services could ultimately affect Concord’s ability to keep the virus at bay.

Recognizing that additional financial resources will be needed to respond, the city is moving forward with an application to the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority in hopes of securing up to $500,000 under the Community Development Block Grant program.

Earlier this year, the state received $5.4 million to be deployed under the program thanks to the CARES Act, a stimulus bill passed by the federal government in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Municipalities can access up to $3.7 million of the total funds to support public services.

Concord City Council recently authorized City Manager Tom Aspell to submit an application on behalf of the city, in addition to several public service agencies: Concord Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH), Family Promise of Greater Concord, Friendly Kitchen and The Friends Program.

CCEH, Family Promise and The Friends Program are together seeking between $203,065 and $252,205 of the up to $500,000 to provide additional shelter for people who are homeless.

The winter shelter at CCEH can accommodate up to 40 people sleeping on 20 bunk beds from mid-December through March, but the coalition anticipates that no more than 32 people will be able to stay there this winter, according to documentation CCEH Executive Director Ellen Groh provided to the city.

The Friends Program can serve up to eight families in its shelter, but the pandemic has limited its ability to help local families. Through temporary state funding, the program housed three families in their own units at the Residence Inn in Concord earlier this year, but those funds were exhausted in July, Executive Director Nancy Paul explained in a joint letter to the council.

On a rotating schedule, one dozen interfaith host sites provide temporary homes through Family Promise for families in need. The organization typically accommodates about three families at one time. However, the experience for families this year has been quite different as they’ve stayed at campground cottages in Henniker, which are set to close next month, Director Liane MaLossi Kerbyson told the council.

“In order to comply with CDC guidelines and to protect shelter guests, shelter staff, and the community overall from spread of the virus, these three shelters cannot maintain their normal capacity,” the directors wrote in their joint letter.

“Homelessness is expected to increase over the coming months since the eviction moratorium has lifted and federal unemployment benefits will end,” they continued. “The shelter system in Concord was strained even before the pandemic, so this decreased capacity coupled with increased need will be tremendous hardship on people experiencing homelessness, and may also have a negative impact on the Concord community’s ability to slow the spread of the disease overall.”

New statistics released by the National Alliance to End Homelessness reveal that an estimated $11.5 billion is needed for 400,000 new shelter beds nationwide to accommodate everyone who is unsheltered and to ensure shelters adhere to social distancing requirements, while also creating space for those who need to quarantine.

A report prepared this summer by Concord’s Director of Human Services Karen Emis-Williams estimated that approximately 150 to 170 individuals are currently experiencing homelessness in Concord. It found that 95 percent of the city’s homeless population are from Concord or its village of Penacook, despite the popular belief that many individuals travel from other parts of the state to the Capital Region to obtain services.

As CCEH, Family Promise and The Friends Program explore how to maintain or potentially expand the city’s shelter capacity, they’re looking at hotel availability and associated costs. People at high risk due to a persistent medical condition or other factors would be prioritized, and food delivery would be arranged for those guests, the organizations told city councilors. Additionally, the directors said hotel rooms could serve dual purposes in that a shelter could send individuals or families there who need to isolate or self-quarantine.

“If hotel space is not available, a second option is to locate available space to operate a decompression shelter for individuals, which would require a second set of paid overnight staff, as well as whatever rental or utility costs for the second congregate site,” the directors said in their joint letter. “The site could be at a faith community facility, or other facility not being used due to COVID.”

CCEH has operated a resource center for those in need under a tent outside at 238 N. Main St. in recent months, but will move those services back inside come October.

In the meantime, staff have been working with public health officials to improve the air purification system and explore options for UV-C light treatment to help reduce viral spread, Groh said.

Plans are also underway at the Friendly Kitchen to resume indoor meal service for people this winter. The organization has proposed operating a two-hour warming center each afternoon between lunch and dinner, as well. To provide safe, socially-distanced space to eat, as well as extend its case management and support offerings, the Friendly Kitchen is seeking $115,810.

Two additional programs provided by the Friends Program could also get a financial boost. The organization is seeking $53,499 for its youth mentoring services – which helps foster at-risk mentees’ grade-level reading skills – and its shopping for seniors program.

After prioritizing the requests, the city will pursue the remaining $78,486 of the $500,000 in total grants to assist low- to moderate-income residents with housing assistance, food and utility costs and other essential services.

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