Agencies that assist homeless working together more now than ever

  • A homeless person waits for the mail to arrive at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness resource center on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Homeless line up outside he tent with proper distanting at the shelter on the grounds of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness on Main Street in Concord on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/17/2020 2:24:29 PM

When the state’s leaders in the fight against homelessness talk, it’s good to listen.

And when they say more stability is needed at the top, more defined leadership, more of a framework to stitch this patchwork of nonprofits together, you can believe it.

They are rapidly working on it, spurred by a virus and an executive order to help the homeless.

Call it a silver lining. A sliver of a silver lining, yes, but one nevertheless, and you take what you can get after something called COVID-19 stops the world in its tracks.

“It’s a horrible situation for many families in the state,” said Jeanne Agri, the CEO of the Community Action Program. “It’s not like New York, but we have still lost people and that’s devastating, but I also look at it like an opportunity, and this is an opportunity to pool resources and find some unity in the work we do.”

She’s one of the big names in this field. One of the professionals attached to yet another bizarre consequence of the coronavirus: Where should homeless people go if they get sick?

Nothing definite had emerged from the governor’s office. Leaders I spoke to believed something was in the works and would be announced soon, but no one seemed to know anything more than that.

Any comment from the state about future plans had to go through a specific channel, and that produced a pair of statements that were dry like my hands after too much sanitizer.

“The Department of Health and Human Services has held daily calls with homelessness and housing providers, shelters, community partners and related stakeholders about their COVID-19 response efforts and their changing needs,” wrote Jake Leon, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. “As the COVID-19 crisis  continues to evolve,  we provide updates in real-time to the guidance provided to these community partners and the public.”

Perry Plummer, the assistant commissioner at the New Hampshire of Safety, had a little more info, saying a yet-to-be-determined site will be available. It wasn’t clear when or if that meant a building on the campus of the Laconia State School, or something closer to Concord.

“The facility will only be populated as needed and as with the alternate care sites, our hope is that the facility is not needed,” Plummer wrote. “Should we need it, we are prepared to house between 15 and 20 individuals.”

The governor’s proclamation about setting up such a facility was vague, directing state, local, and private sector partners to collaborate on opening at least one isolation site, and to help local communities reduce shelter numbers for more effective social distancing.

It’s not clear if anything would be different these days if the state had a central command to deal with homelessness. But the concern among some of the area’s leaders said a lot.

New Hampshire’s decentralized system of volunteers and non-profits has chipped away at ending homelessness for years from various angles. Add a pandemic to the mix, and a scramble to find common thought grows in importance.

“I'm sure it’s like herding cats, given we are a state that has always valued local control,” said Ellen Groh, the director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. “And so many of our social safety net systems are locally based and not normally coordinated statewide. And the social safety net was not adequate even in normal times, so it was definitely not equipped for a crisis of this scale.”

To be fair, who was? In Laconia, the former State School is being considered as a site for the homeless who have tested positive or feel sick. The city’s officials and residents have voiced their opposition to the idea, fearful that patients would be free to move about the city and potentially spread the illness.

“Yes, there has been a lot of confusion,” Groh said. “But it has been an unprecedented public health crisis.”

When it comes to sheltering those less fortunate, Concord’s passion and heart emerges, and no one knows this more than Andy Labrie, a former outreach coordinator for CAP. Labrie still has close ties to the homeless community. He still leads annual drives to collect tents and tarps and socks and blankets.

Asked if he believed that a facility to isolate and care for the homeless was vital, Labrie said yes.

“I think it is,” Labrie said. “If someone is sick, they need a place to stay.”

But Labrie preferred to talk about all the selfless groups and efforts that the city is known for, fueled by organizations like the Coalition to End Homelessness, the American Friends Service Committee, the Friendly Kitchen, the McKenna House, winter shelters provided by the church community and the Resource Center, which now uses a big tent in its parking lot as an outdoor center to help isolate while staying open. Even the cops have handed out warmth to the homeless, in the form of blankets and tents.

There’s also an annual winter tribute to the homeless who have died over the past 12 months, in front of the State House. A bell rings for each passing, music plays, words of hope are spoken and, often, it snows.

And yet despite the compassion and grants the city is known for, the vision to house any homeless who become ill remains blurry.

“The state wanted to end homelessness in 10 years,” Agri scoffed. “But we’re a little past 10 years. When the conversation came rolling out, I thought that it’s good, it’s good to have goals. But you’re talking about an infrastructure to support clients who are supposed to get help during their homeless struggles.”

That, local leaders believe, is the next step. They’d love to look ahead, join hands, share thoughts, build a singular unit in the name of efficiency.

They’d love a new beginning. Once the deadly virus that resembles a dog’s chew is gone.

“It’s always been fragmented,” Agri noted. “We are working hard to be unified. It’s clearly needed.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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