Pandemic disrupted routines of those facing homelessness

  • Max Starkey stands at a former homeless encampment south of exit 16 of Interstate-93 in Concord on Feb. 24, 2021. The police shut down the camp last fall. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Max Starkey gets ready to sleep in his truck at the I-89 park and ride at exit 2 in Concord on Feb. 23.

  • Max Starkey, who has been homeless off and on for more than five years, gets under the covers on the seat of his truck where he sleeps in parking lots.

  • Max Starkey gets under the covers of his truck at the I-89 park and ride at exit 2 in Concord on February 23, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Max Starkey, affectionately called “Mad Max” by others in the Washington Street shelter checks on other homeless persons on his phone in the parking lot of the Dunkin’™ Donuts on South Main Street in Concord on Feb. 23. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Max Starkey checks his phone before getting breakfast at the Friendly Kitchen in Concord on February 24, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Max Starkey walks along the train tressel bridge just south of the former homeless encampment he used to live at with up to 15 people before the Concord police shut down last fall. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Max Starkey gets ready to be served breakfast by Friendly Kitchen Development Director Conor Spern of the Friendly Kitchen on Feb. 24.

  • Max Starkey looks over the former homeless encampment he used to live at with others just south of exit 16 on I-93 until the Concord police closed down last fall GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/3/2021 4:00:23 PM

In a bright room with high ceilings and crimson carpets off the nave of the First Congregational Church in Concord, Julie Green called guests to attention.

The church, recently sold and repurposed as a homeless shelter, served as hub for dozens of unhoused individuals. On one of the first warm days of the emerging spring weather, dozens of people donning masks sat around a mounted TV or slumped against gothic arches.

Green, the clinical director of case management at one of Concord’s only homeless shelters, cleared her throat to cut through her mask and the humming of nearby air purifiers.

“Does anyone want to talk with a reporter about how COVID-19 has changed their lives?” she asked.

The room erupted into wry laughter. The question seemed absurd because the pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of their daily routines, one of the men in the shelter, Max Starkey, later explained. A more appropriate question might have been how the pandemic hadn’t affected their lives.

Inside the shelter, there are constant reminders things aren’t normal – high-tech temperature readers at the entrance, air purifiers in every room, and a big bulletin board with colorful letters pinned up to display vaccine information.

Starkey, affectionately called “Mad Max” by others in the shelter, had been homeless on and off for almost five and a half years. Despite submitting several apartment applications a week, he hadn’t had luck. The housing market in Concord is tight and even tighter when you have a drug-related criminal record and a spot on the state’s sex offender registry.

Life before the pandemic wasn’t perfect for Starkey. But he had places to go. Ways to pass the time.

Before, the self described “book freak” might spend a couple of hours at the Concord Public Library, reading Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King. He might sit in Dunkin’ Donuts and make calls to one of his six kids or prospective landlords. At least twice a day, he ate a hot meal at the Friendly Kitchen, Concord’s food stop for the homeless.

When the pandemic hit, the world suddenly shrunk – the public library stopped accepting guests, Dunkin’ Donuts stacked up its tables and chairs and the soup kitchen transitioned to meals to-go.

“You can’t do anything,” he said. “You go to a store and they’re like, ‘you can’t stand outside. You can’t be here. You can’t be there. You can’t do this.’ We go down to the Friendly Kitchen to eat and we have to eat outside.”

Most of his days are now limited to the front seat of his green truck.

He eats in his car, he scrolls through apartment listings from behind the steering wheel and around 7 p.m, he drives to a parking lot off the highway and sprawls out across the seats to sleep. During the winter, he estimated his car runs 19 hours a day.

Even when he gets a chance to venture out of his vehicle for a couple of hours a day, he said the safety restrictions feel suffocating. Guests at the shelter must get their temperatures checked at arrival and wear masks at all times. The back table, where they used to be able to serve themselves a coffee is now sectioned off with a sheet of plexiglass – volunteers mix cream and sugar in for them.

Starkey has more freedom than most people at the shelter. For those without a car, their lives have largely been confined to two large rooms of the church. They walk to get around.

The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness fought to give their guests access to even those two rooms. Early in the pandemic, when it became clear that social distancing guidelines would severely limit the number of people they could welcome each day, the nonprofit used CARES Act funding to purchase the church near their headquarters.

Pieces of the puzzle

Green is proud of all her organization has done to fill in the gaps but she will tell you a warm place to stay is only part of the puzzle.

Many of the guests at the shelter rely on mental health resources to stay afloat, like addiction support groups and counseling, which, during the first stay-at-home order were largely transitioned online.

The library once provided a critical resource to the city’s homeless, offering reliable computer access to look for jobs and housing, and to support long video calls to family. It afforded a private space to talk on the phone with a therapist. With the library shut, some of the most crucial mental health help remained just out of reach.

Green quickly noticed a shift at the shelter. More and more people arrived at the church intoxicated. They started asking more frequently for Narcan. When she visited encampments to do outreach, Green noticed an alarming number of used needles on the ground.

Green tries her best to help all of the guests in crisis using her background in clinical psychology.

“They have limited access to staying places warm, but we took care of that piece as best we could,” she said. “I’m only one person. I can’t do everybody’s clinical mental health.”

One study that surveyed homeless young adults found that more than a third said they had a harder time accessing behavioral mental health services since the outbreak. This is particularly alarming given that the authors of the study also found a litany of mental health symptoms brought on by the pandemic – depression, sleep problems, loneliness, and most commonly, hopelessness.

Though he can’t pinpoint when or why, Starkey became a sort of unofficial therapist within the community. As he recalls it, people started sharing their problems with him at the gas station and shelter and, once news spread that he was a patient and trustworthy audience, demand grew.

His unofficial position grew out of a shortage of licensed professionals able to help the community. Even before the pandemic made mental health resources scarce, Craig Saltmarsh, a homeless outreach specialist at Riverbend Community Mental Health, said there weren’t enough hours in the day to help all of the people calling him in desperation.

“Truthfully, I could spend 40 hours a week with one client and it might take me three weeks to fix all the problems,” he explained. “I can only help so many people. I tell my clients, ‘I’m sorry. I just don’t have the time.’ We’re up against mountains to try to help these people move forward.”

The specifics of the issues brought to Starkey vary. They might be struggling to find housing or dealing with separation from their children. The general sentiment, though, is always the same: no one is helping. Starkey said the system feels like a revolving door – a seemingly endless loop of no answers, no help, no relief.

Organizations like Riverbend, the Merrimack County Community Action Program, and the Coalition to End Homelessness have tried to help people like Starkey for years but have struggled to keep up with an increasing demand for their services.

The last time the NH Coalition to End Homelessness counted the number of unhoused people in the state, in Jan. 2020, more than 1,600 people were on the streets, about 20% more than in 2019.

That was before emergency shelters reduced capacity to meet COVID restrictions and friends that might have offered their couch before the pandemic apologetically closed their doors. Six of seven regions in New Hampshire reported a surge in their unhoused population since the pandemic began, according to a recent report from the coalition.

Several times a day, Starkey disappears for a few minutes and returns, shaking his head with a story from one of his friends.

“She was going to boot up with almost 50 grams of heroin,” he said. “That would have killed her instantly. That’s the shit that people deal with. I see people getting to the point where they’re stressed out and there’s no help. There’s no Riverbend help, there’s no mental health help. What are we supposed to do?”

A hidden community

When the world first shut down in March, many of Concord’s homeless found community in a sunken patch of land off Interstate-93.

At its prime, a small village of tents, which housed about 15 people, radiated up from a small stream that flowed through the center of the encampment. Tall wooden structures propped up plastic tarps and fairy lights above an eclectic mix of lawn furniture.

In the spring, when brambles grew densely at the edges of the property and trees draped low over the tents, it became hard to see the modern day Hooverville from the highway. That’s what was so appealing about the property, Starkey said.

“It was out of the public view,” he said. “It didn’t bother nobody.”

The community was tight knit. They walked as a group along the nearby train tracks to the soup kitchen for breakfast and sometimes gathered for a bonfire in the evening. If one of the regulars didn’t return to the camp for a couple of days, he said the group fanned out across the city to figure out why.

One of the strongest testaments to the group’s bond was the small stream at the center of camp.

“We trusted each other enough to get naked, wash up down in the brook down there,” he said. “Everybody looked out for everybody.”

On Nov. 17, before the first snowfall of the season, the State Police tacked laminated, yellow signs to trees, informing them they had less than a month to leave the property. As complaints from nearby residents and safety concerns about the group’s daily hike across train-tracks mounted, Green was called in to help move out the community peacefully.

“It was definitely hard on their emotional and mental well-being, because there’s some of them who have lived there for two plus years,” Green said.

Now, the members of the community are scattered in new camps further out of sight or squatting in abandoned buildings of Concord. With no clear idea of where they might land next, some of their belongings were left behind.

In late February, Starkey walked through the remnants of the community, which was still covered in a crunchy layer of snow. He walked past artifacts from the camp, frozen literally and figuratively from the day in December when they were forced to leave – a wooden bird feeder hanging from a low branch, a green bin with ‘Alison’s X-mas stuff’ scratched in Sharpie, a glass dragonfly lawn ornament staked beside the stream.

Starkey unearthed a plastic bin filled with cleaning supplies and masks and held it up, as if pointing to evidence.

“We didn’t live like animals,” he said.

When Starkey pulled up to the soup kitchen at 7:30 a.m., he was wearing the same gray sweatshirt and jeans from the day before. He hadn’t slept yet.

The woman he talked with the day before didn’t want to be alone so Starkey lent her the front seat of his truck for the night and dropped her off at Concord Hospital for psychiatric care in the morning.

Before walking up to get his food, he ran through a mental list in his head. He keeps tabs on the people he’s most concerned about. The people who reach out to him about their problems are usually okay, he’s found. It’s the quiet ones that start pulling away who are in danger.

“One of them is down here eating so I know she’s all set, one is at the hospital and the other two are down on the tracks,” he said to himself.

Breakfast and tissues

Since March, the dining area at the soup kitchen – a sunny, vaulted room with high ceilings and stacks of chairs – had been used as a storage room. Boxes of plastic utensils were piled in the center of the room. The long tables that used to be crowded with people were pushed off to the side.

The decision to stop in-person dining hadn’t been an easy one.

Connor Spern, the development director at the Friendly Kitchen, knew how important a warm respite from the New England winter was for her guests. It was an opportunity to warm their hands or use the bathroom, even if it was for only a couple of hours a day.

But the Friendly Kitchen board members had to weigh the health consequences – opening the kitchen for dining would not just put the volunteers at risk (many of whom are older than 65), it would endanger homeless individuals with preexisting conditions.

Then, they thought about what might happen if someone on the staff tested positive and everyone had to quarantine: who would be there to give out food?

The board ultimately decided to close its doors.

“It was a really hard meeting,” Spern said. “I left the meeting and I cried because we see it, we see how hard it is on them.”

Now, their meals, like most other things, were had outside.

Around 8 a.m, Starkey lined up for breakfast – one pancake and one strip of bacon that day – outside the entrance of the kitchen. Spern pushed the styrofoam contained meals toward each of them with a crutch to maintain six feet of separation.

Most guests ate their breakfasts from a bench directly outside the kitchen, from where they could see into the dining room and Spern could see out to them.

“When it’s a cold day and I just have to stand here...” she trailed off. “It’s crazy.”

Starkey took his breakfast to the parking lot of the soup kitchen and chatted with a friend until wails from the neighboring car became too loud to ignore.

A woman in the passenger seat sobbed uncontrollably as she prepared herself for breakfast. Starkey estimates he sees about a dozen people in this condition a day.

He has dealt with his own share of mental health challenges. He tried to get help a while back but quickly ran into the same problem that brought people to him.

“I have a seven year old boy that’s in Clermont, New Hampshire, with my brother because I don’t have a place. My daughter is up here with my parents because I don’t have a place. My 10-year-old is in Tennessee because I don’t have a place. My kids are scattered everywhere. Do I have someone to talk to? No,” he said.

Inadvertently, he became the resource to others he wish he had for himself.

Starkey took a napkin from atop his breakfast and handed it to her through her car window. The woman, tear-stained and puffy, wiped her eyes and walked up to get breakfast.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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