Following criticism from residents, Concord City Council hears update on homelessness

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 10-13-2023 5:39 PM

The completion of the first phase of the Railyard apartment complex in Concord’s South End will mean that 10 people currently experiencing homelessness in the community will have an apartment.

Dakota Partners, the developers of the nearly 100-unit housing complex that has plans for future expansion, will accept specific housing vouchers allocated to people experiencing homelessness, Karen Jantzen, the executive director at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, told city councilors this week.

It’s the type of partnership with private landlords and developers that will allow Concord to work toward a functional zero, where no one in the community is unhoused, Jantzen said.

However, the offer barely puts a dent in the 400 or so homeless individuals living in the city, and the construction of the complex itself presented problems of its own.

At the site of the Railyard development on Langdon Avenue, homeless encampments were tucked away from street view, said Jantzen. Before breaking ground on the project, the site was cleared.

“In clearing all that out, we are building housing. We are waiting for that housing to come up. We know a lot of individuals who are homeless have actually been accepted into that,” she said at the city council meeting. “But in the meantime, they are spreading people out.”

While the number of encampments in the city has remained steady, the visibility of these sites remains a concern of city residents. Most recently, South End residents blamed city councilors for tolerating encampments after a number of sites were in the woods along a residential neighborhood.

They demanded the city relocate homeless individuals from camps and provide them with supportive services, including drug treatment programs, mental health access, and housing assistance. They asked the city to clean up encampments and send police to make sure they do not re-emerge. Lastly, they asked the city’s elected officials to regularly update the community about actions being taken.

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A Tuesday’s council meeting the city’s steering committee on homelessness gave a public update, but councilors took little action.

Steering committee members advise the City Council and meet quarterly. 

Councilor Stacey Brown asked if monthly meetings or an ad hoc committee would better communicate with the public and benefit the city. However, Mayor Jim Bouley refuted the suggestion.

“We are getting to the granular level of information. We don’t need any more meetings. We need a lot more outreach,” he said.

Jantzen, alongside Deputy Police Chief Barrett Moulton and At-Large Councilor Byron Champlin, who is running for mayor and sits on the steering committee, explained the coordinated plan between agencies to address encampments and serve people experiencing homelessness.

Organizations like the Friendly Kitchen, Concord Police Department, Concord Hospital, Riverbend, Concord general services, the Department of Transportation, Merrimack County Department of Corrections, railroad security and state police are all trying to respond to the different facets of homelessness – from encampment locations to support for mental health or substance abuse needs, Jantzen said.

The steering committee, which includes Jantzen and leaders from faith communities, CATCH Housing, Riverbend, the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce and other organizations, has proven to be a productive collaboration for the city, said Bouley.

“These are people who are mostly very high-level individuals. These are not the people on the ground. So the conversations are meant to be more collaborative among everyone,” Bouley said. “The quarterly meetings have worked appropriately throughout the years. It’s the right number of people, the people who attend are excellent.”

Bouley credited Jantzen for galvanizing greater coordination among area agencies. She took over as executive director in November of 2022.

With the coordinated outreach, Jantzen is confident in the picture of how many people are experiencing homelessness in Merrimack County – 448 individuals, with the vast majority located in Concord. Their level of shelter varies – about 150 are without direct shelter, she estimated – while others are living out of cars, in shelters or between friends’ and families’ homes.

Counting these individuals, though, is inconsistent at the state level. Each January, an annual point-in-time survey is conducted across the country, which is intended to measure homelessness in each community.

Oftentimes, these numbers can be historically lower than the actual number of people experiencing homelessness, as these counts can neglect to include people who are sleeping in vehicles or on couches.

In New Hampshire, the state is divided into three areas, called continuums of care, responsible for homeless services – Manchester, Nashua and the rest of the state.

The point-in-time count in January of 2022 indicated that 851 homeless individuals lived somewhere other than Manchester or Nashua. These numbers were then used by state lawmakers in a funding calculation for homeless services in the most recent biennial budget.

Nathan Fennessy, an at-large representative on Concord City Council, feared the measurement resulted in a lack of funding to meet actual needs.

“We now know what the numbers are for the county and I would hazard a guess that we have the vast majority of those individuals here in the city so there are significant costs with addressing that both from a public safety standpoint and delivering services,” he said. “I think it would be helpful if the state would consider kicking in some additional money.”

Jantzen agrees that in Merrimack County homelessness is predominately congregated in Concord.

“It’s a county problem, not just a city problem. But at the moment it feels like Concord is solving the county problem,” she said.

While the coalition provides 40 beds at its winter shelter, an ideal solution would be if the Merrimack County government could provide an additional 40 beds with another shelter, she said.

As December approaches and many people experiencing homelessness find daily shelter and routine between hours at the winter shelter and Friendly Kitchen, more individuals will gravitate toward downtown Concord.

As encampment sites spread to different parts of the city, they present a less centralized population for the police department, according to Moulton.

Moulton works closely with the coalition and Community Action Program, which provide outreach services at encampment sites. This also means developing a coordinated plan with these agencies when an encampment needs to be cleared.

Throughout the summer the coalition and other agencies followed a protocol that involved outreach teams being present both pre-posting, before the site was removed, and as residents dispersed. This allowed for agencies to track where individuals were relocating and continue to provide outreach services.

“The thing is we can’t lose people,” said Jantzen. “So every time an encampment gets broken up, people spread out and they go further to the outlying areas and then the street outreach workers have a hard time locating them and making sure they’re engaged in services.”

The Capital Area Street Outreach Collaborative, the group that is on the ground engaging with individuals directly, is now asking people to report encampment sites, especially those that are of concern to be broken up.

Outreach workers will never ask people to leave a site, said Jantzen. But instead this communication will allow them to get ahead of these evictions by tracking individuals’ plans to relocate and provide a follow-up response to the party that reported the site as well.

To report an encampment to the Capital Area Street Outreach Collaborative, email CASOC@capbm.org.