Despite resident’s concerns, Concord has strong picture of homelessness in area 

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 10-10-2023 10:45 AM

Barbed wire disguised in the dirt. Beer cans, wrappers and syringes litter the trail.

This is what residents in the South End of Concord said they found at a homeless encampment in the woods next to Martin Park off Iron Works Road in early September.

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

The episode offers a small snapshot of a larger problem in Concord, where encampments are scattered throughout the city as unhoused residents face few housing options and limited shelter space. As homeless individuals are cleared from one property, they relocate to another as long as no permanent solution exists.

Yet the question persists – what role does city government have in providing housing and services to about 450 individuals experiencing homelessness across the county?

Currently, that responsibility falls on a patchwork of agencies, including the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. The nonprofit, which began in 2008, has been trying to purchase and renovate properties to provide housing that private landlords won’t.

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It’s a team of nine employees that operates with a budget of just under $1 million, almost half of which comes from donations.

By contrast, the city has an overall budget of $130 million with hundreds of employees. A city steering committee to address homelessness – comprised of council members, faith leaders and health providers – meets quarterly.

When a new encampment is established in the city, it’s not clear to residents why it’s allowed to take root. Often, they express fear for their children, citing issues from substance abuse to possible violence.

In the city’s South End, neighbors accused city councilors of becoming too tolerant of the encampments.

However, city leaders say behind-the-scenes efforts to aid homelessness in Concord are working, even if the issue looks unchanged or worse from the outside. For the most part, service providers agree. In fact, the Coalition to End Homelessness has the strongest grasp on how many individuals are experiencing homelessness, and their varying needs. That’s all due to strengthened partnerships with agencies and city services.

South End

In Martin Park in the South End, an athletic field and softball diamond hosts various sports leagues. The surrounding forest contains a half mile of hiking trails mapped out by the Concord Conservation Commission.

At the beginning of September, a number of encampments populated the wooded area around the park, sparking residents’ concerns.

Over a few weeks, Keith Nyhan, who represents the South End in Ward 7 on the Concord City Council, heard from several of his constituents about their concerns and dissatisfaction with the growing number of tents in the area.

These encampments are something residents should not have to tolerate, Nyhan reiterated to them.

“I told individuals that I would do everything I could do to have those camps removed from the residential neighborhood so that they have some sense of normalcy and safety back in their own neighborhoods,” he said.

The city should do more, he told them.

“The core factors contributing to homeless problems have never been adequately addressed, but instead this population has simply been geographically displaced from one area to another,” Nyhan responded to residents. This ‘whack-a-mole’ approach does nothing to address the core issues that drive this significant social issue. These encampments are tolerated for a period of time and then displaced with no resources directed toward long-term solutions.”

Other councilors also responded to the complaints.

“I understand that the tents are abandoned at this point, and that cleanup efforts are underway,” City Councilor At-Large Amanda Grady Sexton responded to residents in an email. “I wholeheartedly agree with you – the city must be vigilant to ensure that no one thinks it’s acceptable to return.”

It’s a matter of safety, she continued.

“Personally, creating a safe city is always my first priority,” she wrote.

To reassure South End residents, Concord Police Lieutenant Barrett Moulton, who serves as a liaison to the city’s steering committee to address homelessness, met with neighbors. Then he visited the campsites alongside outreach workers Connor Spern from the Concord Coalition and Freeman Toth from the county’s Community Action Program.

“It was an open communication with residents, with outreach, with some city councilors that are in that ward. It was really the communication piece that we hear them, we’re doing what we can with it and that we were aware of it,” said Moulton.

All sites have since been cleared. But doing so presents two challenges for the city – the process differs on city, private or public land. And when one encampment is cleared, often its residents relocate to another site, only moving the problem elsewhere.

It’s clear to Nyhan – the city has an obligation to help all residents, both housed and unhoused. But if an encampment is on city property, it has more authority.

“The city can take action to bring a care plan, make sure people get the services they need and move on,” he said.

Outreach services

Service providers are confident in a new number that encapsulates how many people in Merrimack County are experiencing homelessness – 448.

Although it’s a county-wide picture, most of these individuals are in the Concord area – where the coalition’s resource center and Friendly Kitchen offer daily services.

Of this population, the coalition has identified 294 people as chronically homeless, meaning they’ve been unhoused for over a year.

It’s a portrait of homelessness that comes from increased outreach work in the area, with a focus on building a by-name list of all individuals.

“Data in this context is always people. It is an individual person. It’s data about their experience and what they’re going through,” said Spern. “It’s sometimes easy to just kind of collect that into a number but they are individual people, individual experiences and they’re all completely different than the one next.”

To collect this data, outreach workers meet individuals at encampment sites, sitting at the Friendly Kitchen during a meal or at the coalition’s resource center.

And now, different agencies are coordinating their efforts. This includes the Community Action Program of Belknap-Merrimack County, the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, Easterseals, HarborCare, Veterans Affairs and Waypoint.

“Outreach workers are trying to be present,” said Spern. “We’re really trying to increase transparency about how this is happening, how frequently this is happening, but also between agencies to make sure this is collaborative.”

There are three Es to outreach, said Spern – education, engagement and enrollment. Engagement and enrollment come in the form of providing direct services to people experiencing homelessness – whether that’s bringing paperwork for a housing application out to an encampment or providing medical services – and then collecting data on these individuals to be able to better understand their needs or know their whereabouts.

Education comes in the form of sharing this work with community members and leaders. In doing so, the coalition has strengthened partnerships with Concord Hospital and the police department.

Now, when a person who is unhoused is brought to the emergency room, Spern or a Community Action Program outreach worker is notified so they can go to the hospital and meet with the individual for an intake.

Similarly, when the Concord Police Department receives calls about activity at encampments or other complaints, Spern is also informed so she can visit the site as well.

“This has been explosive, I would say in the past four months the amount of conversations we’ve been able to have with other agencies,” said Spern.

This data collection is a key tool for city leaders who are trying to gain a better understanding of the extent of homelessness in the area and the response it deserves.

“This is the most significant indicator of progress that I’ve seen in 10 years,” said Byron Champlin, who is the city council representative on the city’s committee to end homelessness.

Community education

To better explain the city’s approach to addressing homelessness, Moulton and coalition staff will speak at the Concord city council meeting on Tuesday night.

With more information and a better understanding of the scope of homelessness in the area, residents may also have more confidence in the solutions at hand.

That’s the message Moulton wants to convey. Because the stark reality is that homelessness will not disappear overnight in the city.

“We have a good grasp of what we need to do and it’s certainly getting done,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path but this is no quick, easy fix. We are going to have homelessness next year and the year after.”

In essence, addressing persistent homelessness in a community boils down to communication and collaboration, said Moulton. When law enforcement and outreach workers can respond to concerns together, it’s more likely that they’re able to connect the person to services or keep track of their whereabouts.

The current approach from Concord police is to visit a site in response to concerns from residents and coordinate a response with outreach services.

This is also the time of year when more people report seeing encampments – it’s a seasonal phenomenon, with leaves falling from trees and exposing previously concealed sites.

But the reality is that without housing, breaking up an encampment means individuals will continue to move to the next site. Often, that could be further into the woods or away from downtown where resources, like the Friendly Kitchen and coalition, are more readily available – complicating the response from nonprofit providers.

“It’s harder for me to keep track of where people are going and then they’re moving farther and farther away from services,” said Spern.

In the city’s $130 million budget this year, a social worker position was created at the police department that will also help address homeless services.

Moulton hopes that this position will allow the police department to continue to connect people experiencing homelessness with resources at Riverbend or the coalition.

“They’re going to be that community piece that will provide those wraparound services,” he said.

With the social work position, law enforcement will continue to work alongside nonprofits, like the coalition, to direct the city’s response to homelessness.

And as city councilors field concerns, updates as to what leaders, across various sectors in the community, are doing to address homelessness to residents will be key.

“A lot of it is communication. I think people think there’s nothing that anyone is doing,” Moulton said. “Homeless issues across the state, and really all of New England, everyone is feeling it. There’s no easy fix. If there was, it would have been done. Hopefully our approach and how we deal with this, we can alleviate some of the issues.”