New councilors call for more active approach to homelessness in Concord

The construction of the eight unit housing for the homeless on Pleasant Street in Concord.

The construction of the eight unit housing for the homeless on Pleasant Street in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 11-10-2023 6:28 PM

From the parking lot of Betkash Shriners, where Ward 8 voters entered to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s election, green sheathing framed a building over the fence in the lot next door. It’s the first of three structures that will establish 123 new apartments on Pembroke Road.

The project is one of five apartment complexes currently under construction across the city – bringing 405 new units to Concord’s housing stock, at a time when more construction is vital. In order to solve homelessness in Concord, more housing needs to be built. That’s one thing most Concord City Councilors can unanimously agree on.

But come January, six new members will join the council. And they hope to bring a fresh approach to housing and homelessness. Just ask Jim Schlosser, who is on the board of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, and defeated 18-year incumbent Keith Nyhan to represent the South End in Ward 7.

“I hope to help create more of an action focus,” Schlosser said. “It’s a complex, wicked problem so there’s not going to be easy solutions… The first thing we need to be clear on is what is the aim.”

In a small city like Concord, where service providers, city leaders and law enforcement work in tandem, the goal should be that homelessness is rare and brief. This milestone can be characterized as reaching functional zero, he said.

Getting there requires data, coordination and frankly, more housing units. But that will only come if a clear action plan is set in place by the city council, said Schlosser.

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Michele Horne, who won the race in Ward 2, agrees. Without benchmarks, the city has no way to measure progress in eliminating homelessness.

“I would like to see us set a quantitative goal to hopefully reach functional zero for homelessness and have actionable steps,” she said.

And that comes with updating the responsibility of the city’s Committee for Concord’s Plan to End Homelessness.

In 2012, Mayor Jim Bouley created the group, which brings together service providers, faith leaders, city employees and business owners to discuss a collective approach to address homelessness. A decade later, it continues to meet quarterly. Mayor-Elect Byron Champlin serves as the council representative.

As a board member at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, Schlosser has attended these meetings. While progress updates are shared, like the status of creating a by-name list of all people experiencing homelessness in the area, a centralized plan of action for city government is missing.

“We need them to lead, not to just monitor and then go away for three months and say, ‘we will come back and see if anything has changed’,” Schlosser said.

Measuring progress is also a matter of timing.

“The climate of the issue changes seasonally, monthly, daily, really. So I feel like meeting once a quarter is just not enough,” said Horne.

When Stacey Brown, who was re-elected to her seat in Ward 5, suggested more frequent meetings at the last council meeting, both Bouley and Champlin rejected the idea.

“Right now the quarterly meetings seem to fit the work patterns and the progression of the work that we’re trying to accomplish,” said Champlin.

As mayor-elect Champlin will remain on the council. He will appoint a new member from the council to join him as well.

While he said he knows new councilors will bring enthusiasm and fresh ideas, to him, the city’s current structure and approach is sufficient.

“There has been steady progress. The fact that the coalition is reporting that homelessness has remained stable at a period where homelessness is rampant across the country, I think it’s very positive,” he said.

He reiterated his stance, which was also shared by Bouley, that more meetings will only hinder the work of the steering committee.

“I’m not sure whether everyone understands what the steering committee is. The steering committee is a fairly high-level committee with people from key agencies and organizations… what we’ve been doing is to try to move us towards a collective response and collective way of dealing with homelessness,” Champlin said. “Having more frequent meetings is not necessarily a recipe for success.”

To Horne, though, just because the committee has been in place for a decade, doesn’t mean that’s all the city can do.

“It’s not working, because the issue obviously hasn’t gotten better. So we’ve got to make some sort of changes and I think meeting more often is definitely a step in the right direction,” she said.

At the October council meeting, Champlin, alongside Karen Jantzen, the executive director for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness and Barrett Moulton, who is the police liaison to the group, gave a presentation on the current state of homelessness in the city.

Through coordinated outreach efforts – from the coalition, the Community Action Program of Belknap and Merrimack County, Waypoint, Easterseals, Veterans Affairs and other nonprofits – over 400 people experiencing homelessness have been identified in Merrimack County. Of that population, most reside in Concord. Nearly 300 have been unhoused for over a year.

Establishing this data, and coordinating outreach efforts among the nonprofits, was a clear point of progress.

“I was really, really excited to hear about that,” said Judith Kurtz, who will be an at-large councilor come January. “Concrete steps of that kind are exactly what I want us, the city, to keep doing and I would throw my energy into things of that nature.”

Kurtz plans to meet with the current committee and learn what previous approaches have yielded in order to help the city reach a functional zero.

But Horne has a more immediate call to action. If city officials are going to praise this approach and expect its success to continue, the City Council should contribute more resources.

“The city needs to take the charge… all of the nonprofits in the area each only have one outreach person which obviously is just not enough to cover everyone,” she said. “The city should also have at least one outreach person who can then work with all of the other outreach coordinators with the nonprofits.”

Outside of Community Block Grants, which have helped the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness convert properties into housing, and expenses to clean up cleared encampment sites, the council has not directly funded efforts to reduce homelessness in the city.

Whether or not direct funding is appropriate is a matter of who is taking the lead, said Schlosser. And that comes with revisiting the city’s plan to address homelessness.

“That’s what has to be negotiated with sort of a new plan,” said Schlosser. “What’s the role of the city? What’s the role of the steering committee? What’s the role of Concord Coalition? And can we enroll and get the real buy-in and active support of the critical other agencies that are involved?”

The current plan was adopted by the committee in March 0f 2014. In it, five goals are outlined – to increase access to healthy and safe environments for people experiencing homelessness; to increase the number of permanent affordable rental units; to increase knowledge about homelessness, services available and community costs; increase private and public funding partnerships for future plans; and ensure broad representation of stakeholders to implement the plan.

Many of these goals are still echoed in the newly elected councilor’s individual ideas. It’s time to reevaluate and consider new initiatives, they say.

“To end homelessness, we need a clear plan. So an updated city plan to end homelessness, and then probably a revised charge or charter for that committee to say we would ask them to lead the effort,” said Schlosser.

Revisiting this document is something Champlin could entertain, but he doesn’t have a firm position on the need to do that, he said.

In order to transition individuals out of homelessness, there needs to be available housing. It may be obvious, said Horne, but building out the city’s supply is a key factor in providing a solution as well.

Over the past three years, conversations about rewriting the city’s zoning ordinances have taken place, with a project called Concord Next. But, with turnover in the planning department, staffing shortages have halted its progression. Moving the zoning conversation forward is something Champlin will look at, he said.

To other councilors, zoning is another immediate point of action that could be taken.

“I’d like to see the changes in zoning happen so that we can have our projects all be accountable to that,” said Kurtz.

She’d also like the city to revisit its master plan, which was last revised in 2008.

For Champlin, the status quo approach has led to results. If 150 individuals are experiencing homelessness in Concord, they require 150 individual solutions, he said. That inherently takes time.

“Progress has been made, even though it may not be apparent,” he said. “We always want to look for quick and easy solutions to these challenges. But, as in this case, it’s a steady consistent policy that leads to solutions.”