October 04. 2017 10:10PM

Woman facing homelessness serves as lesson to state leaders

New Hampshire Union Leader

Patricia Robinson, 66, is facing a November deadline to leave her Plaistow home after it was foreclosed on. She is shown here at her dining room of her Plaistow home sharing her story. (DAVID LANE/STAFF)

Patricia Robinson is 66, disabled, and could soon be homeless.

A foreclosure is forcing the Plaistow woman to leave the place she’s called home for the last 43 years. She’s been told by the new owner she is a “squatter” and needs to be out of the house by Nov. 20.

Robinson said she’s called agency after agency seeking a housing alternative, but waiting lists for public housing are years long. She feels as though she’s been passed from one group to the next without getting any answers.

She believes she will end up living in her little red Chevrolet Aveo.

“All the fighting is energy I don’t have,” Robinson said. “All this energy I could be using to get packing and get out of here.”

Members of the State Committee on Aging (SCOA) met with Robinson Monday to get a first-hand look at how the state’s shortage of affordable housing is affecting older residents. New Hampshire has the second-highest median age in the country, with a demographic trend showing the population is only going to get grayer. 

“There are going to be a lot more Patricias out there,” said SCOA member Kathy Baldridge. “That’s why it’s important to understand what’s happening to Patricia so we can get a handle on the issue.”

SCOA is a relatively new commission appointed by the governor to “identify concerns of older citizens” and make recommendations on what policy and procedures can best help the state’s aging population.

Both Baldridge and SCOA Vice Chairman Ken Berlin said their greatest take-away from meeting with Robinson is seeing how hard it is for a senior to find housing help in New Hampshire.

“It’s also obvious to me that unless an older person has an advocate or knows people who can help them, they are in deep trouble,” Berlin said. “Patricia now has a team. We may not be able to fix anything, but it won’t be for a lack of trying.”

Need on the rise

New Hampshire is facing a shortage of affordable housing for all. 

Housing Action NH estimates the state is 23,521 units short of affordable housing for low-income people of all ages. The National Low Income Housing Coalition says there are only 30 units available for every 100 “extreme low income” renters in New Hampshire.

Michael Traficante is with Isaiah 58 in Hampstead, a nonprofit group with a mission to end homelessness in western Rockingham County, where Robinson lives. He said he has seen more seniors coming in seeking housing assistance in the last year and estimates that people 62 and older make up 40 percent of those they help.

“We’re seeing a lot of seniors come in here who are unprepared, who have either drained their well dry or waited so long they are really up against it,” Traficante said. “They are trying their best to make it and thinking they will come through at the other end, but by the time they reach our doors, they are already backed into a corner.”

Waiting, waiting

Debra Febigny is the housing director for Southern New Hampshire Services, a Community Action public-private partnership serving Hillsborough and Rockingham counties. The agency has 28 elderly housing projects with 795 affordable apartments.

She said there are more than 100 seniors on the wait list for units in Manchester and Nashua; the wait time for a unit could be three to five years. She said the demand is far less in rural areas, where transportation is more limited.

Traficante’s group tries to help those who cannot wait three years. Isaiah 58 works with landlords to find people homes, but it’s a task more difficult with seniors, especially those relying on Social Security as their only source of income.

“A lot of times, landlords are looking for three times what they earn,” Traficante said. 

Trying to make it

Robinson receives $681 each month from Social Security and about $70 from the state, meaning she makes far less than the state’s median rent of $981 a month. It amounts to just over $9,000 per year, falling well below the federal government’s “extreme low income” level of $18,750 a year.

The Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston has developed the Elder Economic Security Index to show how much a senior needs for the bare essentials — food, housing transportation and health care. Using that index, single New Hampshire seniors need a minimum of $26,400 a year to get by — the eighth highest total in the country.

It’s data like this that worries Baldridge and Berlin.

“I think there are a lot more people out there going through this that we don’t know about,” Baldridge said.

Robinson’s future

Jill Moore of REAP, a community-based mental health program, was with the SCOA team when they met with Robinson Monday. She was able to find a few vacancies in housing programs, but most were in the North Country, hours away from Robinson’s home and doctors. 

Robinson may be able to jump to the top of the list because of her health. Becoming homeless would also move her to the top, under federal guidelines. 

It’s now up to her to fill out the application.

“It’s cumbersome with the forms and it’s cumbersome with how to get the forms. It’s cumbersome to go through numerous organizations,” said Baldridge. “It’s not as easy as you think it is and it shouldn’t be this hard.”

Robinson has packed a “to-go bag” with clothing and essentials in case she’s tossed out of her home before Nov. 20. “I pray that I get one more chance to reinvent myself and contribute to the general conduct of life,” Robinson said. “I think I have it in me for one more new start.”

Silver Linings is a continuing report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. Reach her at ggrosky@unionleader.com or 603-206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging.