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January 14. 2013 9:20PM

Series of misfortunes bring people to low point

KEENE - About 10 men wait in the rain outside Hundred Nights emergency cold weather shelter in downtown for the shelter door to open at 7 p.m.

The homeless shelter at 17 Lamson St. is only open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. from Dec. 21 to March 31.

Over the next hour or so volunteers expect the shelter's 30 beds to fill up.

Twenty-year-old Zachary is one of the volunteers. He is also homeless.

A combination of unemployment, a drug and alcohol addiction and a mental health condition led up to his situation, he said.

Though he has been clean and sober for 25 days, Zachary has been unemployed since June.

Earlier this month, during a mental health crisis, Zachary was arrested and a no-contact order bars him from his family home. "I was living in Nelson and got into trouble and I can't live with my parents right now."

Finding employment remains extremely difficult, he said, but added, "Everyone who works here and volunteers here are some of the nicest people I've meet in a long time. . For me it's kind of I feel like I'm safe every time I walk through those doors. . The struggle is the job and on top of it is the economy."

Nowhere but up

Ken, 58, has been at Hundred Nights for two weeks.

Before that he was living in a cabin in the woods and then "couch surfed" at friends' homes for a month after that.

He's hit bottom, but he's optimistic since there's nowhere to go but up.

Ken is originally from the Keene area, but moved to Florida 10 years ago to retire and live off his investments.

Due to bad advice from a broker, he lost his investments in the 2008 market crash, he said.

Unable to find work and living on food stamps, Ken moved back to New Hampshire in 2011 because he has more connections here. "I have a better network up here."

Before moving back he sold the Florida home he purchased in 2003 for $110,000 for just $19,000.

"That's how bad the real estate market is down there," he said. "It's like a Third World country down there right now."

There are more jobs in New Hampshire compared to Florida, he said, but at his age and with a work history that includes owning his own businesses or working for now defunct companies, finding a job has been impossible.

"I'm 58 years old. I have no verifiable work history," Ken said.

He currently receives $140 a month in food stamps and is hoping to find work through a program that hires unemployed seniors for 20 hours a week.

He has a friend who can rent him a room once he has an income, and another friend in the area is taking care of his cats.

"I'm thinking by the end of March I'll have a part time job," he said.

Broken health

Warren, 52, has been staying at Hundred Nights for a week after suffering a series of health issues over the past seven years left him broke.

"The short story is I was working full time at a car dealership as an auto tech, I got into a severe car crash that broke my spine. That put me out of work for almost eight months and I lived with my brother at that point. Then my brother moved to another town for work and I ended moving out of that house and back to work for a couple of weeks then I suffered a weird stroke and was back in the hospital to deal with that. That was about a month ago and I've been just floating around since," Warren said. "That was my second bout of illness. Before that I had a thriving business with 10 employees."

In 2004 he suffered from sarcoidosis, in which the white blood cells attack the organs. Because he was misdiagnosed he spent a year bedridden with flu-like symptoms, during which he lost his auto repair business.

"My wife told me I should get disability insurance, but I never did," he said.

He separated from his wife during the financial strain that illness caused, he said. "I got back on my feet and the car accident took me down again."

Social Security told him, in a letter, that he qualifies for disability benefits because of his spine injuries. But he has yet to begin receiving the benefits and there is nothing in place to help those waiting to start receiving benefits, he said. "You have no choice but to push yourself to go back to work, which I'm trying to do."

While the benefits would help, Warren said he is not sitting around waiting for them to start.

"I don't plan being here more than a couple of weeks. No matter what, I'm going back to work, somewhere. I'll end up washing dishes someplace. That's not how I lived my life. . . I was never handed anything. I had over $1 million worth of assets and owned a house five years ago. I may not have the physical motivation to do what I used to do, but I think mentally I'm the same to put things back together. . Once you get down it seems you get kicked to the curb ever time you try to get back up."

Larger staff

Hundred Nights CEO Deb Chambers is one of three volunteers recently brought on as the shelter's first paid employees.

She is at the shelter seven days a week throughout its 100-night run through winter.

"We get our guests checked in. We store their stuff and assign their beds. . We're just here to make sure everybody is OK," she said. "It's simple and it's real. You get a warm bed and a clean place to sleep and that's it. We keep it simple."

The shelter offers a few rooms with rows of beds with freshly laundered sheets. There are some books, but no television.

Guests and volunteers visit with each and check in, Chambers said.

Together the guests and volunteers have created a family atmosphere, she said.

"It's like a room full of brothers and sisters; you don't know when the arguing will start," Chambers said, smiling.

The people who come in are all ages from teens to seniors and are homeless for a number of reasons, but affordable housing is a major issue, she said.

"We had a gentleman who was 72. He left this morning for Virginia. The income is not enough to allow people a place to live," she said.

To help people access services and find work, Hundred Nights opened a resource center last spring that is open Monday through Friday.

Resource center

Suddenly becoming homeless can be an emotionally overwhelming experience, so at the resource center volunteers can help people apply for different services like food stamps, she said.

Chambers said she originally volunteered at the shelter when it opened in January 2010 because she couldn't believe the city had a homeless population.

"I've always lived in Keene my entire life," she said. "I wasn't aware because I didn't see any homeless people, anywhere. . What happens is they blend in."

Her first night at the shelter was an eye-opener, she said. "The first night after my shift I was crying on the way home because two people I signed into the shelter I went to high school with, and I didn't get it, but I get it now."


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