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January 14. 2013 9:20PM

NH weathering a blizzard of homelessness


Rows of bunk beds in Hundred Nights emergency cold weather shelter in downtown Keene just before guests are let in at 7 p.m. Friday night. (MEGHAN PIERCE PHOTO)

January or July, homelessness is a reality regardless of the temperature, fed by diminishing mental health services, lack of affordable housing and the scarcity of jobs that pay wages families can survive on.

"This is not a very seasonal business. It's often perceived to be. We're open year-round," said Chris Sterndale, executive director of Cross Roads House. "The stakes are a little higher in the winter, but it is not a seasonal problem here. We're full year-round. It's pretty rare that there's an empty bed around here, and I think most shelters around the state would say the same thing."

Eileen Brady, social worker/advocate at the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter, said it doesn't matter what time of year it is, there are always more homeless people than shelter beds in Nashua.

"It's pretty much the same because we have limited space and apartments, and rooms are so expensive in Nashua we regularly have to turn people away all year long," she said. "The winter becomes an issue because if we don't have space, where do we send them? That pains us all the time."

Don Primrose, founder of downtown Keene's Hundred Nights shelter, said its 30 beds are often full the nights it is open, from Dec. 21 to March 31.

"The shelter really is life and death in that hundred nights of winter," Primrose said.

The winter-only shelter supplements year-round homeless services provided by Southwestern Community Services, which provides Cheshire and Sullivan counties with 60 shelter beds in each county.

The Hundred Nights' 30 beds and Southwestern's 60 beds at its Keene shelter, though, isn't even half of what is needed to shelter the estimated 197 homeless people living in Cheshire County, Primrose said.

Laurie Saunders-Jewett, director of Homeless Services for Southwestern Community Services, said the Keene shelter is running at capacity this winter, and for the first time in years, the Claremont shelter is running under capacity. "This year so far, knock on wood, it hasn't been too bad because we haven't had that many cold days."

Cross Roads House

Located in Portsmouth and serving eastern New Hampshire and southern Maine, Cross Roads House opened in 1982 to assist homeless individuals and families.

"We're averaging in the low 80s. We had 85 last night," Sterndale said Thursday. "That included a lot of single adults on mattresses on the floor. We are operating at about capacity for single adults most nights."

Cross Roads' yearly operating costs are just under $900,000, about a third of which comes from federal, state and local government.

"The rest we raise privately from individuals, foundations and businesses," Sterndale said.

The Nashua Soup Kitchen

The Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter has 30 beds in two shelters, but on a cold winter night about five extra people can be squeezed in to keep them from freezing, Brady said.

It's not uncommon for the shelter to average 35 people on a winter night, she said. The Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter had been separate entities in the early 1980s before they merged into one agency in the late '80s.

The cost of its homeless services is about $900,000 a year. The agency is 75 percent funded by donations, with the remaining 25 percent coming from the city, state and federal governments.

Southwestern Community Services

Southwestern Community Services provides 120 beds in several shelters in Keene and Claremont, costing about $600,000 a year.

Funds raised from cities, towns the state and federal governments are matched by various sources of private funding.

Southwestern Community Services offers a host of other services to the community, some of which aim to prevent homelessness.

Hundred Nights

Primrose founded the Hundred Nights emergency cold weather shelter in downtown Keene on Jan. 5, 2010.

"Part of our mission is not to duplicate any services in the city of Keene," Primrose said. "Regardless of what your means are or what your status is, we guarantee you a bed at Hundred Nights."

Hundred Nights has a $156,000 budget for 2013 and is run completely on private donations.

Health issues

Health problems contribute to homelessness because illnesses can lead to poverty, Brady said.

"That helps create the poverty because they are dealing with some kind of issue; the 19-year-old struggling with mental illness or the single mother with breast cancer. Those are the issues over and over again that affect how people get by," Brady said. "It's very, very difficult to be able to do what you need to do to get a roof over your head if you can't get the help you need, or your child can't and you lose work because of it."

Those defined as "chronically homeless" are usually suffering from untreated mental illness and or addiction, Sterndale said.

"There is either a direct cause or contributing cause with their homelessness that makes it hard to maintain relationships with landlords, family or employers if they go untreated," Sterndale said. "They are homeless for extended periods of time or have reported bouts of it throughout their lives."

Dwindling state and federal funding of programs and treatment of those suffering from mental illness is adding to the homeless problem, Sterndale said.

"The homeless shelters become an extension of the mental health shelters in New Hampshire in many ways," Sterndale. "It's hard to draw a very sharp, straight line, but we know the challenges faced by the mental health system are creating more business for the homeless shelters. . More than half of adult residents are reporting mental illness. Ten years ago it was about a third, now it's half. There are a whole lot of things that impact that number, but the trend is pretty clear."

Wages and housing

Overall, though, mental illness is not the driving cause of homelessness; low wages mixed with the lack of affordable housing are the biggest factors.

"In many cases, it's the working poor. Just because they don't have a place to sleep this month, it doesn't mean they are that much different from the other low-income people around us," Sterndale said. "A lot of these are families that have young kids, and if you can't earn enough for rent, child care and transportation, something's gonna give."

Housing costs in the Seacoast area have only gone up despite the recession, he said. "In a lot of places around the country, rent came down as we went through this first part of the recession, but that didn't happen here."

After the Seacoast area, Nashua has the highest rent prices in the state, Brady said, because of its proximity to Massachusetts.

People working in the Bay State who are making higher wages move into Nashua for the lower cost of living compared with that in Massachusetts, pushing the working poor out of housing.

On top of that, northern New Hampshire residents are moving to the area looking for work.

"It's an expensive market, but people will come from northern New Hampshire here because there are no jobs there. Then they come here and they are very startled at how much it costs to live compared to an apartment in Berlin."

Brady said a new homeless shelter is opening in Derry, but that's not what people need. They need affordable housing.

There is a five-year waiting list for subsidized housing in Nashua, Brady said, "because nothing is being created."

Subsidized housing is the answer right now, Saunders-Jewett said, since wages aren't going up and rentals prices aren't going down.

"They're college towns (Claremont and Keene), so landlords, instead of charging $800 a month for a family, they can rent $800 a bedroom to college students," Saunders-Jewett said.

Motivation

Shelter life is not ideal, Brady said. The residents have no personal space, and most are anxious to have their own homes.

"All of these people work or try to work. Most people really prefer to work and want to work because - Number 1 - the society they are in is a work-orientated society," Brady said. "Americans want their own stuff and they want their own space. It's very much against the grain of what people expect of life."


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