A safe space with services for NH's aging homelessBy ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader
August 04. 2018 8:05PM
CONCORD - Backpacks and overstuffed tote bags dot the yard, between mountain bikes parked at odd angles and four gray-haired men inhaling the last drags on morning cigarettes. Nearby, a little girl wearing a Burger King crown leans into her mother, while her younger brother and sister shuffle their sneakers and wait for the front door to open at 9 a.m.
Inside waits an oasis - an all-weather refuge from the daily struggle of living without enough money or a permanent home. Since 2009, first in the basement of South Congregational Church and now in a house at 238 N. Main St., the Concord Homeless Resource Center has provided a meeting place and a critical link to services for Concord's homeless and those living on the edge.
Last year, 627 individuals used the center; 68 reported their ages as 60 or older; 82 didn't disclose. Those numbers include seniors whose monthly checks don't cover rising housing and food costs, and others who have been homeless for years, including Charlie Houston.
Houston, 60, lives in a teepee in the woods near downtown Concord, and carries an Army-green backpack containing the hand-lettered cardboard sign he holds in front of the Bed, Bath & Beyond store on Loudon Road: Homeless. Anything Will Help. God Bless.
He never learned to read or write as a child, and sometimes has trouble understanding what people say, and needs things repeated several times. He credits childhood stints in the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts with the skills he's employed to survive for eight years outdoors.
"As long as you're above where the water settles, you're fine," he said. "I have some regular customers who help me out. I'm just grateful. As long as you're polite and courteous, people like to help."
Houston comes to the resource center to pick up his mail. He knows most of the regulars. The atmosphere is welcoming. He stays for coffee and a snack.
Each weekday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the center serves about 40 people on an annual budget of roughly $66,000, not counting donated services, food, and supplies. Most importantly, it provides a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental port for connection to long-term housing, mental health and emergency services, registration for social services and help with other governmental paperwork.
A Concord Hospital Family Health Center team comes monthly to check vital signs, dress wounds and give short-term care, and connect new patients with primary physicians on a sliding scale. Barbers from Empire Beauty School give free haircuts once a month. Regulars use the free phone and fax, computers, internet, showers and laundry machines, and often list the center as a permanent mailing address. Case workers are available whenever the building is open. Out back, a newly constructed 40-bed shelter provides a place to sleep during the winter. Especially toward the end of each month, when public assistance checks run out, people stock up on donated food.
A 63-year-old woman with an Arrows and Embers tattoo parlor sweatshirt wrapped around her waist says she has been homeless for two years, crashing with friends, family members or people she meets. She's here to apply for permanent housing for the chronically homeless through the center's Housing First program because her Social Security disability check isn't enough to pay for food, rent and utilities for a studio or one-bedroom apartment in Concord. So far, Housing First has placed five clients older than 60 in permanent housing with caseworker support.
Elwin Moses, 59, with flame, skeleton hands and skull tattoos on both arms, has come to register to receive mail here, because the $1,400 he earns monthly at a local pizzeria won't cover his $900 monthly rent plus utilities, cable, and phone - and the $260 a month he pays for mandatory therapy, intervention and parole fees following 21 years spent in jail on sexual assault charges.
"The only people I know are felons, and felons can't coexist in the same apartment," he says. "I'm going to buy a tent and a sleeping bag and sleep in the woods for the summer. I'll continue to work so I can feed myself. I'm centered on now. I can't think ahead."
The center's immediate and overarching goal is to provide permanent, affordable housing, especially for people who have been homeless for more than a year, or in and out of shelters over the course of three, says Ellen Groh, executive director of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, which operates the center. The short term strategy is to identify needs and build trust.
"We work to build relationships to get them to seek out and accept services," Groh said. "I'm hearing people say they are nervous or scared all the time."
Providers such as the resource center that bundle access to housing, health care, and social services under one roof make it easier to find help, especially for seniors who are frequently disabled or plagued by long-term medical conditions that have never been fully treated or identified. The center reaches a private population more accustomed to hiding away and avoiding the scrutiny of others, including government program providers. The resource center embraces several approaches that have proven successful around the country, including fast-tracking screening and access to housing and services, creating a low barrier to shelter entry (people can come in if they've been drinking, as long as they're not rowdy or dangerous), and meeting individuals where they are in their lives and recovery journeys, identifying services they need and linking them to those they're willing to accept, says Groh. Another feature is the home-like environment that the community obviously and regularly supports.
Volunteer Andy Hampton, 69, of Chichester, serves food and beverages, carries in donated food, and sweeps at the center on Mondays. A recovering alcoholic, he says he came close to being homeless several times. I came to know Christ as my savior. I have a heart for these people because they're a lot like me," Hampton says.
"Just having the doors open, and seeing the food that comes in, the donated toiletry supplies, the services that come in. My goal is that it reinstills hope that they're valuable and someone cares about them," said center manager Angela Spinney. "For the most part, the people we serve are not ashamed. Nobody's telling them to 'just keep moving.' We hear thank you every day, many times a day, and 'We're so glad you're here.'?"