CONCORD – Young Democratic activists criticized Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision last week to evict the homeless from state courthouse property, and called upon him to more quickly come up with a comprehensive plan to help those who lack a permanent place to live.
Molly Biron, organizing director of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, praised the effort earlier this week of Manchester city officials to lease vacant downtown space on Pearl Street as a shelter, but additional properties were likely to be needed.
“When it comes to alternative housing, this housing needs to be ample and large because we have over 300 houseless community members,” Biron said. “It needs to be significant in the quantity and the quality.”
In a new development Wednesday, Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, Fire Chief Daniel Goonan and Families in Transition-New Horizons President Maria Devlin confirmed a "neighboring property owner" had bought the Pearl Street building they had eyed as a homeless shelter because the abutter didn't want anyone "living unsheltered" nearby.
The sale came after Craig and the Board of Aldermen at a special meeting Tuesday approved spending $1.1 million to set up and staff the building. The trio pledged to keep working to find an "emergency winter shelter location" for the homeless in the city.
Real estate investor Ben Gamache, who bought the 77 Pearl St. building, said Wednesday he is willing to donate as an alternative the use of 10,000 square feet of space at a mill building at 21 West Auburn St., across from Market Basket.
State Rep. Nicole Klein-Knight, D-Manchester, said the eviction from the homeless encampment at 300 Chestnut St. left many without their “earthly possessions.”
“I ask the governor at what point will you take responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable population of your state that is desperate for your help?” she said.
The group released a letter to Sununu signed by 77 elected officials and community activists including Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, the newly-chose leader of House Democrats for the next two years along with state Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, and Sen.-Elect Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton.
“This season’s uninhabitable winter conditions will result in needless death without swift action from your office,” the letter said.
“The state of New Hampshire has a responsibility to protect its vulnerable people, such as the houseless. Further displacement through eviction or additional encampment space is a temporary, insufficient, and inhumane response. Everyone in our state deserves a safe and stable place to live. Housing is a human right.”
Sununu creates housing instability council
Last week prior to the action in Manchester, Sununu created a council to help update the state’s homeless plan that hasn’t been changed since 2006.
On Wednesday, Sununu named the three dozen members of this Council on Housing Stability that includes mayors of three other cities, six state agency heads and 2020 Democratic candidate for governor Andru Volinsky of Concord. Another half dozen members still need to be appointed, the governor said.
The council will hold its first meeting Dec. 4 and must present a preliminary plan with recommendations on actions the Legislature could take to address this issue by Dec. 14, Sununu said.
Sununu has engaged in a war of words with Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig who faulted the governor for failing to lead.
The governor said the city received a record amount of federal and state grants to help the homeless and that the actions of Craig’s team had come up well short.
After the evictions, Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said state officials stepped in to try and find shelter for as many of the homeless that wanted it before the winter weather hits.
The pair said the city's claim the state failed to work with the city to take decisive action to deal with this issue was "absolutely false."
State Rep.-Elect Maria Perez, D-Milford, said her sister was a victim of this ongoing problem as she died at age 27 after contracting the HIV virus and ending up homeless.
“I am a domestic and sexual assault survivor; my sister did not survive,” Perez said.
“We have to lot more to do for our communities. We need to realize they are not on the street because they want to be on the street.”
State Rep.-Elect Amanda Elizabeth Toll, D-Keene, said neighboring Vermont did more than New Hampshire in creating a statewide housing voucher program to allow the homeless to stay in vacant hotel rooms.
“This is just one example. Using state aid to get folks into safe spaces is a start,” Toll said.
Last spring, the state converted a former Laconia State School building as temporary housing to quarantine anyone homeless who came in contact with COVID-19. State officials worked to identify other sites across the state to fill any similar unmet need.
State House protest in the works
The state also earmarked $1.3 million from federal CARES Act grants for rapid rehousing and homeless prevention efforts.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Chris Balch, D-Wilton, said he was organizing a protest of Sununu’s homeless response for Friday morning outside the State House.
“I appreciate the intention of the council the governor has created but that’s a long-term plan. We need short-term help for people,” said Balch who said remaining, unspent CARES Act grants should be devoted to this purpose.
Sununu administration officials said less than $1 million of the state’s $1.25 billion CARES Act grant has been committed, and any unspent balance will go towards the unemployment trust fund.
This event will encourage the public to sign postcards calling upon Sununu to quickly do more, Balch said.
“The state has been supporting tent communities across the state, providing them with sanitation and other services but the first big winter storm is going to blow those tents down,” Balch said.
“That’s not a sustainable plan. We need action now.”
Balch did not seek reelection to his seat in the 2020 election.