FOR THE past several months, people experiencing homelessness in Manchester have had access to public health supplies, facilities, and services through encampments around the city. They have been provided with portable toilets, hand washing stations, hand sanitizer, and assistance services — all of which are crucial to protecting them from COVID-19. Yet, with New Hampshire still very much in the midst of this global pandemic, the City of Manchester has made clear its intent to begin to withdraw these services and dismantle the encampments at the end of June.
Regardless of income level, every Granite Stater needs access to the equipment and services that protect them from COVID-19, which the current encampments provide. The federal CARES Act sets aside $4 billion for homeless Emergency Service Grants, which allow for a full reimbursement up to the beginning of this public health crisis. With the ability to use federal funds, Manchester must keep providing lifesaving equipment and testing — not take it away.
Removing these support systems is also against the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, which states that encampments like those in Manchester should remain open if other, individual housing options are unavailable. The CDC declares that dislocating existing encampments during this public health emergency endangers the entire community by causing people to disperse throughout it, elevating the risk of disease being spread to those new areas. It would also sever connections with service providers by displacing people to areas where they cannot be found or from which they cannot access needed services — such as mental health care, substance use disorder services, or assistance with affordable housing.
It is clear that it is in the common interest to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 within this vulnerable population. If there were a rise in infections among the homeless population, there would be an increase in unavailable hospital beds, a greater strain on health resources; it would impact the greater Manchester community as a whole.
We must also consider what would happen if the support is withdrawn as planned, but people do not leave. Forced removal would not only bring civil liberties concerns, but public health concerns. It would require close contact between those living there and those forcefully removing them. People could be needlessly arrested when they otherwise would not be interacting with the criminal justice system at all.
And if people do choose to go to a shelter, that brings a separate set of concerns. Shelters in Manchester are doing what they can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but not everyone is eligible for placement in a shelter. Some may have additional fears about being housed in a shelter during this pandemic due to age, susceptibility, being immunocompromised, or any other type of unease.
Issues of homelessness are systemic ones that, in order to be meaningfully addressed, require policymakers to resolve the issues that cause people to be insecure in their housing to begin with. To do that, New Hampshire must work to increase funding and capacity for mental health services and substance use disorder treatment, support systems that help victims of domestic violence, support policies that increase the availability of affordable housing, and enforce laws prohibiting discrimination in housing.
We appreciate the steps the city has taken throughout this pandemic, but we urge them to continue that support. Forcing our city’s homeless population out of a space that provides critical COVID-19 equipment and services would only move people, not prevent the spread of the virus or resolve their reasons for experiencing homelessness in the first place.
In order to protect both public health and the people living in these encampments, Mayor Craig and the city should pledge to continue providing these crucial needs for at least the next several months.