Four years ago, the Homeless Services Center shut down.
It was the centerpiece of the 2008 Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.
The notion looked good on paper. Homeless people would have a warm, dry place to stay.
They’d get a free lunch. They’d have access to showers, restrooms and – like the name suggests – services. Services is one of those words that can mean just about anything. If I had to give a definition, it would be help to get people off the street.
But the Homeless Services Center wasn’t working, in part because opioids were throwing a lot of people into destitution and homelessness about the time it opened. Agencies, such as United Way, started pulling their funding, and it closed its doors in June 2015.
At one point, a social worker complained about the TV watching.
I mention that background because a similar effort started in January.
Families in Transition (FIT) turned the New Horizons shelter into an all-day operation in January. People can come and go. Fresh fruit, coffee and water are available. There’s no TV, and the seats are hard plastic stools attached to dining room tables.
Guests can talk, read, play board games, color. They can come and go, scooting outside for a cigarette whenever they want.
And they have access to – here’s that word again –services.
“It’s night and day,” said Maureen Beauregard, the head of FIT, about the daytime operation and the Homeless Service Center. “The last thing we want is for people to think it’s the same thing.”
She said FIT has doubled its staff of case workers. Daytime visitors can meet with a caseworker, said Meghan Shea, vice president of clinical and supportive services at the shelter.
As for services, they include insurance, drug treatment, mental health treatment or prescriptions.
“A lot of it is bureaucratic stuff. They’re confusing,” Shea said.
In the future, Beauregard hopes to add job connections.
During cold snaps, as many as 150 people took advantage of the daytime shelter, Beauregard said. On other days, it might be 30 or 50.
Kathy, who didn’t want to use her last name, spoke to me outside the shelter. It’s gotten better since FIT took over, she said.
“They care about people. They don’t want you to be on the streets all day,” Kathy said.
She said she spent most days inside but predicted the shelter will see fewer daytime visitors as the weather warms.
She and another said they sit around and speak to fellow guests, write letters to family, work on a resume. There are board games and coloring books available.
Brian Roberts, who sleeps at New Horizons, has no interest in hanging out at the shelter during the day.
“What am I going to do, look at a bunch of people I look at all night long?” he said. Roberts said he either works during the day or walks the streets. He works in construction, so during the slow winter months he lives at the shelter. During the summer, he rents a room.
Other changes have taken place at the shelter.
Beauregard said she’s relaxed a lot of the rules. For example, if staff caught a guest with a beer in their pocket, they used to get kicked out for a week. Now it’s a day.
Also, during the day people can leave to have a cigarette.
“People are people. We don’t need to cage them. We don’t need to rule them to death. We don’t need to ostracize them for weeks at a time,” Beauregard said. Rules that deal with safety and drug use remain.
The early shelter check-in – 6:30 p.m. except for those working second shift or who are attending programs – irks Roberts. And Kathy complained about getting woken up at 5:30 a.m.
Beauregard said the check-in time – long a criticism of many shelter users – is being evaluated. She said the size of the shelter restricts some of its flexibility.
The shelter is poised to spend some $200,000 in federal funds to upgrade sleeping quarters and restrooms.
Plans are to separate people in recovery from the general population. Beauregard hopes to eventually place lockers in the shelter, where people could stow away backpacks and other belongings, but space is a concern, she said.
During an hour-long conversation in the shelter, Beauregard was enthusiastic about plans for the future. She high-fived the newly hired outreach coordinator, Rebecca Pichardo, when Pichardo said a man who normally sleeps outside has spent three nights in the shelter.
“Being homeless is tough. You don’t open up right away,” Pichardo said.
She and Shea emphasized that the approaches they are taking have proven successful in other cities.
Beauregard said she can get homelessness down to a functional zero.
One thing the effort won’t do is stop the panhandling in downtown Manchester, something Beauregard said will stop when people stop giving handouts.
I visited the Homeless Services Center several times. Most of the time was in the winter, and it was pretty full.
The staff was overwhelmed at the Services Center and the “services” entailed people visiting from agencies. Most times, the offices were empty.
FIT thinks that with enough caseworkers and outreach workers, homeless people might get the encouragement to keep seeing their doctor, go to work, budget their money or get into recovery.
FIT is also launching an electronic medical record for all the people it serves.
And for now at least, the shelter seems to be relaxing on the rules.
The short of it: There’s a new approach to caring for the homeless. And there’s an enthusiastic team ready to try.
“We really are at a place I feel like we’ve only dreamed of for a really long time,” Beauregard said. “I feel like the wind is at our back.”