JENNIFER OLSON AND SAOUL HANEY count their home by the linear foot.
And at this point it’s 33 feet of travel trailer. Thirty-three feet that Haney owns free and clear and allows him to sarcastically claim he’s the “king of the homeless” in Manchester.
They park their trailer around the city, unhitching for a night or two before a city resident complains and police shoo them away. Olson, Haney and her son try to stay around the Currier Museum neighborhood because two of them have nearby jobs.
They have also parked at the Stevens Pond basketball courts, a truck stop on Route 3A in Hooksett, and behind the closed Toys R Us store on South Willow Street.
I caught up to them last week. They were parked on Maple Street in front of Oak Park. Police had told them that they could stay the night but then had to move.
“We tell the cops we’re not trying to cause trouble. We’re abiding by the law. We’re just trying to make it,” said Olson, who is 37. She adds that police are good to them, usually giving them a day to move.
We spoke on a morning of low-hanging clouds, no sun, a threat of rain and damp cold that portend months of cold and dreary weather. They were smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. They smoke outside because second-hand smoke would harm their two dogs – one a pitbull, one a half-pit.
They were living in an apartment in Manchester until August, when they were evicted. They had relied on teen-aged roommates to help with the rent, and when they bailed the couple couldn’t afford their rent, they said. They racked up an $1,800 hotel bill before paying $900 for a 1986 Teton Sheridan travel trailer.
They have no hookups, which means no electricity or running water. A propane heater and Coleman lantern provide heat and light. They keep water and milk in an ice chest. They rely on nearby restaurants for the bathroom.
They visit Haney’s mother, who lives in a West Side apartment, to shower. Olson’s son, Devon, 19, lives with them, too. He’s into apocalyptic survivalism and enjoys their situation, his mother said.
They live on bread, peanut butter and Fluff, Little Caesar’s pizza and convenience-store coffee. The propane heat is a big expense.
“It’s amazing how much it costs to be homeless in this thing,” Olson said.
But the couple also said they are hanging on. They don’t go to New Horizons because they have money, they said. They don’t stand on street corners with a sign.
They would like to find an apartment, but don’t expect that to happen. Landlords would shun them because of the eviction, Haney said. And, they don’t have money for a security deposit, although Haney said he could sell the trailer, if necessary.
For much of September and October, the family parked on streets around Oak and Wagner Memorial parks. Devon works as a dishwasher at a Mammoth Road restaurant. Olson is a teacher at a neighborhood preschool.
Haney said he can work – recently he was a driver – but someone has to stay with the trailer full-time, especially with the dogs.
They are stuck, they said.
Olson said they are only technically homeless. They are warm and dry. And they have the ability to make choices. (For example, Olson said they’d never give up their dogs.)
Yet they live in a city that pushes the homeless around. The complaint from a single resident to the mayor will prompt the city to start ripping up homeless camps. I asked police to comment on this story, and they directed me to city ordinances.
The parking ordinance does not strictly prohibit people from living in vehicles. I couldn’t find any mention of how long a vehicle can remain parked in a single spot. City Parking Manager Denise Boutilier said she believes city ordinances limit a parked car to a day at a single location. She said people can park their vehicles overnight in city parking lots and sleep in them, but she’d prefer they don’t during winter in order to clear snow.
“They will not be towed unless they are abandoned and we red tag them,” she said.
Last year at this time, Cathy Kuhn, director of New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, told New Hampshire Public Radio that 70 families with children were living in Manchester in tents or cars. But it could be argued that vehicles, especially trailers such as this, are much better than tents. Kuhn rejected that notion.
“From the service provider perspective, we would definitely say no,” Kuhn said. “Just saying it’s one step up from living on the streets, I think we could do better.”
Sometimes the Haney-Olson family hurts itself. Police told them to park at Walmart, which allows RVs to park in many of its lots overnight. But Olson’s son open carries a gun, and Walmart kicked them out.
So why open carry, I ask Haney? It’s legal, he said. Meanwhile, Olson said she wouldn’t get rid of the dogs to move into an apartment.
Kuhn said people often create barriers of their own that can seem counter-intuitive. But that’s not always the case. A homeless family may hold on to pets for the emotional and mental stability they provide, Kuhn said.
Kuhn, who is also vice president for research and training at FiT, said Haney and Olson should visit New Horizons, even if they don’t want to stay there. They could get on a waiting list. A social worker would discuss barriers, whether it’s joblessness, evictions, drug addiction, mental illness.
“They’re not the first to have barriers,” she said. “We deal with them one at a time. We’ve seen it happen. The model works. It’s not easy.”
Haney said they bought the camper thinking they would winter in it. But then they realized that many campgrounds close in the winter, and others limit stays to a couple of weeks. They recently went to Manchester City Welfare, and the office had them file for the Rapid Rehousing program.
“It kind of saved our ass,” he said about the trailer, “now it’s being a pain in the ass.”