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Special to the Conway Daily Sun by volunteer Kim White Feather: Living homeless in NH!

OSSIPEE — As temperatures dip in the North Country, and autumn arrives in earnest, thousands of people in New Hampshire are homeless.

Thoughtful policies are needed to give them hope.

According to a WMUR-Channel 9 report in August: “Preliminary numbers from the point-in-time count state that there were 2,441 total homeless people recorded on one January night this year. Of that number, 2,103 were sheltered and 338 were unsheltered.”

The report continued, “From 2022-23, the amount of homelessness grew by 52 percent. Over the last six years, there hasn’t been an increase of over 17 percent and in some years there was a decrease. The last time there were more than 2,000 total homeless people in the state was in 2008.”

A report from the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, which used a different method of counting, says a total of 4,682 individuals experienced homelessness in New Hampshire in 2021.

Those living without a roof over their head must brave the elements and sleep wherever they can — circumstances that, needless to say, may be hazardous to their health, both physical and mental health.

One man named CJ, who is camping in Conway. described in a series of Facebook messages what it’s like to face this situation. CJ says he’s working full-time at a gas station and is looking for a second job.

“I don’t see God nowhere in sight. I don’t see the light nowhere,” said CJ. “I’m lost, and I’m in the dark, and I feel I’m never going to get out of this situation. I don’t care about my life, but I have to live it.”

CJ continued, “I figure the more I work, the less I have to think about things because lately I’ve been having a lot of suicidal thoughts.”

New Hampshire’s homelessness crisis didn’t even get a mention in the four-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s inaugural address.

Yes, homelessness can be attributed to personal failure in some cases; but in many others, unlucky breaks — which life is full of — can push ordinary folks into a state that defies their best efforts to escape.

Anyone seeking emergency shelter is facing a housing crisis. When a crisis cannot be immediately resolved, people will choose options that are most consistent with their needs and preferences.

If people perceive that an emergency shelter stay requires conforming to rules or expectations that seem unreasonable or punitive to them, or that divide them from their defined family, they may decline the support they need.

Many homeless have a lack of access to clean clothes, showers, transportation to get to interviews or just not having the “data” on their phone, or even a working phones, in order to respond quickly to employers who call or text, or email them.

The majority of companies require a permanent address from job applicants to ensure they are residents of the state and to conduct background checks. Having no proof of residency can make it more difficult for unhoused individuals to be considered for an open job position over an applicant who has an address.

Homeless people need a variety of services including health care, mental health services, as well as welfare and employment assistance, a mailing address and many other things. Health effects aren’t limited to those without shelter; anyone without permanent housing faces severe challenges when it comes to their well-being.

There are high rates of medical issues for those facing homelessness. Additionally, those that are homeless usually lack access to health-care services. Many who are homeless will not be able to seek help for their health problems, which in turn exacerbates their conditions.

CJ’s wife was in rehab at Friendship House of Bethlehem until Oct. 6 and after that, she was to be moved to Bonfire Behavior Health in the Seacoast region.

“I just want my wife to come home, and I want her to love me, I want to build a future together again, and I’ve just got to think positive and, you know, I just think that that’s all going to happen. And then I go and think negative again, and it brings me down,” said CJ.

Across the U.S., the homeless population is growing older and sicker. Homelessness accelerates the aging process and rapidly worsens chronic medical conditions that could be treated with consistent access to care and shelter. Additionally, being unhoused carries an increased risk of disability and such things as traumatic brain injury.

From a funding perspective, it’s more efficient and humane to make sure people have proper case management and to be aware that everyone’s needs are different.

But there are not enough case managers/workers willing to put in the time with each individual or family. It takes time to figure out what their needs are to help them get rehoused or even sheltered.

And many can’t or won’t go to a shelter, such as one in Laconia that is an hour away from Conway and Ossipee or to another in Lancaster two hours away. Especially when their support services — their doctors, court, hospital care, intensive outpatient, job and appointments — are in the Mount Washington Valley.

There are multiple layers to all of this, which again, most people don’t understand or realize.

CJ says he fights the urge to abuse drugs. “I don’t want to use drugs, but have been tempted lately being alone, while my wife has been placed in court-ordered rehab,” said CJ.

“But I don’t want to be that person no more, and if I use, I’m not going to be able to get my life together. And if I use, I might just lay down and die. That’s why I’m just trying to work and stay sober and get my life together.”

Equally significant barriers to entry are the rules and restrictions common to shelters that can make their services inaccessible to those in need. Restrictions governing who can enter bar many people from shelter, while benefiting others.

A prime example is that most shelters are restricted to either single males or single females. Another example is that many shelters refuse admittance to substance abusers and the mentally ill. Yet a significant proportion of homeless people suffer from these dual scourges.

Then there is the domestic violence aspect of homelessness. It can be a leading cause of homelessness for women and children and even some men.

Many victims face homelessness when they flee abuse. Their experiences are confounded by economic instability, often perpetuated by abusers. Between 22 and 57 percent of all homeless women and men report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness.

Additionally, 38 percent of all victims of domestic violence become homeless at some point in their lives.

Many victims and survivors of domestic violence have trouble finding rental properties because they may have poor credit, rental and employment histories as a result of their abuse, and their single “mother’s hours” income does not allow for the higher rents that have become the norm.

There are six specialty shelters in the state. There are three for substance abuse recovery, one for homeless youth, one for pregnant women and one for female ex-offenders.

If people seek help from their towns, and they’re forwarded to the shelters, if they refuse to go to the shelter, they can’t get town aid either.

So even if they don’t have a way of getting up there or over there they can’t get town services because of the reference of going to a shelter with no way of getting there or getting back to whatever they have for an appointment the next day.

Also if they get a referral to an emergency shelter. most people are not allowed to choose the shelter that they will go to.

However, the organization that’s usually referring you to that shelter must place you within a 20-mile radius of your hometown.

In Carroll County, they give you a list of shelters in the state you need to call. There’s no possibility of staying in the 20-mile radius in Ossipee or Conway when the nearest shelter is in Laconia or Littleton.

Littleton to Ossipee is 79.3 miles or one hour and 50 minutes away. Laconia to Ossipee is 35.8 miles or 56 minutes. Littleton to north Conway is one hour and 6 minutes or 46.8 miles. North Conway to Laconia is one hour, 22 minutes or 51.4 miles.

As long-term housing options become scarcer, domestic violence victims are staying longer in emergency shelters. As a result, many of the shelters are frequently full and must turn families away. In addition, systemic factors such as institutional discrimination and the lack of affordable housing in communities create further challenges for many domestic violence survivors.

Transportation has been an issue for CJ.“I can’t find a ride anywhere so I need to be close to work where I can walk to and from,” said CJ. “So nobody literally nobody will help me, nobody gives a flying damn about me except for (Kim White Feather) and maybe the people at the Way Station.”

Some places need to cease enforcement and repeal laws that criminalize life-sustaining actions of people experiencing homelessness — such as camping and storing property in public.

Other things we can do:

  • Increase shelter capacity as a stopgap measure to address the tremendous shortfall in transitional and permanent housing. Permanent housing is the only real solution to homelessness. Towns need to increase the number and capacity of specialized shelters that serve underserved populations of homeless people, such as families and unaccompanied youth.

  • Increase the number of “low barrier” shelters and “harm reduction” services for those suffering from substance abuse, to house this underserved segment of the homeless population and potentially lead them to better treatment.

  • Increase investment in substance abuse treatment for opioid and methamphetamine use. Substance abuse is both a cause and consequence of homelessness.

  • Abolish overbroad residency laws for registered sex offenders. These laws, coupled with shelters’ bans on admitting registered sex offenders, effectively force homeless offenders to live outside. Community safety is not served by these laws and practices.

Communities throughout New Hampshire have far too few emergency shelter beds to meet the growing need.

This shortage forces shelter providers to over-fill our already burdened shelters leading to unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The shortfall of beds is exacerbated by shelter restrictions that limit entry to only those who qualify or shelter conditions that pose health and safety risks that scare people away.

The number of unsheltered homeless people far exceeds the available emergency shelter beds. For example, many mass person shelters don’t allow pets — and for good reason. But for the homeless with pets, who wouldn’t imagine giving up their only companion, where do they go for shelter? Similarly, some shelters don’t allow personal belongings, and others don’t allow families.

“I have our dog to think about too,” said CJ. “We have nobody to take care of our dog and I can’t lose our dog ... She’s the only one that’s been there since the beginning.”

Many shelters have curfews that prevent residents from entering or leaving after an established time. Curfews can help site managers control who enters and exits the shelters and supports resident safety, but for those who work night shifts, these curfews can make the homeless choose between a bed and a job.

State government should partner with local communities in a comprehensive and coordinated effort to alleviate homelessness in the short term, and to create the necessary conditions for its eradication in the long term.

The average stay at an emergency homeless shelter is 60 days, while the average length of time it takes a homeless individual family to secure housing is between 6-10 months, sometimes more.

Emergency shelters across the state serve more than 700 people (individuals and families) on any given night in New Hampshire. That’s out of the 5,000 plus that are currently homeless within New Hampshire’s borders.

Kim White Feather lives in Ossipee. She is a Certified Recovery Support Worker, Recovery Coach, Suicide and Crisis Prevention Support Specialist and Disaster Behavioral Health Response Team member.

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