Living without a home
Homelessness in the region
November 25, 2010
LITTLETON- One woman with a sign caused a stir last month when she stood in front of the Affordable Housing Education and Development (AHEAD) Property Management office on Main Street, calling for social justice.
"They can't blow me off. I'm going to fight for my rights as a human being," said Melodie Coe.
The bout of civic enthusiasm was brought on by a perceived slight on the part of the agency in front of which she was standing. Coe had been living with her sister in Canaan, but applied for AHEAD housing when she learned about the program that manages 305 housing units in New Hampshire – including apartments in Littleton, Woodsville, Lisbon, and Franconia – and 33 in Vermont, offering rentals for low and moderate-income households.
Coe filed an application for some of the affordable housing AHEAD offers. When her application hit a snag, Coe became upset.
"I am homeless because of this problem," said Coe.
Coe identifies "this problem" as a nationwide apathy to homelessness. Whether it is ignorance or indifference, Coe feels it only makes finding somewhere to live more difficult.
"I love people, but they need to care about other Americans," said Coe. "I believe in this country, but people need to wake up."
The hold up in Coe's application was her failure to provide references – one part of the 11-page application. AHEAD initially did not notice the absence, said Coe, and informed her that she would be receiving housing soon. According to Coe, she was waiting for the call telling her when and where she could move, when they realized their mistake and told her she would have to provide references before they could move forward. Coe then said she was unable to provide references. AHEAD was unable to comment on Coe's application specifically due to its confidentiality policy but did say the AHEAD application is long and detailed.
"There's a lot of paperwork. There's a lot of questions," said AHEAD Director of Property Management Susan Tomasetti. "Some things get missed." The application includes a criminal record check, declaration of citizenship, social security documentation for every member of the household, and a detailed financial history, in addition to housing and personal references. The agency receives between 60 to 100 applications a month, said Tomasetti.
AHEAD has very strict guidelines when it comes to who can receive its low-income housing based on Area Median Family Income (AMFI). The qualifications are specific to different housing groups – for some apartments, only the elderly or disabled qualify.
"The reason we have so many steps is we have so many funding sources that require us to do that," said Tomasetti.
David Wood, Executive Director of AHEAD said, though dealing with disgruntled clients is not common, it happens – especially to the home ownership division, which works with people whose homes are being foreclosed on.
"We're the face of the foreclosure situation for the people even though we're advocating for them," said Wood. "We serve a population in which many of the people have a lot of obstacles facing them."
What is homelessness the problem?
Annie Crowley, local outreach worker at Tri-County CAP's Homeless Outreach program said homelessness is more common than most people realize.
"[Homelessness] is pretty prevalent," said Crowley. "Just because they haven't set up a tent on Main Street doesn't mean they're not homeless."
According to records kept by Tri-County CAP's Homeless Program Coordinator Joie Finley Morris, 350 people were served in Northern Grafton County last year, and another 376 in Coos County. The local portion of the program that covers Grafton, Coos, and Carroll counties supplied Coe with the security deposit for an AHEAD apartment.
"In the last five years, Tri-County CAP Homeless Outreach has served 7,822 duplicated people," said Morris in an email, "with no end in sight."
Both Grafton County and Coos County have only one shelter apiece: The Bridge House in Plymouth and the Tyler Blaine House in Lancaster. The Tyler Blaine House only has eight beds.
"Although the word 'homeless' conjures up images of an urban problem with people sleeping on park benches, trying to keep warm next to grates on the sidewalk, and eating in soup kitchens, it is also a problem in picturesque rural communities across the country, like Plymouth, New Hampshire," reads The Bridge House's website.
Crowley said the shelters across the state are filled to capacity about 50 percent of the time and sometimes, even when beds are found, people will choose not to live in a shelter for various reasons.
There was a couple living in their car in the Jax Jr. Cinemas parking lot for a few weeks until very recently, said Crowley. The husband and wife didn't want to go to a shelter because they didn't want to be separated. The couple were cooking their food on the engine of the car and getting heat from the car, as well as from some pillows and blankets supplied by Tri-County CAP, but when the heat died, the couple had no choice but to seek help.
Sometimes, location is an issue, said Crowley. Available beds are often not found locally. If a bed is found in a shelter that is far away from a person's work or a child's school, the people may be reluctant to go, as it would mean trying to find a new job or transferring a child to a new school.
Morris said that not only is she seeing more people, but also more complex situations.
"It's not just job or income loss anymore," said Morris. "Now it's job loss with mental health issues, broken car, no real marketable skills, lack of day care. You name it. The combinations are endless. And it takes a masterful outreach worker to help the client address all the issues that contribute to their homelessness."
"It's hard to be so small with such a great need," said Crowley of the work she does through Tri-County CAP's Homeless Outreach Program. "We don't have the resources. A lot of what we do is case management – to take people to the resources they need."
The program has zero-interest loans for the working poor to cover the first month's rent and security deposits, said Morris. The loan is revolving and must be paid back within the year so the next person can be helped. The program is also in its first year of utilizing $900,000 in federal stimulus money that is to be spread out over three years. The stimulus money allowed for the addition of three new employees across the program – including one in Littleton, doubling the homeless outreach workers in the community.
"So far, we have helped 462 people with over $200,000 in direct client services (rent, security deposit, help moving out of storage, and turning on utilities)," said Morris. The stimulus money is tightly budgeted, so it will last the three years.
The outreach teams are the program's most valuable assets, stressed Morris.
"[Our outreach workers] are on the street looking for people in need," she said. "They are available to assist when someone suddenly becomes homeless or is 'precariously housed' or 'doubled up dependent' – any living situation that is not considered 'permanent.' They have masterful people skills and can, at the drop of a hat, become a landlord mediator."
Over the past six years, said Morris, the program has struggled to maintain the level funding needed to keep the workers employed with a living wage that also allows them to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for service.
"We do only work 40 hours a week - many people fault us for this, but, to be completely honest, we are only paid for the 40 and not one hour over. After-hour coverage is a great concern for us as we well know homelessness knows no clock," said Morris.
Crowley echoes this sentiment.
"It's not a good feeling to go home knowing someone's on the street," said Crowley.
Morris said that they are always searching for funds that would facilitate overtime work, but until some more money is found, stresses that people who need help after normal business hours should seek shelter with their town officials or local law enforcement.
"We try to do fundraising, but our days are spent doing outreach," said Morris.
The Littleton office is getting ready to send out letters asking for donations in the coming weeks. Their first letter fundraising attempt, said Crowley, will focus on the Haverhill area and any funds gathered will go towards helping people in the local communities.
"I'm afraid they're going to say, 'The town appropriates a certain amount of money for CAP,'" said Crowley, but she highlights that these funds are for all of Tri-County CAP and must be divided among its many programs. "Homeless outreach is just a small piece of what we do."
A caring community
Tri-County CAP is not the only force combating homelessness in the region.
"We work very closely with the town of Littleton," said Crowley, adding that whenever they have asked the town for help with someone, they have always come through. Often, one covers the first month's rent and the other covers the security deposit.
"Littleton is very, very good with us. The town is just amazing," said Crowley, but added that the town is getting hammered hard by the many people who need assistance.
Lahout's Rentals is a local business working to alleviate some of the stress on the town.
"Lahout's has done a lot lately to help us find housing for people who would otherwise not be able to find housing," said Crowley. Lahout's gives people chances and keep tenants as long as possible, she said.
"What if that were me?" Lahout's Property Manager Heidi Hurley said she asks herself when people come in asking for help – an event that occurs three or four times a month, she estimates. Hurley and owner, Herb Lahout, get them in contact with local resources, like Tri-County CAP, or try to find them temporary housing to get them back on their feet.
"I've had a woman coming in here with two kids, crying, with no place to go, and we put them in a furnished apartment," said Hurley. A year later, that same woman is still living in a Lahout's apartment working full time and paying full rent.
Hurley has noticed a lot of people coming from the northernmost part of the state – towns like Pittsburg, Colebrook, and Groveton that have been among the hardest hit in the past few years. Many of the people they try to help, said Hurley, over qualify for AHEAD, but don't have enough money to get housing anywhere else.
AHEAD has strict rules that preclude applicants with bad credit history or a criminal record which is many of the people who need the housing, pointed out Morris.
"We need more affordable housing – affordable housing that will forgive a mistake or two in one's life," said Morris.
Affordable housing is one item on Morris' list of things that need to change in the region for the homelessness rate to go down. Also on the list is jobs that pay living wage with benefits; better access to mental health treatment for people with low to no income; education and training in real world skills (such as how to keep a checking account or how to dress for an interview); and better dental hygiene.
"The first thing people notice is your smile, and so many of our folks don't smile because of tooth damage," said Morris.
Homelessness does not have simple solutions because it is a complex problem – often, without a recognizable face.
"So many of the people experiencing homelessness may have jobs at say a large box store or a chain donut shop, you don't see them as being 'homeless,'" said Morris. "You don't see the media image of the 'bag lady' or 'hobo.' You just see the person taking your order at the drive-thru. Where they go at night could be someone's couch or a tent in the woods. You don't know."
As the year comes to a close, New Hampshire tallies a record number of home foreclosures and the number of people living without a permanent home continues to rise. Does Coe represent a greater tide of frustration towards agencies tasked with combating homelessness or is she the exception to an otherwise grateful community? Or do most people, as Coe claims, simply not care?