[Hpn] Shelters feel the crunch

William Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Tue, 16 Oct 2001 15:54:13 -0400


Shelters feel the crunch

 Lack of space means many being turned away

 By BARRY W. WALKER
 Plymouth Bureau
 PLYMOUTH,N.H.



 Pemi Bridge House resident Hannah Dearborn takes a break from her mother,
Genette’s storybook to reach for one of her many ‘aunties.’ With the
shortage of homeless shelter space, Genette feels lucky to be at the
Plymouth facility. (Citizen Photo/Barry W. Walker)
Despite her circumstances, she is a happy child. She approaches her tenuous
world with open arms and wide, blue eyes fringed by long eyelashes.
She and her mother, Genette, have been among the shelter’s 14 residents.
Their names are written along with the others on a slightly smudged white
board in the executive director’s slightly cluttered office, next to a chart
tallying in hash marks the 15 men, 11 women and five families turned away
this month.
"The biggest problem we’re having right now is the turnaways," said Joie
Finley, a Lebanon-based homeless outreach manager filling in for Kim
Walters, the executive director who worked until two days before her baby
daughter was born last weekend.
"There are no beds in Laconia, none in Carroll County, one single male bed
in Brattleboro, Vt.," she said. "None in Concord, no place in Dover, I go
down the list and tell them what I have; they tell me what they don’t have."
The ramshackle old house on Plymouth’s Green Street is painted a cheery
yellow. The kitchen floor is slightly spongy and the living room has a
definite cant to the northeast. None of the three sofas matches, but they
are plush and comfortable.
>From the public rooms, the other rooms ramble from one to the other.
The men’s dorm, in the basement with a low ceiling, houses four occupants.
It is reachable down a steep staircase and through the bathroom. Finley
admits the quarters are "claustrophobic."
The female rooms are upstairs, and airier with windows looking out on trees
and the backs of Main Street shops. Four mothers with their children share
the rooms.
The tenants, she said, run in trends.
"Right now, there’s an influx of younger people, lots of 18-, 19-year-olds
who come here but can’t get jobs and have no economic history," she said.
"They’ll tell us ‘Mom’s new boyfriend doesn’t like me,’ or ‘it was him or
me.’ We have kids living in cars in school parking lots. We have families
who have vouchers for subsidized housing but who are living in campgrounds
because there is no affordable housing."
The problem, according to Finley, is a severe shortage of available,
affordable rental units. New Hampshire contractors, burned in the 1980s
recession by over-speculation, were reluctant to build even with the
economic boom years in the 1990s. The southern half of the state has had a
housing shortage for several years, forcing the homeless to move northward
to find places to live.
The North Country’s campgrounds attract many homeless people during the
pleasant spring and summer months.
"People can camp out during the summer," said Finley, "but it’s difficult to
send a child to school from a campground." As fall approaches, people begin
looking for housing, right at the time in Plymouth when the college students
come back to school and snap up all the rentals.
"In Lebanon, there are no affordable housing units available, period,"
Finley said. "Any available spaces are rented by the hospitals to offer free
housing to doctors and nurses they’re trying to recruit."
Many of the Pemi-Bridge House residents could live on their own if they
could find affordable housing, according to Finley. But if it’s difficult
for them, she said, it’s impossible for the many who are both homeless and
mentally ill.
"We seem to have been getting many mentally ill people seeking shelter,"
Finley said. "But we don’t have the facilities for them. You can’t put a
borderline personality in the rooms with mothers and their children. We
wouldn’t put a paranoid schizophrenic in the men’s dorm, with only one
window. It just wouldn’t work."
Said Finley, "My first wish would be for more affordable housing and more
understanding landlords. My second would be more facilities for the mentally
ill."
Pemi Bridge residents pay to say in the shelter if they can.
"If residents can afford to pay, they do," Finley said, "a third of their
income or $100, whichever is less, per month. People don’t want free rides.
They just need some help to get back on their feet. Everyone’s story is
different and some people need more time than others."
She said the staff avoids doing for the residents what they should be doing
for themselves.
"We don’t do things for people; we walk beside them here," she said. "We don
’t want to foster any more dependence on the system than they already have.
We sit down with them and make sure they know the right people to call, and
their rights with town welfare. We also get food bank and USDA food and a
majority of the women here receive food stamps and WIC. Most cook for
themselves, but sometimes they cook together. We live in tight quarters
here, and tempers will flare at times, but people will offer to sleep on the
floor if they hear we’re having to turn people away."
Hannah Dearborn peers around the office door, searching the room for
something interesting. Rea Laber, a resident taking a break from cleaning
the storage room, scoops her up.
"Aunty Rea will pick me up," she says, putting words in the child’s mouth.
Laber, on her way out to her job at McDonald’s, passes Hannah to Gretchen
Gebhardt, who is busy preparing lunch in the kitchen. Gebhardt smothers the
giggling child with kisses before passing her back to her mother. Genette
Dearborn says she feels lucky to be here.
Laber has lived here two months.
"Things get kinda rough sometimes, but when things need doing, we pull
together and get it done," she says. "If a parent needs their child watched,
we do that, mostly me, I think!"
That’s fine with Hannah.

Barry W. Walker can be reached at 536-4323 or by e-mail at plybur@ncia.net

 © 2001 Geo. J. Foster Co.