UPDATED AT 4 p.m. with Sununu’s response
By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
Mayors from eight cities – from Berlin to Manchester to Claremont, Somersworth and beyond – have again appealed to Gov. Chris Sununu for help assisting unhoused people after a tragic holiday week that saw two homeless people die and a woman give birth in a tent during freezing cold weather.
“The state of New Hampshire’s systems of care for individuals experiencing or at-risk of homelessness are not meeting the needs of communities across the state and are contributing to a statewide homelessness crisis,” the mayors wrote in a joint letter Tuesday.
Sununu’s office released a statement just before 4 p.m. Tuesday:
“The tone and misleading content contained in the Mayors’ letter is disappointing considering the team approach that is so important on an issue as critical as this. The state has made unprecedented investments to address this issue and continues to identify additional pathways working through the Continuum of Care mode,” the statement said. See the full response from Sununu’s office at the end of this story.
In the letter to Sununu, the mayors pointed to inadequate state services for individuals experiencing substance use disorder, mental illness, chronic health conditions, histories of trauma, and incarceration as all substantial factors contributing to homelessness in New Hampshire.
The family of Alexandra Eckersley, 26, who gave birth in a tent in Manchester Dec. 26 at about 12:30 a.m. recently criticized services in New Hampshire.
She is the adoptive daughter of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and retired Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley.
“As in many states, the mental health system in New Hampshire is broken. The state hospital used to have 2,500 psychiatric beds,” the Eckersley said is a public statement last week. “Now there are less than 200 for more than 1.2 million citizens and the state was forced to eliminate another 48 beds this fall because of staff shortages. Without adequate inpatient beds for crisis, treatment and stabilization, a state mental system fails.”
The mayors made four immediate requests of the state to help mitigate harm and loss of life during this winter in New Hampshire:
1. Immediately increase the number of emergency shelter beds statewide
A. Request New Hampshire National Guard staff facilities, if nonprofit partners are unable to adequately assist
1. Make additional shelter for women available.
For this purpose, the City of Manchester is requesting the temporary use of the state-owned Tirrell House located at 15 Brook St. in Manchester.
1. Provide medical respite care to individuals experiencing homelessness when released from hospital.
2. Provide additional shelter and resources for homeless youth.
In addition to the requests for direct assistance to local communities dealing with a surge of homelessness, the mayors are calling for increased collaboration, transparency, and accountability for state programs dealing with homelessness and associated issues including:
1. Provide a public statewide emergency operations plan for the winter
2. Make information about statewide warming stations public and shareable
3. Provide regular updates to municipalities on outcomes provided by Emergency Shelter Service Providers and Certified Recovery Houses that are registered through the NH Coalition of Recovery Residences
The mayors said the ongoing opioid epidemic is also exacerbating homelessness in the state.
“Recent data from American Medical Response (AMR) shows that 35% of individuals involved in suspected opioid overdoses in Manchester and Nashua were unhoused,” the mayors wrote.
Although the recent publicized Christmas time tragedies occurred in Manchester, homelessness is a statewide issue as more than 4,500 New Hampshire residents will experience homelessness at some point this year, according to the mayors.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of individuals statewide who have experienced unsheltered homelessness has almost tripled, and in 2022, 95 unsheltered individuals have died.
The mayors reminded Sununu that in November 2020, all 13 of New Hampshire’s mayors wrote a letter to him stating that “homelessness is a crisis experienced by each of our communities that needs to be a top priority addressed at the state level.”
“Two years have passed since this letter was received, and there has been no improvement in collaboration with local communities in addressing homelessness in New Hampshire,” the mayors wrote.
They said Sununu declined a meeting with New Hampshire’s mayors last month to discuss the impacts of the end of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which ran the risk of sending hundreds of low-income Granite Staters into homelessness.
“Evidence shows the best way to address homelessness is through the ‘Housing First’ model that prioritizes providing individuals experiencing homelessness with permanent, supportive housing, regardless of their sobriety, mental health or other factors that contribute to housing insecurity.
“Everyone needs safe and stable housing, and New Hampshire communities are unable to provide adequate support without active assistance from the State.”
The InvestNH program, which requires developers to make units affordable for those at 80% of AMI, and only requires affordability for five years is a start.
“However, the State must also invest in permanent supportive housing that incorporates treatment for trauma, mental illness, and substance use disorder.
The letter was addressed to Sununu, Health and Human Services Commissioners Lori Weaver and Associate Commissioner Christine Santaniello.
It was signed by Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, Franklin Mayor Jo Brown, Dover, Mayor Bob Carrier, Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard, Claremont Mayor Dale Girard and Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer.
STATEMENT FROM THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE:
The tone and misleading content contained in the Mayors’ letter is disappointing considering the team approach that is so important on an issue as critical as this. The state has made unprecedented investments to address this issue and continues to identify additional pathways working through the Continuum of Care model.
It is important to note that the State of NH has three Continuums of Care (COC’s) that together are responsible to promote community-wide planning and strategic use of resources to address homelessness; improve coordination and integration with mainstream resources and other programs targeted to people experiencing homelessness; improve data collection and performance measurement; and allow each community to tailor its programs to the particular strengths and challenges in assisting homeless individuals and families within that community. To carry out the primary purpose of the COC program, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires representatives of relevant organizations (e.g., nonprofit organizations, victim services providers, local governments) to form a Continuum of Care to serve a specific geographic area. In NH, there are three COC’s:
- Manchester- the Collaborative Applicant is Families in Transition and covers the City of Manchester;
- Greater Nashua- the Collaborative Applicant is Harbor Care, and covers the City of Nashua and the following towns: Amherst, Brookline, Hollis, Hudson, Litchfield, Mason, Merrimack, Milford, and Mont Vernon; and
- Balance of State- Collaborative Applicant is the Bureau of Housing Supports (BHS) and covers the cities and towns not covered by the other 2 CoC’s.
The majority of money for services cannot cross COC boundaries and therefore each COC has to provide its own services and resources as outlined in their plan to HUD.
In 2022, the state made several unprecedented investments including rapid investments in more affordable housing ($100 million for InvestNH), emergency assistance for families in crisis ($20 million last month), providing funding for emergency and winter shelters ($5 million), building statewide healthcare access for individuals experiencing homelessness ($4 million), extending the landlord incentive program, and more.
Meanwhile, the City of Manchester has seemingly used very little of their $43 million from the American Rescue Plan funds to directly address homelessness and, as of Q3 of 2022 (according to their public facing website), they had only expended 22% of their funds. Collectively, the municipalities that signed onto the letter received more than $73 million in American Rescue Plan Funds and Coronavirus Relief Funding that could directly be used for housing, homelessness, and lower income families. This figure excludes the $137 million in emergency rental assistance provided to households in those localities and other funding opportunities the state has put forward for them to take advantage of that is unrelated to housing but could have an indirect impact.
The unprecedented request to call in the National Guard when federal funding hasn’t been spent by many of the municipalities who signed this letter is impossible. For example, $2 million of American Rescue Plan funding received by Manchester has been dedicated to the city’s branding strategy.
Traditionally, the Department has funded more than 700 emergency shelter beds annually, as well as 182 transitional beds. These are in addition to the 250 beds that are funded through other sources.
As referenced above, an additional $4 million was provided this fall to shelters across the state to maintain or increase capacity for the winter. Additionally, DHHS received an additional $1 million to assist with winter sheltering. This funding allows each community to address its unique needs, strengths and resources. Importantly, this funding allows communities to expand, not replace, what they currently do to support individuals and families who are homeless. This unprecedented support has established an additional 348 beds statewide to support the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services works closelywith all of the providers in all of the local communities, including attending local meetings whenever possible. These meetings are the ideal opportunity for municipalities to join with the state and local partners to work on solutions.
In addition to financial investments, the state in collaboration with local communities have increased collaboration among the three Continuums of Care to align processes and establish case conferencing to ensure consistency and access to services across the state and developed workflow and operational policies to support homelessness prevention.