'Invisible' problem growing
Shelters see harsh reality that is out of public's view
A soon-to-be-released annual report is expected to show homelessness has risen dramatically in New Hampshire over the last year, which local agencies and experts say is alarming because they believe the increase is even higher than the data indicates.
The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness’ 2017 annual report will include data that shows increases across the board for just about every homeless population, according to its Executive Director Cathy Kuhn. That includes the number of people sleeping in tents or without permanent shelter more than doubling in both Strafford and Rockingham counties compared to the previous year, based on Point-In-Time Count figures.
The 2017 Point-in-Time count revealed the number of unsheltered homeless in Strafford County jumped from 18 to 38 people between 2016 and 2017. In Rockingham County the increase was from 9 to 21 people. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-mandated count, held nationwide every year on Jan. 25, also found overall increases in unsheltered and sheltered individuals and families at the local and state levels.
Shelter officials and social service agencies across the local counties say the Point-in-Time Count only tells a small portion of the picture because it’s conducted once a year and because its scope is limited to only a few types of homelessness. Factor in data compiled throughout the year by welfare officials, school districts, shelters and social service agencies across the two counties, and the results are sobering, according to Alix Campbell, an outreach specialist for Community Action Partnership of Strafford County.
“All of the numbers are definitely going up,” Campbell said.
Campbell is among a number of officials who said most homeless data has its limitations due to the fact a large portion of the homeless community — individuals, families, youth, etc. — attempt to avoid detection while sleeping in tents, cars, buildings and other locations.
Jeff Atwell, a staff member at New Generation, a Greenland homeless shelter that serves pregnant women and babies, said many homeless people are nomadic by nature, making it tough to accurately track people bouncing from town to town and location to location as authorities move them off private property.
“I have a hard time imagining that all of the people are actually captured (in the data),” he said.
Area shelters, like Cross Roads House in Portsmouth, Homeless Center for Strafford County in Rochester, and My Friend’s Place in Dover, all reported seeing higher overall demand and an increase in how long individuals and families stay in their facilities. That’s due in part to the fact rental vacancy rates have dropped below 1 percent in many Seacoast communities while the average rent has simultaneously risen above what individuals on minimum wage or disability can afford, said Susan Ford, executive director of My Friend's Place.
Coordinated Entry, the statewide entry point for individuals seeking assistance, has seen its waitlists balloon to the point where sometimes the only options are an hour or more away. Subsidized housing waitlists have also lengthened to as long as one to seven years for different housing authorities across the Seacoast, due in part to the shrinking number of landlords participating in subsidized housing programs, according to Cross Roads Executive Director Martha Stone.
CAP Director of Program Operations Lauren Berman said these trends have been ongoing for a number of years across the state and Seacoast. However, this year is the first time since 2013 that the Point-in-Time reports indicated an overall increase.
Between 2014 and 2016, Point-in-Time data indicated homelessness decreased in the state by 19.5 percent, dropping from 1,635 to 1,317 individuals. During that same time, the data also indicated decreases of 18.5 and 10.8 percent in Rockingham and Strafford counties, respectively. But officials say that doesn’t tell the whole picture of homelessness in the state for several reasons, one of which is because the Point-in-Time numbers don't include the 3,350 homeless students the state Department of Education reported in the 2015-16 school year alone.
Berman said she finds the Point-in-Time and NHCEH reports troubling because she feels they can make it easier for some governmental bodies, particularly those in small towns with limited budgets, to argue the problem isn’t as dramatic as agencies like CAP say it is. She said that in turn could affect funding-related decisions during a time where more publicly recognized crises dominate news headlines, such as the opioid crisis.
“They don’t want to acknowledge it because it costs them money,” Berman said of some of the communities she’s encountered.
Alyssa Clement said she was a Seacoast resident guilty of thinking her area didn’t have a homeless population. That view was based on her perspective and the level of knowledge in her town. Then she started working with homeless youth as a member of Child and Family Services’ street outreach team. Now that she’s on the front lines working to raise awareness and help students who have nowhere else to go, Clement said she encounters many people who share her old view that homelessness isn't a local problem.
“They can’t comprehend the level of homelessness, so (the youth) remain invisible,” she said, adding she feels a lack of awareness leads to limited resources to help the homeless community.
Kuhn said she agreed with the assertions that the NHCEH and Point-in-Time data are flawed.
“I think any set of data has its flaws, no matter what data set you’re looking at,” she said. “I don’t care what issue we’re talking about — no one data source is going to be full enough to understand an issue.”
Kuhn said community members and individuals in positions of power need to “diversify the data and sources of information” wherever possible, as well as avoid snap judgments based on numbers that are limited and presented in a vacuum.
That’s why NHCEH’s 2017 report, which the coalition will release in December, will have more context than past versions. Kuhn said her coalition and all entities that work with homeless populations need to share that context, which includes stories and viewpoints from people who work in shelters and at social service agencies. The goal is to ensure the community is as fully informed as possible, she said.
“We have a responsibility in that,” Kuhn said. “It’s a complex issue and something that takes time to understand. I hope people in positions of power ... would be willing to put in that time to understand the issue so they’re making the best decisions (to reduce homelessness).”