‘We Are Going to Miss Him’: Homeless Claremont Man Remembered as Caring
The campsite near Maple Avenue in Claremont, where Matthew Harriman lived for much of the past two years, sits damaged by a heavy load of snow last week. Harriman, an unemployed carpenter, was found frozen to death nearby on Tuesday morning. Valley News — James M. Patterson
Matthew Harriman, 49, plays a friend’s guitar at his Maple Avenue camp in Claremont in May. Ralph Tutela photograph
Rosalie Harriman, of Claremont, remembers almost daily meetings with her son, Matthew Harriman, and his girlfriend, driving around town and enjoying meals at McDonald’s. Matthew Harriman was found dead last week near the tent where he lived near his mother’s home. At right: A cook pot and a mug hang on a tree in the camp where Matthew Harriman lived. Valley News — James M. Patterson
A cook pot and a mug hang on a tree in the camp where Matthew Harriman lived off Maple Street in Claremont on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Claremont — Matthew Harriman’s friends and family deemed him an outdoorsman, and, indeed, living under the stars became a way of life.
The 49-year-old Claremont man enjoyed fishing, hiking and watching wildlife pass right before his eyes.
“He loved raccoons, deer and fisher cats and foxes, and he loved deer tracks,” said his mother, Rosalie Harriman, who is in her 80s.
But the unemployed carpenter’s life in a tent was hardly idyllic.
Harriman was homeless, though he checked on his mother daily, and his life was often troubled. His frozen body was found in the snow early Tuesday morning by Claremont police, just yards from the tent where he had camped for much of the past two years.
He lived behind the Maple Lanes bowling alley, not far from his mother’s Maple Avenue apartment.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said the results of the autopsy report won’t be available for two to three months, but authorities have said exposure to the cold weather likely was a contributing factor. Police had gone in search of Harriman after family and friends said he hadn’t been in contact recently.
“He was loving and he was caring and was always ready to help others,” Rosalie Harriman said through tears Wednesday afternoon.
She also said her son “wasn’t good at following rules” and preferred the tent over a homeless shelter in Claremont, though he did make use of some other services in the city.
“He would rather live in the woods in a tent than to go to the shelter because you are not free when you live in a shelter,” Rosalie Harriman said.
“They have restrictions and rules which you have to follow.”
Dean Woods, a volunteer at the Claremont Soup Kitchen on Central Street, said Harriman came in nightly for a hot meal and to take canned goods back to camp with him. Woods recalled Harriman as a friendly individual with good intentions.
“He’s a good man in person and he is always nice to people and always willing to help people out,” Woods said. “We are going to miss him here.”
Harriman’s friend Ralph Tutela concurred.
“He lived a pretty simple life,” Tutela said. “And he loved his mother — he really did. They spent time together every day.”
But more than one friend also said problems with drinking plagued Harriman.
“He was an alcoholic and he knew it and he just had a really hard time shaking it,” Tutela said. “He had been like this for a long time.”
Matthew Harriman had 34 court cases in Claremont District Court since 1992, according to court documents. Charges ranged from disorderly conduct to criminal trespassing to simple assault.
He spent a total of a year and a half in jail since 2009 on separate charges, according to Claremont Police Chief Alex Scott.
“He is someone who was familiar to us,” Scott said.
Most recently, Harriman served six months in jail for entering the property of the Claremont Manor complex, where his mother lives, in January. A no trespassing order had been issued to Harriman, and he violated that order, Scott said.
But Shannon Clark, another friend who joined Rosalie Harriman during an interview, said Matthew Harriman was working to turn his life around and was searching for a job shortly before he died.
“His background is not who he is,” Clark said. “He got discouraged with trying to find a job because of his background. It was hard for him to achieve the goal of employment and he got down when things got tough.
“A lot of people thought negative of Matthew because he was different, I saw the good in him,” she said, describing Harriman’s appearance as “rough around the edges.”
Clark said Harriman inquired at a Lebanon laundry for employment a day or two before friends and family suspected something was wrong.
“He was trying,” Clark said.
In years prior, Harriman had been a carpenter.
“He was really good at it,” Tutela said. “He was telling me last week he was planning to go to Concord to find work doing it.”
Sharon Boyden, director of His Helping Hands, a faith-based Claremont nonprofit helping those in need, said Harriman used the food services at the Main Street organization “quite a bit.”
Boyden and another woman at the organization said on Wednesday that Harriman was seen at Life Fellowship Foursquare Church in Charlestown a few weeks ago.
“He was very kind-hearted,” Boyden said.
Life Fellowship Associate Pastor Jimmie Neilsen said Harriman — often accompanied by his mother — attended church every other Sunday for roughly a year, and stayed for bible study groups.
“He was a gentle soul,” Neilsen, the eldest son of the Claremont mayor, said. “If you had an opportunity to talk with him, you would realize he didn’t want anything from anyone, other than their time. He wanted someone to talk to, someone to listen.”
A memorial service officiated by Neilsen will be held at 2 p.m. on Dec. 28 at the church.
Although it was evident Harriman sought support for food and other necessities, he didn’t go to the shelter offered by Southwestern Community Services in Claremont.
Instead, he chose to camp in a wooded area behind the bowling alley, roughly 900 feet from his mother’s front door.
Rosalie Harriman said her son lived with her two years ago, but because of the no trespassing orders, he lived in a tent.
Nestled in a bed of strategically placed tree limbs, Harriman’s tent was draped by a blanket of snow on Wednesday afternoon, about 36 hours after his body was found. Temperatures had dropped below zero last weekend.
The nearly 6-foot-long tent was covered with a gray tarp and a sheet of clear plastic. A two-toned tan ceramic mug and silver pan hung on a tree near the tent flap.
Colored tubs were flipped over near the back side of the tent, simulating seats or tables, and a few charred logs lay nearby. Fresh animals tracks were in the snow near the tent.
Officials who had been in contact with Harriman over the years said there were services available to him. But with each service comes a choice.
Laurie Tyler, director of housing stabilization at Southwestern Community Services, said officials with the homeless outreach and intervention program run by the organization were “outside at that individual site” on Dec. 12, but could not comment further because of confidentiality reasons.
Tyler said program officials attempt to make contact with people living outdoors during severe cold or warm weather events to ensure they know who to call and where to go in the event of an emergency.
“Staff work with the unsheltered homeless. They’re out in the woods making sure people are being safe and begging for them to come inside,” Tyler said.
Southwestern Community Services operates a men’s shelter and a women and families’ shelter in Claremont that were “over 100 percent full (Wednesday) due to the weather,” Tyler said. “In the coldest time of the year, we will make room for whoever comes to the door. Other than registered sex offenders, we will make room. Nobody is turned away or asked to stay outside.”
There are rules at the shelters, though, that turn off some guests, Tyler said. The rules include a 9 p.m. curfew and no drug or alcoholic substances allowed on the property. She didn’t consider the shelters to be completely “dry,” though.
“It’s a choice for some people, “ she said. “They don’t want to deal with rules, they don’t want to deal with living in a house with other people. They like their privacy.”
Tyler said the shelters operated through Southwestern Community Services in Claremont are the main shelters in town.
Scott, the police chief, said if it came to the point where the shelters were at their absolute maximum capacity, an individual could spend the night in the police department’s lobby.
“I can’t think of any time when that scenario has played out and we haven’t been able to find someone a place to stay,” Scott said.
“Our history would indicate there is a place for people to go, but whether they choose to take advantage of that is up to them.”
Shawn Bronk, 36, who described himself as a “recovering addict,” said he is staying at the men’s shelter in Claremont and said he feels there should be a shelter that offers a hybrid approach in terms of allowing some drugs and alcohol.
“If you can’t get clean, you are stuck,” he said. “You don’t have any options.”
Bronk said without additional measures, he thinks more individuals will end up in Harriman’s situation — out in the cold.
Vincent Ringus, a Claremont resident, agreed.
“Definitely, it can happen to anyone,” Ringus said outside the Claremont Soup Kitchen on Wednesday.
“The government isn’t helping out enough,” he added.
A report on homelessness in New Hampshire found that, after decreasing slightly between 2011 and 2012, the state’s homeless population has remained relatively unchanged.
The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness said Wednesday that, while the overall homeless population in the state has decreased marginally over the past three years, the unsheltered homeless population has increased significantly during the same time frame, The Associated Press reported.
Neilsen, the associate pastor, said he thinks the issue of homelessness is characterized by a lack of awareness.
“I don’t think communities realize how prevalent it is — people living in tents,” he said. “The homeless are out there. (Harriman’s case should be) used as a catalyst to raise that awareness.”
Meriden resident Rod Wendt, president of the United Valley Interfaith Project, said on Wednesday that attempts to establish a warming shelter in Claremont never took off. He said it was a combination of a lack of funds and “people not wanting ‘those people’ in their facilities.”
“Maybe this episode will reignite that,” Wendt said of Harriman’s passing.
Rosalie Harriman said she was with her son on Friday, Dec. 13. The pair, along with Matthew Harriman’s girlfriend, went to McDonald’s for a cup of coffee, a normal daily activity.
Rosalie Harriman said her son was wearing his black leather San Francisco 49ers hat that day, much like he did every day.
“He got an awful lot of compliments on that cap and he only paid $3 for it,” she said. “He would never go anywhere without that cap.
“I can’t believe that I won’t see him anymore.”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.