Icy Cold Hits Upper Valley; Shelters Fill Up as Mercury Falls
Cara and Kevin Paquet stand outside their camper in the Walmart parking lot in West Lebanon yesterday. Their heater is not working properly so they relied on the stove for heat. The temperature inside the camper hovered around 10 degrees yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Heather Doyle sits in the kitchen at Hixon House the adult shelter at the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction. Doyle had been homeless and sleeping under a bridge in White River Junction before coming to the shelter.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
West Lebanon — When the temperatures dropped into the negatives last night and most people in the Upper Valley took for granted their warm beds, Kevin and Cara Paquet, a young married couple, spent the night in a small camper in the parking lot of a big box store on Route 12A.
During the day, the temperature inside the camper reached 10 degrees, and the couple stayed warm by cuddling under the blankets in their bed and turning on a cooking stove.
The couple knew they could go to Upper Valley Haven and ask for shelter, but they didn’t want to part way with their two cats Swirly and Toupee.
“Plus, I’d rather stick it out,” Kevin Paquet said. “It’s only supposed to be this bad for another couple of days and then it’s supposed to get back up above freezing.”
Paquet is right. By Monday, high temperatures are expected to climb back into the low 30s.
The forecast through the weekend continues to call for bitter cold, with highs struggling to escape single digits today and tomorrow. It’s dangerous weather, and it’s stressing resources of social service agencies that serve the homeless.
If the Paquets had gone to the Haven, they would have found the shelter full. Jennifer Fontaine, director of community services, said it’s normal for all 20 adult beds and eight family spaces to be full, especially during the winter months.
When beds do open up, they fill quickly. When there are no beds, The Haven provides hotel vouchers.
When it’s really cold, like this week, the state steps in. Residents on both sides of the Connecticut River can dial 211 anytime for human services resources.
During a declared cold weather emergency, 211 becomes a hotline for anyone needing shelter, and the state makes it a priority to place people in a hotel or shelter, said Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Haven.
Kobylenski said the declaration is helpful for the Haven because it means that the nonprofit doesn’t have to dip into its own funds to put someone in a hotel for the night.
On nights when the state hasn’t declared a cold weather emergency, the Haven has two pots of money it can use. The Salvation Army is a partner with The Haven and gives the nonprofit access to roughly $7,500 annually for hotel vouchers. And the Haven has roughly $8,000 in its own budget that also goes toward direct assistance, but the nonprofit often goes over its budget.
“We try not to go over, but if it’s between us going over and us giving someone a place to stay, we’ll always go over, but we try to be as frugal as possible,” Fontaine said.
Kobylenski is also familiar with much of the homeless population in the area, and she said that those people know they can come to the Haven when it’s brutal outdoors.
“Right now at this immediate moment, we think we’ve got them all indoors,” Kobylenski said.
Heather Doyle knows what it’s like to be really cold. She’s lived at the Haven for the past six months, but she found herself sleeping outside in 20 and 30 degree weather many times last spring.
The first time she slept outside was on a friend’s porch because there was no room for her inside. She snuggled up on a small couch and under a comforter.
For awhile, she slept under a bridge in Hartford. She had an air mattress, but it had a hole in it, which meant it’s only purpose was to provide a buffer between her and the rocks. She slept on top of two sleeping bags, and then she spread three or four sleeping bags on top of her.
When she first moved into the Haven, she said, she would wake up in cold sweats and forget that she was safe. The cold provides a motivation for her to stay on the straight and narrow to avoid getting kicked out of the shelter, she said.
“If I screw up, I am going straight back to where I was, and it’s the dead of winter. I’m screwed. It’s freezing. It’s the scariest thought,” Doyle said.
Tri-County Community Action Program is helping people apply for fuel and electric assistance in the winter months. The fuel assistance program provides grants to help pay for heating expenses, while another assistance program aids in paying monthly electric bills.
Renters and homeowners can check about eligibility by calling the Lebanon location at 603-443-6100 and the Woodsville location at 603-747-3013.
When it’s this cold outside, the biggest concern for local police departments is that people are safe, said Lebanon Police Capt. Tim Cohen. The department also worries about its own officers, who often have to stand outside in the elements to attend to car accidents or fires.
If an officer encounters someone who doesn’t have a place to stay, she will work to find the person accommodations. The list agencies police turn to includes Tri-County CAP, the Haven, the city welfare office and churches that might take someone in for the night.
“Many things in this job, there are a lot of intangibles and common sense has to prevail,” Cohen said. “It’s about the safety of the person. Are they asking for help? If they aren’t asking for help, is help actually required or are we imposing ourselves?”
In the case of the Paquets, they seemed at ease about sleeping in the Walmart parking lot. While the situation wasn’t ideal, Kevin Paquet emphasized that the situation wasn’t permanent. The couple plans to leave at the end of the month and head south to Hartford, Conn., where Cara Paquet has a friend in school. Then they plan to head to Pennsylvania.
As they travel, Kevin Paquet plans to write a travel column for The Herald of Randolph.
During the day, the couple spends time in public places, like libraries and the 24-hour McDonald’s. Perhaps most importantly, they seem happy by each other’s company.
“Hold me,” Kevin Paquet said while standing in front of his camper yesterday afternoon.
“No, you hold me, you’re taller,” Cara Paquet said as they wrapped their arms around one another.
When asked why they chose the Walmart parking as camp site, the couple, who are from Randolph, have a simple answer.
According to Cara Paquet, “It’s free.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.