White River Junction: Officials challenged by rising population of homeless residents

  • Marcy Crosby, right, hugs Trinity Pierce, 18, while Harry Daisey, left, prepares to make a bed for Pierce in their tent in a camp in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, July 11, 2019. The couple is newly homeless and said they are looking for work while temporarily living in the camp. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matt H., who declined to give his full last name, has been living in a camp under a White River Junction, Vt., bridge, where he read a book on Thursday, July 11, 2019, for over two years. The Town of Hartford is creating a committee on homelessness in response to a rise in the amount of services for people without housing being accessed in the town this year. Matt, 57, said he once had a successful general contracting business, and also drove trucks until he lost his job due to his alcohol use. "I never thought in a million years I'd be homeless," he said." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "These are our young people," said Christopher Craig, middle, of Harry Daisey, 18, left, and Trinity Pierce, 19, right, who moved to the camp in White River Junction, Vt., in recent days. "We try to kick them out, tell them they don't want to be here, make sure they don't do stupid stuff that keeps them here," he said Thursday, July 11, 2019. Craig said he has steady work, but has had a hard time finding housing due to a past criminal record. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2019 10:08:56 PM

Marcy Crosby, 44, has been in and out of an encampment of homeless people under the Hartford Avenue bridge for several years. So has 49-year-old Christopher Craig.

A lot stays the same from day to day and year to year, but they’ve both recently noticed one change at the site underneath the bridge that carries routes 4 and 5 across the White River.

“There are more people,” said Craig, who has a full-time job in building trades but doesn’t make enough money to get an apartment of his own. He has been on a waiting list for income-based housing for about eight years, he said. “I think people are just giving up and dealing with it.”

The number of people seeking emergency camping gear in the Upper Valley also has increased this year, said Mike Chamness, a co-director for UVGEAR, an organization that was born out of Silent Warriors, a nonprofit that collected and provided items of need to homeless residents under Bev McKinley.

The organization usually budgets about 40 tents to hand out over the entire year. So far this year, staff members have distributed about 65 tents.

“The volume of folks requesting emergency camping supplies that appear to be homeless is definitely up and on the rise this summer,” Chamness said. “Since the winter shelter closed, we have seen a massive influx of people coming into the Valley for services.”

One thing that is alarming, he said, is the number of families seeking help.

The homeless population often includes single individuals or couples, so “it is eye-opening enough to where we had, in three weeks, four families approach us,” Chamness said, each with three to five family members.

Some of those families were from Claremont and another was from Springfield, Vt., but there also is great need in the core of the Upper Valley, including Hartford and Lebanon, Chamness said.

Those two communities recognize the need and are taking steps to help get homeless people — several of whom are suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues — into stable housing, different stakeholders said this week.

A few years ago, the Lebanon City Council created a committee to address the issue of homelessness, and today, several partners in the Upper Valley with a similar charge still meet regularly, including a twice-monthly meeting with representation from about 50 stakeholders on both sides of the Connecticut River.

And just this month, the Hartford Selectboard took a step to have a louder voice in the conversation. The board voted, 7-0, on July 9 to create the Hartford Committee on Homelessness, a five- to seven-member advisory committee to study homelessness in town.

The committee members, who have yet to be selected, will work with area service providers to learn about the status and needs of Hartford’s homeless population; research what other towns have done to support people experiencing homelessness; and collaborate with Lebanon, Hanover and Norwich to discuss a regional solution, according to the Hartford panel’s charge.

“I have a real issue with duplication of efforts. It needs everybody all on the same page,” said Gayle Ottmann, of Quechee, who attended the meeting and applauded the creation of the committee, which is expected to submit a brief with its results to the Selectboard in February.

Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis said the idea for the committee in part came from input from Hartford residents, including Chamness, who helped Silent Warriors transition into UVGEAR earlier this year, and new Upper Valley Haven Director Michael Redmond, who sought a municipal response to what seems to be a growing situation.

Renee Weeks, the Haven’s director of clinical services, said it’s hard to tell anecdotally if the homeless population in the region is increasing. But the need for housing remains steady, and the waiting lists are long, including to get into the adult and family emergency shelters at the Haven, she said. The Haven is currently tracking 100 households who are either homeless or “precariously housed,” including 76 single adults and 24 families, although not all of those households are specifically trying to move into the Haven.

The Hixon House Adult Shelter has room for 20 guests, while the Byrne House Family Shelter can house eight families. The rate of adults seeking to stay in the shelter is roughly the same as this time last year, Weeks said, while the number of families is slowly rising, with a waitlist now of about six to eight. That means that if every family living there today were to leave, those spaces would be almost immediately replaced. The average stay for a family, according to the Haven’s website, is two to three months.

“If we had more capacity, we would still be full,” said Redmond, who stepped into the role as the Haven’s director last fall after Sara Kobylenski stepped down after nearly a decade of leadership.

Weeks said five of the households that the Haven is tracking have rental assistance vouchers and are looking for housing, but “due to decreasing vacancy rates for rental housing” and other factors such as eviction histories, poor credit histories and criminal records, it can be hard to put the vouchers to use and they eventually expire, something she called an “increasing issue within our community.”

No surprise, the top service that homeless individuals seek, according to Crosby, Craig and Weeks, is housing. But there can be several barriers for accessing that, including a lack of financial resources and limited affordable housing options, Weeks said.

“Our housing stock is so low,” Weeks said. “Any housing stock that opens up in our community is a beautiful thing.”

That includes the new Wentworth Community Housing complex in White River Junction, which has helped a number of families in need, including Ryan Crowder and Anna Sanchez, who have been living at the Haven since May. They were slated to move into Wentworth last weekend.

“For me, it means everything. … That I can rest and focus on other things,” Sanchez said.

The couple, who moved to the Upper Valley from Florida in March for hospitality jobs that they both lost, have since found full-time employment — one at big box retailer off Route 12A and the other in health care — and have been working to get back on their feet.

“This is a foundation,” Crowder said. “A start of our new life.”

Although some people who were homeless have had success, others remain in limbo, sleeping in the woods, under bridges and elsewhere in pockets of the Valley and beyond.

That creates some problems in town, said Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten, who in 2017 launched a partnership with the Haven to check regularly on the welfare of people who were homeless. The Hartford Police Department has seen an increase in demand for service calls, including for overnight camping in town and for people pitching tents on private property.

In the area along Hartford Avenue and Maple Street near downtown White River Junction, the Hartford police and fire departments have received scores of calls from people “that were found to be unhoused and in crisis,” Kasten said.

The agencies have already received 68 calls of that nature this year, compared with 86 calls in all of 2018 and 64 calls in 2017, he said.

The town also has seen an increase in crimes like shoplifting, Kasten said.

“Shoplifting at the Co-op along Maple Street during the first six months of the last three years has also increased, many of which have involved persons with no permanent or fixed address,” Kasten said, adding that there have been 21 incidents so far in 2019, compared with seven incidents in 2018 and five in 2017.

The camps, some of which are littered with old food containers, beer cans and human waste, create a public health concern, Kasten said. Many border the rivers, he added.

Under the partnership, police officers, a social worker and staff from the Haven about every six weeks get out into the camps to perform outreach, making sure homeless individuals know where they can seek services if they so choose, among other things.

Nevertheless, barriers remain for many. Some housing won’t allow for people with certain criminal records, for example. Oftentimes, Kasten said, people experiencing homelessness are suffering from some sort of mental health problem or addiction, which can be an obstacle for seeking help.

Both Crosby and Craig have had a few potential housing solutions pop up, but for one reason or another they haven’t worked out.

Finding an affordable place where they can live alone — with the hope that they can be reunited with their children — is something that weighs heavy on their hearts each day, they said.

“I need roots for my daughter and I can’t even get them,” Crosby said through tears as she sat on a wooden pallet that acted as a doorstep to her neatly kept purple tent.

Both Crosby and Craig have suffered from addictions — Crosby to drugs, Craig to alcohol — but they both said they have maintained periods of sobriety.

Crosby said she is eight months off methadone; Craig said he had stayed sober while he was living in a private camp in the woods in Lebanon, but then the police evicted him.

Living in the woods isn’t an environment where it’s easy to stay clean, they both said.

Crosby and Craig keep order at the site below the Hartford Avenue bridge. Crosby said she has a “no-tolerance” policy for newcomers who wish to do drugs there. Everyone who comes into the camp must contribute with something, whether it be food or cleanup.

The two said they have received some help from social service agencies in the Upper Valley, for which they are thankful.

Craig and Crosby keep an eye on the newcomers, a few of whom lately have been young men, including a 19-year-old who recently fled an abusive situation.

Harry Daisey, who said he suffered physical and emotional abuse for the better part of his childhood, said living on his own in a tent beneath the bridge is an improvement.

Matt H., a 57-year-old man who declined to give his last name, has lived under the bridge for about 2½ years while he awaits his turn to get stable housing. He said he has been told that could be coming soon. At first, life on the streets was “cool,” he said, but “I’m not comfortable, not anymore.”

Fortunately, the Upper Valley has services for people who are struggling, including food options, which is a draw for many people experiencing homelessness and could be a factor in why the Valley is seeing an increase in such numbers, Matt H. said.

That is both “a blessing and a curse,” Kasten, the police chief, said. “But I think it speaks to the character to our community.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248

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