Lebanon hotel filled with people on assistance highlights Upper Valley’s housing problems

  • Kristy Wormelle, center, talks to her son Gage Oakes, left, while his daughter Serenity, 5, plays with Wormelle’s service dog Chino at Riverside Park in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, July 29, 2022. Wormelle is sleeping in her car after being evicted last week from the Quality Inn where she had been living since April. Wormelle, who is disabled and sometimes uses a scooter as a mobility aid, said that she encountered several accessibility issues while staying at the hotel, like a lack of automatic doors, and generally felt like she was left on her own to find the resources she needed. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • The Quality Inn on Route 120 in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. The hotel has become a de facto homeless shelter, housing individuals and families in all 48 rooms through the federally-funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program facilitated by New Hampshire Housing and Tri-County Community Action. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2022 5:15:18 PM
Modified: 7/31/2022 5:12:03 PM

LEBANON — Speaking in the parking lot outside the Quality Inn off Route 120 in Lebanon earlier this month, Craig Carter credited the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which covers the cost of his stay at the motel, with aiding in his recovery from alcoholism.

“This stability is basically what’s keeping me sober,” said Carter, a 39-year-old veteran who said he has post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his service. “... This is the perfect opportunity for people to clean up their s---.”

Carter, who also has had a heart attack and stroke, which have left him with limited use of one hand and that he said were related to exposure to burn pits, moved to the Quality Inn a few months ago after a stay in a transitional living facility in Manchester. The federal funds for the ERAP program covering Carter’s stay at the inn, and that of the other 47 households filling the motel’s rooms, come through New Hampshire Housing and Tri-County Community Action.

It’s just since April that all of the Quality Inn’s rooms have been taken up by participants in the program, some of whom like Carter originally hail from outside the Upper Valley. Before that, about 20 of the inn’s rooms were regularly filled with ERAP participants, said Lynne Goodwin, Lebanon’s human services director. She said the change was because there were “more people experiencing homelessness that needed temporary shelter.”

Even prior to the pandemic, the Upper Valley was facing a housing crisis. Landlords were raising rents as the market allowed. As more housing is being built in Lebanon, only “a very small percentage is affordable for low- and moderate-income folks,” Goodwin said.

While the Sunset Motor Inn off Route 10 in West Lebanon also accepts ERAP referrals, Goodwin said, the Quality Inn “is the only hotel I know of that the entire hotel is working with Tri-County Community Action.”

To qualify for the ERAP program, which also provides home heating, internet, rental and utility assistance, people are required to show that they have a household income of 80% or less of the area median income (in Grafton County, this is a limit of about $49,000 for a single person and $70,000 for a four-person household); have experienced financial hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic; and show that they are at risk of homelessness.

There is funding available through ERAP to help people pay for rent, but “there is very little housing available,” Goodwin said. “In previous years, people could find housing and there wasn’t a lot of funding to help them. So it’s just the opposite.”

In order to have their stay in a hotel or motel covered, people also are required to show that they have either been displaced from their primary residence or that they don’t have one; as well as documentation of the charges for which the household is seeking ERAP’s assistance. Standard room occupancy charges, including taxes and service fees are allowed, but amenities and food are not. A sign on the front desk in the Quality Inn in mid-July said there is a $20 charge per day for pets. Only domesticated dogs under 30 pounds are allowed in pet-friendly rooms, which are subject to availability.

Jeanne Robillard, CEO of Tri-County Community Action Program Inc., which serves Coos, Carroll and Grafton counties, directed questions about the ERAP program to New Hampshire Housing, but said, “As with other hotels and motels in our catchment area, the Quality Inn in Lebanon has been a wonderful partner in our efforts to assist those who have been rendered homeless due to COVID.”

Efforts to reach the owners of the Quality Inn in person at the motel, by phone and email were unsuccessful. A representative of the motel asked a Valley News photographer to leave the property.

As of the middle of July, the New Hampshire ERAP has provided over $180 million in assistance to over 20,000 households, said Grace Lessner, director of communications & marketing for New Hampshire Housing. In Grafton and Sullivan Counties, the program has provided a total of more than $18 million in assistance. In Grafton County, 40% of the ERAP funds, or $5.4 million, have gone toward other expenses, including motel stays, the highest percentage of spending in that category of any New Hampshire county.

“That may be demonstrating right there a heavy use of motels as temporary shelter,” Goodwin said. “If people had a place to move to they would.”

Shelter beds needed

Goodwin said having the Quality Inn serving as a de facto homeless shelter illustrates the need for more shelter beds in the Upper Valley. The nearest shelters are at the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction and a shelter in Claremont run by Southwestern Community Services.

“Identifying a location for a permanent shelter is always challenging,” Michael Redmond, the Haven’s executive director. “Can’t say I know the best opportunity in Lebanon.”

A plan put forward in 2020 by the Haven and Twin Pines Housing to create a 23-bed shelter in inside the former home of the Consign & Design Center at 14 Main St. in West Lebanon failed to come together in the time frame that was required by the federal funding the nonprofits had hoped to use for the project.

Redmond also noted that the Haven’s planned 20-bed low-barrier shelter, which failed to get a key approval from the Hartford Zoning Board of Adjustment last week, would have welcomed New Hampshire residents, as well as Vermonters.

Staff at Listen Community Services in Lebanon have been referring people to Tri-County Community Action Program for support through ERAP. Heather Griffin, the assistant program director at Listen, said the Lebanon motels that accept ERAP are regularly full with a waiting list. In addition, some of Griffin’s clients have hit the 18-month maximum of the ERAP program before they’ve found permanent housing.

“They’re done,” she said. “It just stops.”

As more people creep closer to the 18-month maximum, more people will be at risk of homelessness, Griffin said.

Angela Zhang, Listen’s program director, said the situation at the Quality Inn underscores “the desperate need for all kinds of housing” in the Upper Valley.

“In general, we need all kinds of housing, especially shelter beds,” she said. “There’s a huge demand in this region. It’s only going to get worse from here.”

‘Lack of structure’

Like the region’s social service providers, Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts said he would like to see a formal shelter to support people without housing.

From his perspective, the Quality Inn provides people with a place to stay, but doesn’t give them other support that they need.

“It’s kind of becoming a drain on our resources honestly,” he said.

Roberts said police learned about the Quality Inn’s role as a de facto homeless shelter through email tips and speaking with hotel staff.

It “wasn’t, ‘Let’s everybody get together and plan this out,’ ” he said.

As of last Monday, Roberts said his department had been called to the Quality Inn 85 times so far this year. His officers had been there 16 times so far this month.

The calls include picking up people who have warrants out for their arrest, as well as intoxication, disorderly conduct, mental health episodes and theft, according to Roberts. He said Lebanon police responded to the Quality Inn three times last weekend just for calls related to theft.

“It’s just a lack of structure,” Roberts said. “They come in; they fill these rooms, and there’s no one left to oversee this. Unfortunately, it falls in our hands.”

Municipal costs

The city is likely to continue to feel the effects of the housing shortage on city services. It’s not clear how much longer the ERAP program will last, but Goodwin said the city has asked that New Hampshire Housing give them a couple months’ heads-up so that they can sort out which of the people living in Lebanon motels are originally from Lebanon. The city expects to be on the hook to continue providing temporary shelter to some people once the program ends.

“The tricky part (...) when this does end is figuring out who steps up to help,” Goodwin said. She predicted that cities like Lebanon could face a bigger hit than more rural municipalities.

“Those of us with motels; hotels in our municipality will have more people knocking on our door,” she said.

Lebanon spent $70,000 on motel assistance in 2020 before ERAP began in mid-2021, Goodwin said. That’s 10 times what the city typically pays for motel assistance annually, she said.

If half of the people currently living at the Quality Inn are Lebanon residents and they can’t find other shelter when the ERAP program ends, Lebanon could be spending $3,000-5,000 per month for each household, Goodwin said.

“That’s going to be a lot of money,” she said.

‘On your own’

Housing is among many challenges that people staying at the Quality Inn are facing.

“Many are working hard with differing circumstances,” Griffin said.

Some are struggling to find child care they need in order to return to work. At the same time, they are looking at paying a higher rent than before the pandemic, and facing inflation, increased utility costs and higher gas prices.

There are “so many factors it’s almost mind-boggling when you put them all together,” Griffin said.

Kristy Wormelle is just trying to make it through the day. Wormelle, 59, landed at the Quality Inn in April.

“I went on a downward spiral,” she said. She “made a lot of bad decisions. Unfortunately, the Upper Valley does not have affordable housing.”

A stroke survivor with mobility issues and partial paralysis on her left side, Wormelle said she was able to stay on the first floor of the Quality Inn with her 9-year-old yellow Labrador, Chino, until last week. Citing Wormelle’s incontinence related to her stroke, the hotel evicted her, she said.

She and Chino are now living out of her Nissan. They are joined by a friend and her two children, who also were evicted from the Quality Inn last week, and a cat belonging to Wormelle’s adult son, who also is without permanent housing. Wormelle and her friend, a victim of domestic violence, are both trying to sort out how to use their ERAP funds at another hotel.

“We are left on our own,” Wormelle said. “Even when you’re at the hotel, you’re left on your own.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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