A call for life-saving shelter
|Published: 12-23-2022 10:58 AM
LEBANON — City officials, residents and community support groups said the Upper Valley needs to have more emergency shelters and other temporary housing accommodations to combat homelessness, at a candlelight vigil this week.
Over 60 people gathered on a frigid Wednesday night in Colburn Park to commemorate Homeless Persons Memorial Day, an annual event held by communities nationwide to recognize individuals who have lost their lives while enduring homelessness.
So far in 2022, there have been 93 deaths involving New Hampshire residents who had struggled with homelessness, according to local event organizers. This list includes four people who had lived in Lebanon: Richard Taliaferro, 73, Carey Brown, 64, Thomas Moore, 82, and Danny Countermarsh, 63.
Many participants in the Lebanon vigil noted an increase in the homelessness-related deaths this year from the 2021 event.
“These were 93 people who should (still) be alive and thriving,” said Angela Zhang, program director at Listen Community Services. “Our current response to the increase in unsheltered individuals constitutes a humanitarian crisis.”
Lebanon Human Resources Director Lynne Goodwin said that homelessness in the city seems “worse now than ever before,” partly due to a lack of affordable housing options to meet the demand.
“At any given time in the last year and a half, we have had 70 or more motel rooms being occupied by people experiencing homelessness,” Goodwin said. “And while those folks try to find permanent housing for themselves, it is a monumental challenge to do so.”
Goodwin also said she knows of at least 13 individuals in Lebanon who were living in a tent or a vehicle during the past month.
Lebanon, a city with over 14,000 residents, is one of largest municipalities in New Hampshire to not have an emergency homeless shelter. The two closest homeless shelters to the city are at the Upper Valley Haven in Hartford and the Sullivan County shelter in Claremont.
When assisting people with emergency housing, Goodwin said her department will inquire about a vacancy at the Haven or the Claremont shelter, though they are usually filled to capacity. At that point Lebanon will place individuals or families in a motel room.
In 2023, the Lebanon City Council plans to discuss the matter of an emergency shelter facility in Lebanon, according to city officials.
“Every year in recent years we have seen more need for shelter than we have (available),” City Councilor Devin Wilkie told the Valley News. “We’ve put people in hotels and into options that are not ideal for our (city) resources.”
Lebanon officials also recognize that finding a location for a shelter will be the biggest challenge, given the apprehension of people to live near transitional housing facilities.
People may acknowledge the need to alleviate homelessness, Goodwin said, but they don’t want it in their neighborhood.
The last initiative to build an emergency shelter in Lebanon was about 20 years ago, when the Upper Valley Haven looked to establish its services in Lebanon, according to Goodwin. The proposal faced strong opposition from community members. In the end, the Haven decided upon Hartford.
City officials said that addressing homelessness, like the housing crisis, needs to be a “regional” solution, in which all the Upper Valley towns are collaborating and making an investment to alleviate the problem.
But officials also acknowledged that a regional shelter needs to be located in a community like Lebanon, which has the employment opportunities, access to supermarkets and stores and an adequate public transportation system necessary for people in transition to find stability.
Alice Ely, executive director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, a regional health initiatives organization, noted that societal aversion to shelters and homelessness-related services seems rooted greatly in a natural human discomfort about poverty.
“When someone watches someone struggle with poverty, it can make the person realize how close they are to being in a similar situation themselves,” Ely said. “And they don’t want to see it.”
Edwinna Schurkamp, 57, said she has witnessed firsthand how easily people can fall into a situation of homeless insecurity.
Schurkamp, a licensed nursing assistant at Westboro House, an assisted living facility in West Lebanon, lives in her vehicle, an “antique military ambulance” that was used in Operation Desert Storm in 1990.
Originally from Michigan, Schurkamp is a traveling medical worker but plans to stay in the area to help provide support and advocacy for others who have housing insecurity.
Many of the individuals living in vehicles around the Upper Valley — be it a recreational camper or a station wagon — are “the working poor” or individuals from a working-class background, according Schurkamp. Many of them are senior citizens. Some left their home to get away from an abusive relationship. Some had always lived on a financial precipice when it came to having enough money for their monthly rent.
“The faces (of homelessness) are changing,” Schurkamp said. “You are seeing a lot of the blue-collar people who realize that this is what they have to do. They won’t leave the Upper Valley. This is their home. They went to school here. They have a great connection with the community, and that’s one of the reasons that they stay.”
For the vehicle-dwelling community, the biggest need is to be permitted a safe, consistent place to park for the night, without the fear of having one’s vehicle towed.
“That would actually save lives,” Schurkamp said. “Because once they get their rig confiscated, that is their tools and their livelihood. Then what happens to them?”
Though the city of Lebanon has hosted the homelessness vigil in previous years, this year city officials and leaders of nonprofits slept overnight in tents in the park to show their dedication to the issue.
Individuals who slept in tents included City Manager Shaun Mulholland, Devin Wilkie, Lynne Goodwin, Angela Zhang, Headrest Hotline Manager Al Carbonneau and geodesic shelter designer Simon Dennis.
Patrick Adrian may be reached at (603)727-3216 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: Lynne Goodwin, director of Human Services in Lebanon, said she knows of at least 13 individuals in Lebanon who were living in a tent or a vehicle during the past month. An earlier version of this story was unclear on the point and misspelled Goodwin's name.