Jim Kenyon: Moving day for Lebanon’s homeless

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 04-02-2023 2:54 PM

Ben Goodwin found the one-page letter — in essence an eviction notice — under the door of his room early last week. He had until Sunday morning to “exit,” the letter stated.

The Quality Inn on Route 120 in Lebanon has been Goodwin’s home for nearly nine months. Since the federal government began paying the bills two years ago, the 48-room motel has served as a de facto homeless shelter for dozens experiencing financial hardship.

But their time at the Quality Inn — and two other Lebanon motels — is up.

It comes as no surprise. New Hampshire public officials have warned that federal funding for the temporary housing program started during the COVID-19 pandemic would end for individuals on April 1. (Families have until June 15.)

But with no end in sight to the Upper Valley’s affordable housing crunch and shelter beds in short supply, the warning didn’t do much good.

Starting Sunday, more people will likely be living in cars, sleeping under bridges, pitching tents in the woods, or “couch hopping,” as Goodwin called it.

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Lebanon Human Services Director Lynne Goodwin (no relation) estimates 20 people or more who have been living in the three motels could soon join the homeless ranks, if they haven’t already.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she told me Friday. “The intent behind the (federal) program was good, however, the money could have been better spent on investing in infrastructure for more permanent housing solutions.”

In New Hampshire, about 1,000 people at risk for homelessness were living in motels as of last week, the Granite State News Collaborative reported.

As advocates for the homeless point out, people end up without a roof over their heads for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’ve fallen on hard times through no fault of their own; other times it’s their own doing.

In Ben Goodwin’s case, it’s a bit of both.

Goodwin, who grew up in Enfield, began running afoul of the law as a teenager. From looking at Lebanon District Court records, I found a bunch of misdemeanor convictions, including shoplifting, possession of marijuana and disorderly conduct, on his criminal record.

After dropping out of high school, Goodwin, now 33, earned a GED while serving time at the Grafton County jail.

He became a dad in his early 20s. After he and his daughter’s mother split up, Goodwin told me, he landed on the street.

A move to Florida, where his mother lives, made matters worse. An addiction to crystal meth contributed to a felony record and more prison time.

“I screwed up,” Goodwin acknowledged, “but I’ve been clean going on four years. It’s been a long road.”

With a felony record, Goodwin’s job opportunities are limited. He’s worked mostly at fast-food restaurants, bouncing from one low-paying job to another.

Last summer, Goodwin became homeless after his stepfather, whom he was living with at a Lebanon apartment complex, died suddenly.

A social worker at Listen, a Lebanon-based nonprofit, helped Goodwin with the necessary paperwork to enroll in the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, better known as ERAP, that Congress established in response to the pandemic.

Since March 2021, almost 30,000 New Hampshire households have benefited from $297.7 million in ERAP funding.

That’s the good news.

With no regard for transparency or accountability, Gov. Chris Sununu put the state’s five nonprofit community action programs, or CAPs for short, in charge of handling applications and payments for the emergency housing aid.

Tri-County Community Action, based in Berlin, was given the responsibility of overseeing ERAP funds in the state’s three northernmost counties — Grafton, Carroll and Coos.

For Grafton County, at least, it’s been nothing short of a boondoggle.

Tri-County has been content to send millions of federal dollars to a handful of motels to cover room costs of ERAP recipients. But it’s done little to help the people at risk for homelessness to find permanent housing.

In its biweekly online updates, the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery doesn’t divulge the amount spent on motels and hotels.

Instead temporary lodging bills are thrown into a category dubbed “other” expenses. As of March 24, Grafton County’s “other” category expenditures totaled $10.4 million — the most of any of the state’s 10 counties.

I’ve asked Tri-County and state officials more than once about how much has been spent on temporary housing and where the money has gone.

Tri-County is “not authorized” by the governor’s office to talk about ERAP, Jeanne Robillard, the organization’s CEO, reminded me last week.

To be clear, the letter that Goodwin and other ERAP recipients staying at the Quality Inn received last week came from Tri-County, not the motel’s management. (About 10 ERAP recipients staying at the Best Western and the Sunset Motor Inn were also informed that move-out day was fast approaching.)

Tri-County let the soon-to-be homeless know that its work was done. The nonprofit has an office in downtown Lebanon, but only one employee. A second staff position has gone unfilled since last summer.

Finding new housing was “all on (Tri-County’s) clients,” said Lynne Goodwin, whose office has been tracking down ERAP recipients to help them figure out what’s next. But with no shelter in Lebanon, options are limited.

She located a potential bed for Ben Goodwin at Sullivan County’s homeless shelter in Claremont, but he starts a new job with a Hartford landscaping company on Monday. Since he doesn’t drive, he’ll rely on Advance Transit’s free bus service, which doesn’t cover Claremont, to get to work.

For the time being, a friend in Lebanon is letting him sleep on the couch.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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