Jim Kenyon: Not a lot of simple answers to homelessness 

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/26/2023 1:32:43 AM
Modified: 3/26/2023 1:32:43 AM

Almost a year ago, David backed his 30-year-old travel trailer into the corner of a large vacant lot behind a fast-food restaurant on Route 12A in West Lebanon.

He’s lived there ever since.

Compared to other homeless people living in the Upper Valley, David considers himself fortunate. He’s at least got a roof over his head.

While preferable to spending winter and early spring nights in a tent or a car, David’s plight speaks to the severe lack of affordable housing options available to people living on the edge.

He’s worked next door at Burger King for four years but still earns less than $15 an hour, he told me when I dropped by his travel trailer unannounced last week.

(David, who grew up in Newport, was reluctant to give his last name because he didn’t have the company’s permission to talk with the media. According to city property records, the restaurant and vacant lot are owned by Burger King LLC, headquartered in Miami, Fla.)

A national living wage calculator created by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that a Grafton County resident working a full-time job must earn a minimum of $16 an hour to cover basic needs.

David’s story is a reminder that the homelessness problem goes beyond “people living under bridges,” Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland said. “They’re the working poor, too.”

In the annual federal “Point-in-Time” count conducted on a single night in January, David was among 16 people found “living in a place not intended for human habitation” in Lebanon.

It was the most that Lynne Goodwin, the city’s director of human services, had counted in her 10 years of helping with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development survey.

The survey also found 62 people who were at risk of homelessness living in Lebanon motels.

Their rooms were being covered by the city, local nonprofit social service organizations or the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which Congress enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Although not everyone living in motels were Lebanon residents, the January 2023 count was a “really good measure of the need,” for more permanent affordable housing in the city, Goodwin said.

On the night of the survey, Goodwin visited the vacant lot where David had set up camp. An unoccupied recreational vehicle, which lacked heat, was also parked in the lot.

The two people living in the RV had already moved into a motel under the federal voucher program. The RV was recently sold; one of the new owners works at Burger King, Goodwin said.

Since David’s travel trailer and the RV are parked on private property, the owners aren’t running afoul of the city’s zoning regulations. As long as Burger King doesn’t mind, they can stay put.

I don’t see Burger King complaining. In the labor-starved Upper Valley, the restaurant needs workers as much as they need a place to live.

“Long term, I don’t want to do this,” David said, “but it’s nice for now.”

David worked a second job at a manufacturing plant until an industrial accident involving a drill press cost him the little finger on his left hand.

With the injury settlement check, he bought the used travel trailer and moved out of an apartment in Claremont, where he was spending more than $1,000 a month on rent.

He can tow the travel trailer with his pickup but sees no reason to leave the West Lebanon lot.

He installed solar panels, which he learned how to do in classes at a tech center, on the trailer’s front windows and roof. They power his lights and television, which he uses to watch movies and play Xbox video games.

“I still have some fixing up to do, but it’s pretty nice in here,” he said.

He lugs potable water from Burger King and showers at the Upper Valley Haven’s homeless shelter in White River Junction.

Lebanon officials acknowledge that parts of the city’s social services safety net need to be shored up sooner rather than later.

“People have been living out on the streets for years, and it’s getting worse, not just here but across the country,” Mulholland said at City Council meeting earlier this year. “We can’t wait for everyone else to get on board because they probably won’t.”

“We’re not going to solve this in a couple of months, but next winter is going to come around and it’s going to be just as cold,” he added.

Ideally, a much-needed new homeless shelter, even if it’s built in Lebanon, would garner taxpayer support from nearby communities. (Are you listening, Hanover and Norwich?)

The staff at Lebanon City Hall is working on a report, expected to be completed in May, that will delve into the city’s options and challenges.

“It seems like council members and others recognize that a shelter (in Lebanon) needs to be part of the solution,” Goodwin said.

Meanwhile, Goodwin is dealing with a more pressing problem. Funding for the federal program that’s been paying for people at risk of homelessness runs out Saturday.

The city will likely have to pay for some of them to remain in motels for a “very short while longer,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin is the first to argue that putting people up in motel rooms doesn’t do much to curb homelessness, at least not permanently.

It’s a Band-Aid — much like that vacant lot on Route 12A.

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

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