DOVER — In November last year, dozens of homeless people living in encampments on private property near Willand Pond were forced by Somersworth police to vacate.
Social service organizations and city welfare offices in the Dover, Rocheser and Somersworth area responded, mobilizing to offer support and services to those displaced. After public outcry, the Willand Drive warming center was turned into a full-time overnight winter shelter for the winter of 2021-22.
Now it’s a year later. Many unhoused people have returned to the woods, and the reliable shelter that was consistently close to capacity nightly will not be available as a full-time overnight shelter in winter 2022-23. Housing instability has not improved in the last year, worsened by inflation and the cost of living. Rental assistance from the state and federal government is ceasing at a time where New Hampshire’s vacancy rate is 0.5%, according to the 2022 Residential Rental Cost Survey report, conducted by New Hampshire Housing and the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. For those who can find a place to live, it can become a struggle to afford it.
Numerous unhoused people came to the Willand Drive shelter in hopes of services after Somersworth police removed them from the woods on private property Monday Nov. 8, 2021. A year later, the center will open only during extreme weather and the housing problem remains.
It begs the questions: What now? Where do the cities go from here with providing a low-barrier shelter for those who need it?
The Tri-Cities each voted to open the Willand Drive center in Somersworth as strictly a warming center for the 2022-23 winter season. It will operate on an emergency basis, from Nov. 25 through March 31. It will be managed by SOS Recovery Community Organization, which was the only group to respond to a request for proposals from the cities to lead the shelter.
Community Action Partnership of Strafford County managed the full-time shelter last year, and decided it did not want to continue its efforts through a warming center, according to Betsey Andrews Parker, its chief executive officer.
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Parker called it a “difficult choice to step back from operating an emergency shelter this winter. We strongly believe a full-time, seasonal shelter is needed to bridge the gap until the county facility is open and operating.” The latter part of Parker’s statement is a reference to a not-yet-approved plan to create a new Strafford County facility at the existing nursing home, if a new nursing home facility is approved by the county’s state lawmakers.
John Burns, director of SOS Recovery, said the organization applied because of its past work as a partner running shelters in the county. Burns said SOS founded the concept with Infinity Peer Support, Connections for Health/IDN and Rochester Fire Department in the city’s rec center and then the National Guard armory in 2017-18. The organization continued efforts with the IDN in 2018 and 2019, before working with Community Action Partnership in 2020 and 2021 at the Garrison Hotel and on Willand Drive.
“This work is near and dear to our mission of supporting people who struggle with substance use, trauma and mental health challenges,” Burns said. “This also fits well with our harm reduction and recovery support services as many who utilize our services daily are those we will serve at Willand (Drive).”
Burns said he feared no other agency would apply, which turned out to be the case.
“It was clear we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night with our own privilege if our friends and loved ones, who are so often marginalized and left behind, didn’t have this warming center open,” Burns said. “This work is complex, challenging and complicated by workforce shortages, but it’s a labor of love for our organization. The need is immense and COVID has exasperated that need.”
SOS estimates it will be open 70 to 90 nights through the winter season. When activated, the warming center will be available for those seeking shelter from 5 p.m. through 9 a.m. the next day. SOS is partnering with area agencies, including Red’s Good Vibes, which will help provide food. SOS will also need volunteers and support from local restaurants, supermarkets, and agencies involved in food insecurity to provide nutritious meals and snacks.
More on the shelter:Willand Drive Warming Center to reopen this winter for extreme weather only. Here’s why.
Burns urged folks to consider volunteering to help, or apply to one of the open per diem staff positions.
“We will need the community’s support to maintain adequate staffing,” Burns said.
Burns said volunteer applications, registration links and details for volunteer trainings and orientations, as well as links to apply for paid positions, “which we are in desperate need of and still have openings,” can be found at sosrco.org/what-we-do/willand-warming. Updates can be found on the SOS Recovery Facebook page and the Warming Center of Strafford County Facebook page.
The county received a $60,000 grant, so it is acting in a fiduciary capacity to administer the contract for the management of the warming center this year, according to Strafford County Commission Chairman George Maglaras.
Maglaras said in addition to money the county can provide through the grant, the agreement the cities originally agreed to still stands. Dover and Rochester’s city councils each contributed $50,000 to the operation of the warming center, and Somersworth, where the center is located, is contributing in-kind emergency services.
“We created a cushion this year in case we need to be open more nights than the warming center was two years ago, because we don’t know what this winter will look like,” Maglaras said.
There are other shelters in Strafford County, such as My Friend’s Place in Dover and the Homeless Center for Strafford County in Rochester, which operate year-round. They have a different mission than the Willand Drive center, according to Burns.
“The difference between seasonal and year-round shelters and an emergency warming center is that this model is based on protecting individuals from extreme weather that could be life-threatening. It is designed around protecting life safety,” he said. “This model is centered around keeping people safe during those weather activations using harm reduction oriented approaches with as few barriers as possible.”
“Some barriers that separate the two models may revolve around intakes, background checks, alcohol and drug testing, as well as a host of other variables,” Burns said. “Many of those who will utilize this have faced barriers and are unable to access traditional and/or seasonal shelters. This isn’t a model that is structured to operate over long periods of time and is modeled more similarly to emergency sheltering for natural disasters.”
While Burns looks forward to SOS operating the warming center this winter, he also recognizes it is a short-term solution in a long-term housing instability crisis.
“Unfortunately, it’s only a Band-Aid for a wound that is bleeding out as we need permanent, low-barrier housing options,” Burns said. “Traditional shelters and congregate living present enormous barriers for many individuals with complex trauma histories, substance use disorders and complex mental health challenges. We know without basic needs met, finding true wellness and joy is very difficult, if not impossible. Our goal is to do all we can to provide wrap-around support and connectivity to a complex system where system designs often disregard the needs of those we serve.”
SOS plans to partner with local agencies, as it has since 2016, to “bring what we can to Willand and try to find permanent solutions,” according to Burns.
“We know the local communities have to prop up more long-term, permanent, low-barrier housing solutions like true Housing First models. We also need more affordable housing to even begin to stop the bleeding we are seeing with those experiencing housing instability,” Burns said.
Will Strafford County create a new shelter?
The county commissioners have high hopes for their long-term vision to address their needs for a new nursing home and homeless shelter, but the plan has faced several challenges to date.
The proposed 330,000-square-foot Strafford County nursing home facility in Dover is part of Maglaras’ and the commissioners’ three-pronged approach to addressing the need for modern nursing care, the need for a shelter for the homeless population by converting the existing Riverside Rest Home on County Farm Road and the lack of affordable housing in the county through the local communities. It all hinges on the building of a new nursing home.
The Tri-City mayors have stood as a united front in backing the nursing home, with the expectation that once Riverside is vacant, it could house the area’s unhoused individuals in a transitional shelter there, similar to how Crossroads House in Portsmouth operates.
“The cities originally hoped to sell the warming center building, but this idea, this plan, is the reason why everybody agreed to keep it,” Maglaras said. “We’ve been met with some challenges with funding the nursing home but we still believe in this vision. It’s the long-term solution we need.”
The final vote needed by the Strafford County delegation of state representatives to approve the $170 million proposed new nursing home was put on hold after the project was not selected in the first funding round for its requested $25 million in federal funds via the state of New Hampshire. The funding is part of the $50 million in federal funding Gov. Chris Sununu’s office earmarked from federal America Rescue Plan Act funds for capital improvements to county nursing homes. The project may be eligible for funding in the second round.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Dover Mayor Bob Carrier said. “Eventually something’s gonna give with funding and support. This is a great plan. We (the Tri-Cities) passed the warming center unanimously because we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. A project that can move the needle, finally. This plan is the best hand of cards we have.”
In the meantime, each of the Tri-Cities have identified municipal buildings that act as warming and cooling centers during business hours.
Some residents have shown up to Dover and Somersworth City Council meetings to plead their case for a full-time shelter. To date, the cities have stood firm on their decision to keep the warming center plans as is.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Carrier said. “We hear you, we understand. But there’s only so much we can do.”
Since the homeless encampments in the woods near Willand Pond were cleared last November, there have been multiple medical calls for severe cold exposure and deaths in that area as people returned to the woods.
In December 2021, a 71-year-old unsheltered man was rescued from the cold after a Key Buick GMC employee heard cries for help from the woods behind the Route 108 car dealership, on the privately owned Garabedian Trust property behind the dealership. In August, an elderly man was found dead in a wooded area near the former Granite State Park.
Somersworth Police Chief Tim McLin said police check the area periodically, and while there has been less activity since the spring, there has been increased tenting in other area woods.
“There are certainly some sites here and there across the city, but when we respond to complaints, we try to connect the individuals with agencies like CAP, local shelters and the welfare office to point them in the direction to obtain resources,” McLin said. “Oftentimes, these individuals are tenting on private property, city property or conservation land, so we have to ask that they move along. But we do our best to ensure they know what resources are available to them.”
McLin said he hopes the long-term vision for the nursing home and shelter comes into fruition.
“I’ve seen the presentations and it seems like a very effective idea,” McLin said. “It’s finally a solution that you can look at as, not one town or city’s solution, but as a county-wide solution. It’s a significant step that feels tangible, and I see a lot of potential there.”
Sgt. Alex Mitrushi is in charge of Dover police’s Community Response & Engagement Unit. Foster’s Daily Democrat spoke to him over the summer. He said that from the department’s perspective, their role is to “enforce laws and help the community we protect and serve.”
“We take that role seriously,” Mitrushi said. “When we say community, we mean everyone here. That does not exclude our city’s unhoused individuals. We actively try to reduce the stigma associated with the unhoused because just being unhoused isn’t a crime. The Dover Police Department doesn’t police people, we police law-breaking behavior.”
Sometimes that job puts officers in a difficult position when responding to calls, emails and complaints that report homeless individuals in the community.
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“We will get emails that say things like ‘there were five homeless people under a bridge’ or ‘a homeless person sitting on a park bench downtown. What are you going to do about it?’ ” Mitrushi said. “I try to explain, they have every right to sit on that park bench that you do, it isn’t a crime to be homeless. Oftentimes that person sitting on that bench might be someone waiting for SOS Recovery, (Community Action Partnership of Strafford County), or the welfare office to open.”
Mitrushi said if someone sees an individual using drugs, committing crimes, camping illegally, causing disturbances, that’s when they have a responsibility to step in.
“We will respond to address that behavior,” Mitrushi said. “Whether substance use, trespassing or any other crime.”
Dover has implemented a new social worker position in the last year, who can offer resources to those who need it, including connecting unhoused individuals with resources.
“Everyone is an individual, they have their own issues, their own challenges, you know? Everyone’s unique,” Mitrushi said. “It’s frustrating to see people lump an entire group of people together and make judgments based on the behaviors off of just a few generalizations.”
Mitrushi said officers have been trained to introduce themselves, foster positive relationships, and offer resources when they come across an encampment or unhoused individual. He said homelessness itself shouldn’t be criminalized.
“They’re humans. They’re individuals. They’re people, even if they aren’t always treated as such. They are more than their circumstance or how they ended up there,” Mitrushi said. “Everyone’s got a different story.”
Mitrushi said there is a misconception about an increase in homeless individuals downtown, but the reality is, downtown is where most of the resources, food pantries, and community organizations are located.
He said that when the department receives calls about people seeking shelter in business doorways or property, they respond and try to address the needs of both the unhoused individual and the business owner. Oftentimes it means issuing a trespass warning, and offering the unhoused individual a ride to a nearby shelter or resource.
“There’s not enough affordable housing out there, which is a huge barrier. I’ve had many interactions with unhoused living in their cars that are working but they still can’t afford rent,” Mitrushi said. “As an officer, there’s not much I can do about that. The best I can do is direct them to resources.”
He said that while officers have to respond to individuals camping on private, city or conservation property and request that they vacate, they try to give the individual adequate time to pack their things. The officers are also expected to provide resources to the individual to help connect them to service organizations or local welfare office that can better meet their needs.
“There’s a lot of stress to the officers in these kinds of situations because there’s a sense of helplessness. Most officers earn the badge to help people, and there’s only so much they can do in this kind of situation,” McLin said. “Sometimes the help someone needs is out of their wheelhouse. All they can do is refer. Sometimes you can’t point to one reason someone ended up in homelessness. It’s often multiple challenges like mental wellness or substance use or financial struggles that someone faces, and it’s all interconnected.”
McLin said it doesn’t matter how someone ended up homeless, it’s about treating them with dignity and guiding them to get help.