Fewer reported homeless in NH

MANCHESTER – The number of homeless people across New Hampshire may be down slightly, but that doesn’t mean the state is heading in the right direction, according to one advocacy group.

The state’s homeless count dipped slightly this year, falling to an estimated 1,725 people, according to a report released this week by the N.H. Coalition to End Homelessness. But, that number still represents an increase over prior years, coalition officials said this week.

“The economy is getting better,” said Cathy Kuhn, director of the coalition, formed last year in Manchester.

“Slowly, it’s improving. But, homelessness is a lagging indicator,” she said. “People are still hurting.”

Across the state, the number of homeless, based on a one-day point-in-time count, represents a drop of 67 individuals from last year’s count, according to the report, the coalition’s first annual. But, compared to two years ago, that number shows a 7 percent increase in the number of homeless citizens,

Despite some signs of improvement in the economy, salaries remain low and foreclosure rates remain high, leaving state residents struggling to keep up, Kuhn said.

“People have been forced to spend over half their income on rent. That makes them much more susceptible, to foreclosure, to homelessness,” she said.

Seven of the state’s ten counties have seen an increase in homeless rates since 2010. But, Hillsborough County is not among them.

In the state’s most southern region, officials estimated 766 total homeless in 2012 – a drop of 22 from last year’s count, and a 3 percent dip from 2010.

In the Greater Nashua area, specifically, focused efforts have aided parts of the population. In recent years, enhanced services for local HIV-positive and AIDS patients have helped them secure housing, and two years ago, Harbor Homes, a local housing provider, opened several new housing units for veterans, keeping the homeless rate down.

“Folks are getting better in that population, folks are getting new support,” said Wendy LeBlanc, chairwoman of the Greater Nashua Continuum of Care, a collaborative effort between local service providers and business, community leaders.

But, those efforts haven’t translated to lower homelessness rates among the general population.

This year, the rates remained stable among local families and individuals, LeBlanc said. And, head counts increased slightly at the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter, which operates two short-term shelters.

“The shelter numbers have been up … and people are ending up staying longer,” said Lisa Christie, the agency’s executive director.

“Shelters have a finite number of beds,” she said. “So if they’re staying longer, that means fewer beds are available.”

Inside the shelters, the number of people seeking shelter has stayed relatively stable around the state over recent years, according to the coalition report. The 2012 count dropped from 1,386 last year to 1,357 – nearly equal to the 1,355 identified in 2010.

But, on the street, the number of “unsheltered” residents – those seeking cover with friends and family or in their cars, among other locations – jumped this year to 368, an increase of about 43 percent from 2010, according to the report.

“We’ve seen many more families living in cars than ever before,” said Kuhn, the coalition director. “Those families are particularly hard to find. … That’s when outreach becomes, so, so important.”

In Nashua and beyond, outreach workers have worked to identify, locate and assist the “unsheltered” homeless, and the social service agencies have made more resources available to help them find short-term housing. But, without adequate affordable housing available, there are few long-term solutions, Kuhn said.

On the whole, New Hampshire communities don’t have nearly enough affordable units, she said. Federal housing vouchers are limited and the wait-lists for the housing units often run years.

“There’s no increase in housing vouchers coming from the federal government. In the past, that’s how low-income families have been able to stay housed,” said Christie, of the Nashua Soup Kitchen.

“We really hope the economy is improving, but it takes time,” Kuhn added. “Once you become homeless, recovering from that becomes that much harder. If we’re able to prevent homelessness, prevent people from becoming homeless, people are in a much better situation.”