Granite Leaders program helps area homeless

Eagle Tribune

MANCHESTER — Chrissy Simonds had taken her young son and escaped what she describes as an abusive relationship when she found herself homeless in 2004.

The then-31-year-old said she felt she had nowhere to turn because her family disowned her a few years prior, and she feared that she was putting the safety of any friend she stayed with in jeopardy.

And, she said, she felt shame and isolation. In her desperation, she considered giving her son up for adoption.

“I’m so disappointed in myself. I’m not a young kid anymore. I’m not 18,’” Simonds recalls thinking at the time. “Even to this day, I still have to remind myself that I’m a good mom, a good person.”

More than a decade later, Simonds is not longer homeless, continues to raise her son and has earned her GED. She also graduated from the Granite Leaders program through the state Coalition to End Homelessness.

The program helps homeless people build skills and learn about advocacy, in the hopes that firsthand accounts will help end persistent negative stereotypes and end homelessness.

Every other year, the coalition teaches around a dozen currently or formerly homeless people about different types of advocacy, public speaking, the legislative process and more. The participants also sit on panels with members of the media and have spoken to state legislators.

“For years, we had no one at the table who had actually experienced it. We saw it as a serious problem in planning efforts and a gap, really. How else are we going to be informed about what people need?” Coalition spokesperson Cathy Kuhn asked.

Like Simonds but under different circumstances, Lenny Constant found himself homeless after being evicted due to financial difficulties.

The longtime construction worker had developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, both causing shortness of breath. He fell into a cycle of trying to work at a construction site for a few weeks, ending up in the hospital and then getting fired for being incapable of doing the physical labor.

Unable to find an apartment on the $872 he received from Social Security each month, Constant landed at the New Horizons shelter in Manchester.

“My situation wasn’t unlike a lot of others. The people I met didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink, they didn’t even smoke cigarettes. I learned that most people are only one or two paychecks away from becoming homeless. I cringe to think that I believed that at one point in time,” he said, meaning that he bought the common stereotypes about homelessness.

“Becoming homeless was a very eye-opening experience,” added Constant, who has also graduated from the six-month-long Granite Leaders program.

In New Hampshire, most homeless people aren’t living on the streets. Rather, they’re bouncing from couch to couch, sleeping in cars, temporarily staying with friends while waiting for a vacancy in a shelter, or a rare affordable housing option. In Manchester, only one-third of homeless people are on the streets, Kuhn said.

The number of people living at or below the poverty line in the state is rising, along with the cost of housing, according to the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness’ 2016 annual report. The vacancy rate has dropped to roughly one person, meaning that it’s all that much harder to find a new apartment after losing one.

Following the inaugural program in 2013, a handful of Granite Leaders spoke at the State House during a budget season in which homeless services were on the chopping block.

In the end, legislators chose not to cut funding.

Many who spoke said the Granite Leaders program helped them rebuild their battered-down confidence and resolve their trust issues. The stigmas around homelessness are stinging and pervasive, they said.

Both Constant and Simonds now have stable housing and jobs. Constant has since earned his associate’s degree, while Simonds earned her GED and is now able to help her son with his homework.

But, they both still find themselves correcting misconceptions.

“Even friends of mine, they forget they’re talking about me. People can be so judgmental,” Simonds said. “People think that you just take and take from the system. We don’t want to just suck from the system. We want to give back to the community. We needed help, and we want to give help now that we’re back on our feet.”

The Granite Leaders program is currently accepting applications for the 15 open slots. Interested persons can apply online by visiting www.nhceh.org/GraniteLeaders. The application deadline is Oct. 19.