Mark Hayward’s City Matters: Manchester family overcomes homelessness

Union Leader

Matt and Sam Peterson with their daughters, Aria, 2, right, and Clio, 1, at their Manchester apartment. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

No doubt our city is getting impatient with the homeless.

Charities shut down the United Way-funded homeless day center two years ago, after it turned into little more than a warm and dry hangout spot for the homeless.

This summer, police Chief Nick Willard had signs placed at strategic corners to discourage handouts to panhandlers (although he did so only to counter aldermen, who wanted Willard to go all stormtrooper on panhandlers).

And last month, the city banned smoking in downtown parks.

Now, a former homeless family has a message: you too can get off the street.

“If you want to do it hard enough, you can get out,” said Matt Peterson, 43, who said his last bout of homelessness — it lasted four or five months — ended two years ago.

His isn’t a pulled-up-from-your-boostraps story. Sure, Peterson worked nearly non-stop when he and his then-pregnant wife, Sam, lived in a van.

But he received, and still receives, hefty doses of public assistance and charitable donations. And he had to wrestle with an agonizing dilemma that pitted his work ethic against the custody of four of his children. The work ethic won out.

“He’s dependable, reliable, always on time,” said Richard Davey, the general manager of TGI Fridays, where Peterson works 20 hours a week. Peterson said he earns $11 an hour, mostly cleaning the restaurant.

“He’s been down the road, back and forth. He’s the poster child for someone who’s gotten his life together,” Davey said.

Peterson’s plunge into homelessness started in the spring of 2014, he said. Peterson lost his job at a retailer, and child protection workers had taken away the couple’s four children after hearing allegations of neglect.

He attributes the neglect to mental illnesses that his wife suffers: behavioral addiction, borderline personality disorder, depression and PTSD, he said. The disorders eventually won her disability status, but that wasn’t the case in April 2014.

By August, they were on the street.
• They lived in a Chevy Astro Cargo van while he worked two jobs at restaurants in Nashua.

• They parked the van behind the South Willow Street U-Haul to sleep at night.

• They ate at New Horizon soup kitchen and got clothes and food from pantries, including Liberty House. They wouldn’t sleep in a shelter because they wanted to be together.

• They joined Planet Fitness to take showers.

• They used a propane heater to warm the van.

• To keep from spending money, Peterson cashed his paycheck, bought a money order and mailed it to himself.

• He found a sympathetic landlord and started putting money down on a security deposit.

“We never sold our body. We never sold drugs. We never asked for money,” said Sam Peterson, who added she would never want to go through it again.

People who work with the homeless say that not everyone can make it off the street. Rents are high. Service-industry jobs pay poorly. And a lot of people suffer from physical problems, mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, trauma, or a lack of education, said Cathy Kuhn, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.

“If someone’s willing to work the 80 to 90 hours a week it takes to be able to afford housing, is it possible? Yeah, people do it. But you need to have a lot of things going for you,” Kuhn said.

Today, Peterson and his wife live with their two youngest children in a $900 a month, three-bedroom apartment on Massabesic Street. They don’t have much. Their mattress and box spring are on the floor. A card table serves as their kitchen table. They have a TV, but no cable. Their only phone is their home phone.

Their apartment was clean, and their kids’ artwork was on the wall.

“I don’t think I’m well off, but I’m making it,” Peterson said. He works 20 hours, which fulfills the work requirement for their $350 a month in food stamps. Eventually, Sam Peterson was awarded disability and now receives $954 a month, which covers the rent.

Peterson speaks forcefully. He’s articulate. He and Sam, who is 34, patiently shared the holding and cuddling duties of their two daughters, ages 1 and 2.

He shows me a final court order regarding the custody for their four older children, who are now 8, 6, 4 and 3. Last month, a judge determined that Sam gets overwhelmed and can’t care for six children by herself. During a trial reunification, one child had bitten another 11 times, the judge noted.

“Mr. Peterson has made the decision that working is more of a priority than making sure that Mrs. Peterson has his help in caring for the children,” Judge Michael J. Ryan wrote. The two youngest children can stay; he granted the state permanent legal guardianship of the other four.

It’s just not right, Peterson said. Everyone encourages him — tells him — he has to work to support his family. But when he does, they take his kids away. He thinks the state should provide day care when he works.

So he has a warm, dry place to live and will not be counted as homeless. But what is a home when most of your kids live somewhere else?

“It’s so counter-intuitive to America,” he said about the judge’s admonition against him working, “it’s not even funny.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader.