New program aims to turn the once-homeless into leaders

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER – Who better to advocate for the homeless than someone who knows what it means to call the streets home?

That’s the basic idea behind a new program launched this fall by the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH). Dubbed “Granite Leaders,” the six-month educational program aims to teach homeless and formerly homeless people leadership skills that will enable them to advocate on issues affecting the community. The program, which will run from Nov. 14 through next April, is funded by the New Hampshire Housing and Finance Authority.

“Many people who have experienced homelessness want to engage in civic activities that can help others who are in similar situations,” said Cathy Kuhn, director of the NHCEH. “The Granite Leaders program will provide participants with knowledge and skills that they can use to become effective leaders on behalf of those most vulnerable in their communities.”

Accepting applications

Through the free program, these future Granite Leaders will connect with local, state and national leaders to become part of a network of skilled advocates focused on improving the quality of life in homeless communities across New Hampshire.

The deadline to apply was last Wednesday, and fliers and postings at the NHCEH website stated the program was seeking a maximum of 15 applicants. That changed when Kuhn saw the applications begin to pile up.

“Being the first year of the program, we weren’t sure what the response was going to be,” said Kuhn. “But we are beyond excited by the number of people interested in taking part. We want as many people as possible to benefit from this, so it’s looking like we’ll take more than the 15 we planned on. There’s a point where we have to say we can’t accept any more, but I’m not sure what that number is yet. We’d love not to have to turn anyone away, but the hope is that this becomes an annual program, so anyone who doesn’t get a chance to take part this year can hopefully try again next year.”

Application time extended

The NHCEH has received more than 20 applications. The only requirement to participate was that applicants must have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

“We’re looking to empower people who have experienced homelessness to find their voice, to be better advocates for themselves and the homeless population,” said Michele Talwani, director of economic development and marketing at Families in Transition in Manchester and Concord, which works closely with the NHCEH.

According to the NHCEH 2012 report, “The State of Homelessness in New Hampshire,” there were 1,612 homeless individuals in the state in 2010, a number that climbed to 1,725 in 2012. Increases in the homeless population were reported in seven of New Hampshire’s 10 counties from 2010 to 2012, with 45 percent of the state’s homeless population classified as families with children.

The face of homelessness

Chrissy Simonds of Manchester applied to the Granite Leaders program. Simonds said she and her infant son became homeless a few years ago because of problems where she lived.

“I want to learn how to tell my story, and how to help others tell theirs, to change the way homeless people are perceived,” said Simonds. “Not everyone who is homeless uses drugs or are alcoholics. Some people choose to leave bad situations for their own safety or the safety of their kids, like I did.”

The curriculum consists of six sessions, including a day discussing the legislative process that includes a tour of the State House and meetings with lawmakers. Other sessions focus on working with the media, becoming involved in the community, communicating with professionalism and diplomacy, and understanding the perceptions and realities of homelessness.

Becoming proactive

Simonds said she has offered testimony at the State House on the need for funds and services for the homeless, and she recently wrote a blog entry on the same topic.

“I’m hoping to learn skills that will help me continue doing this in a professional manner,” said Simonds. “I want to become a better public speaker and writer and learn how to connect with a wider range of people to become a better advocate. Everyone who has experienced homelessness has an important story to tell, and I want to learn how to help them.”