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'Everywhere they were, you got them out': Those displaced from Manchester encampment wonder where to go next

Gaby Lozada
On Jan. 18, the city of Manchester evicted about 50 unsheltered individuals outside the Families in Transition shelter, which has 138 beds and is usually at capacity. Two bulldozers and a dozen city workers spent that afternoon trying to remove the tents of the encampment. Residents cooperated.

For nearly four months, about 50 people called an encampment on the sidewalk of Manchester’s Pine Street home, right outside the city’s largest shelter, Families in Transition. Several encampment residents said they chose that spot because it is well-lit, has constant police surveillance, and it was easier to connect with medical resources.

People inside the encampment felt safe, including Roland Pelletier. She said the shelter is often at capacity each night, and she worried about bedbugs. Pelletier’s neighbors said they worried about drug use in the shelters. The city says it’s constantly trying to address both issues.

“Living conditions sometimes are worse inside than they are out here,” she said.

Around 8 p.m. on a mid-January night, she walked around the encampment, saying hi to her friends, but the mood was heavy: many, including Pelletier, were thinking about the next place they’d live after getting notice from the city that their camp would be vacated.

“People feel that we're an eyesore,” Pelletier said. “But our point of view is where can we go? Not to cause any problems.”

Several incidents in December and January, including two deaths – one in the camp and another in the nearby shelter – underscored the unsheltered community’s precarious circumstances. This also put a limelight on homelessness in the state and the Manchester encampment in particular.

Some community members wanted to see it gone; by early January, the city cited health and safety hazards within the encampment and moved to clear it.

While the city prepared more shelter beds as it prepared to sweep the encampment and advocates filed a lawsuit to stop it, some say the city continues to repeat a playbook it’s used for years. Unhoused residents, advocates, and unsheltered people agree that homelessness has reached a crisis point, and the city needs a long-term plan instead of short-term fixes.

Gaby Lozada
Roland Pelletier poses in front of her two-person tent. She had pillows to make it comfortable and said it didn’t feel too cold inside. As someone living with depression, she said the anxiety of not knowing where to go significantly affects her.

Adrienne Beloin, Manchester’s new director of homelessness initiatives, says the city’s goal is for homelessness to be brief for people until they’re transferred into affordable housing. She recognizes rental prices have spiked in recent years, often beyond what some people can afford.

In the meantime, she says the situation is complicated. The city is a hub of resources for unhoused people from other towns. While Beloin doesn’t have a specific number on how many people that might be, the city is tracking that data at emergency shelters.

“We don't have a strategy yet to prevent encampments,” she said. “As much as there's suffering in the encampments, it's a sense of comfort to some degree, even though they have to contend with many other discomforts that they wish could change.”

Beloin adds that many people with housing vouchers can’t find a landlord who accepts them. “There is a shortage, and we plan to create more housing,” she said.

Last year, $3 million in federal funds were approved to increase the number of affordable housing units and emergency shelters in Manchester. Last month, eight New Hampshire mayors called on the governor for a better state response to the ongoing homelessness crisis. Gov. Chris Sununu replied that local communities should be accountable for addressing solutions and said he’d welcome opportunities to discuss ways to align regional initiatives better.

Dennis Higgins, another encampment resident who sued the city along with the ACLU, hopes to see more affordable housing. But he wishes the city would also consider creating a legally designated space for unhoused residents to live outside with some infrastructure to meet basic needs. He says that could work since there aren’t many other options for people who don’t have a safe place to live.

“Why are there no porta-potties, toilets, or sanitation somewhere?” he said. “You corral everybody here, you kick them out of the parks, down the train tracks, down by the rivers, everywhere they were, you got them out.”

Gaby Lozada
Dennis Higgins lived in a tent surrounded by around eight bicycles he fixes. Recently he was attacked by people who tricked him, offering money. He says he wished more people understood how hard it is to live on the street.

Sweeney Tolpin, another encampment resident, says he prefers to stay outside because the rules and regulations of the shelter are too strict. Other people at the encampment said they felt the same way. City officials say they’re aware that many unhoused individuals need what are known as low-barrier shelters that don't require program participation, sobriety, or identification.

In the meantime, Manchester has opened warming stations and plans to adequate other emergency shelters where cots are available to accommodate the unsheltered community. There are 40 emergency cots at the Cashin Senior Activity Center and 14 more for women at the former Tirrell House. Additionally, the city is preparing to open a 24-hour shelter with 40 beds at an abandoned factory.

Housing justice organizer, Brandon Lemay, says these places are just temporary solutions because emergency shelters often leave unhoused people stuck in a place where it’s difficult to accept resources. He says with a fixed address more people would be willing to take them and improve their quality of life.

“We do the same thing every day, and then we wake up, and it's the same thing over and over again,” Lemay said. "That's how we address homelessness in this country; we keep doing the same things over and over again and then wondering why nothing changes.”

On the day of the eviction, things were lying all over the place, and people were tense about their belongings.

“Everyone keeps asking, why do we collect stuff? Why do we have stuff? I think it's human nature. You know you're worth something if you have stuff,” Higgins said.

The encampment residents said the city gave them bins and a space to store them for 30 days; still, they were afraid of losing them.

For other unhoused residents, like Tolpin, as the housing crisis deepens across the state, there’s not much hope this cycle – of sweeps and new emergency shelters – will change any time soon.

“They ain't gonna do nothing for them. They're just going to push them along,” he said.

As for the people at the encampment, some are trying to head up to a space in the woods in groups for safety, carrying with them the objects that give them a sense of dignity.

Gaby Lozada
Katie Olmsted and Sweeney Tolpin planned to go to California after the eviction. They connected with a non-profit that arranged the trip. Olmstead said drug consumption inside the Families in Transition shelter is triggering for her.

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Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.

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