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With housing in short supply, NH is rethinking how it helps unhoused people find a home

Outreach workers from the Belknap-Merrimack Counties Community Action Program, Concord Coalition to End Homelessness and New Hampshire Harm Reduction assist an unhoused person as they sign up for the state-wide virtual line for housing.
Connor Spern
Concord Coalition to End Homelessness
Outreach workers from the Belknap-Merrimack Counties Community Action Program, Concord Coalition to End Homelessness and New Hampshire Harm Reduction assist an unhoused person as they sign up for the statewide virtual line for housing.

Ryan has been unhoused for four years now. He’s living in an encampment in Concord, but the winter elements are wearing him out.

He says what’s helping him hold out is hope is that one day, he’ll have a roof over his head.

“So I can have some security, some stability, and start working, get my life back,” Ryan said. Ryan asked NHPR to not disclose his last name for privacy reasons.

Ryan is one of many Granite Staters experiencing homelessness. With rising rents and limited affordable housing available, the number of unhoused people in the state has nearly tripled since 2019.

But Ryan took a step towards housing last summer, when Freeman Toth, a homeless street outreach worker with the Belknap Community Action Program, asked him if he wanted to get on a waiting list for an affordable housing spot.

The list, known as the Coordinated Entry System, matches unhoused people with a place to live.

“We explain to folks that we serve that Coordinated Entry is like a digital line to help the people that we serve gain access to permanent supportive housing opportunities,” Toth said.

Before 2018, New Hampshire’s line for getting unhoused people into housing was on a first-come, first-serve basis. Then, that January, came the Coordinated Entry System, which used a questionnaire to create a priority list based on who needed housing most urgently.

But advocates and state housing officials say the first versions of this system often didn’t flag all of the social supports that a person would need to stay in housing once they got it. The questionnaire was long, and the questions confusing.

That’s why housing advocates and state officials say the newest version of the entry system, with a simpler, more direct questionnaire, is more effective in successfully housing people.

Toth and other advocates say, in a state that hasn’t started many affordable housing projects, and as local leaders are calling for more action to support unhoused Granite Staters, this list serves as concrete proof of a growing need for housing and social services to go along with it.

“The things that we all thought were the case we are now starting to see emerge, and we hope to really paint very clear vignettes of: ‘Hey, these are the following resources we need,’” Toth said. “‘This is the full buffet of things we are asking for, and this is what we think we can do if we had these things.’ So we want to be able to advocate for this many one bedroom apartments, this many, two, three, four family housing.”

Screenshot 2023-02-02 at 4.14.27 PM.png
Connor Spern
Concord Coalition to End Homelessness
Outreach workers spend at least two days each week, rain or shine, checking in on unhoused people living in the state.

As the state developed the newest version of the system, outreach workers and state officials wanted a tool that would “look at the variables that are most important for the people we’re trying to serve,” said Melissa Hatfield, who leads the state’s Bureau of Housing Supports.

Those factors include an individual’s eviction history, income, and employment. Hatfield said these pieces of information are important to track because it can help agencies make the right referrals to social services if they’re needed as someone is placed into housing.

As Ryan answered the questions to get on the list last summer, he noticed they got to the “nitty-gritty” quickly.

“Why am I homeless? Why am I using drugs? What would I do while I’m in the housing? You know, stuff that’s personal. Why are my kids gone?” Ryan recalled.

The questions don’t skirt around sensitive topics. In the last six months, how many times have you used a crisis service or hotline for such concerns as family or intimate partner violence or suicide prevention? Does anyone trick, manipulate, exploit or force you to do things you do not want to do? Do you have planned activities, other than activities for survival, at least four days per week that make you feel happy and fulfilled?

A computer software then generates a score based on people’s answers to the questions, which determines a person’s place in the line to get housing. The two biggest factors that will put someone higher up on the list are whether they’re chronically homeless, or if they have a chronic health condition or disability.

Connor Spern, who’s helped unhoused people sign up for a spot on the list, says it takes time for some of her clients to open up to her and share their experiences in the way that the questionnaire requires them to.

“If you were to read it off the paper, it asks very clinical and uncomfortable questions,” said Spern, the outreach services coordinator at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness. But outreach workers have training to allow them conduct their work in a trauma-informed manner.

In that way, she says the questions serve as “an opportunity to have a conversation with someone about their experience.”

Spern says that’s why developing trust is a big part of the role for an outreach worker.

“Once they feel safe, they’re going to share with you — especially people who have a lot going on,” she said. “Maybe they just haven't had the opportunity or the person to sit down with them and ask them what's going on.”

Outreach workers often come across abandoned encampments that show the remnants of a place that once served as a home.
Jeongyoon Han
Outreach workers often come across abandoned encampments that show the remnants of a place that once served as a home.

Once there’s an opening on the list, the housing bureau will coordinate with outreach workers like Toth or Spern to make sure the best person for that housing arrangement can get to it.

“Now I'm starting to get calls from agencies saying, ‘Hey, we have an opening over here — do you have a participant for this opening?’” Toth said.

Toth’s been able to get 30 of his clients into housing since 2019. And while each placement feels like a success, Toth says it’s limited. The system doesn’t get people into housing fast enough, he says, and it won’t solve the state’s housing crisis.

Since the new version of the system launched in June, nearly 600 households have been placed into permanent housing. But there are more than 1,200 households still in line, including Ryan.

Because he’s relatively young – he’s 37 – and doesn’t have chronic health conditions, he’s not as vulnerable. He’s been waiting for almost a whole year.

As he reflects back on signing up, Ryan said being asked all of those questions about his needs made him feel optimistic that a solution would come soon.

“I wasn’t skeptical. I was hopeful,” Ryan said. “I was really encouraged and enthusiastic about it. But time went by, and nothing ever happened.”

Toth says hearing that hurts, because he knows the feeling: he was unhoused several times as a college student.

That’s why Toth sees helping people he works with stay hopeful as what his job is all about.

“It's really important that when we make a promise as an outreach worker that we keep it,” Toth says. So we show those we serve a lot of consistency.”

That’s why every Tuesday, Toth and other outreach workers will head from one encampment in Concord to the next, distributing supplies — boxed water, food, hygienic products, and socks. And on that route, Toth will see how Ryan is faring, if there’s anything to update in the system about Ryan’s application.

Ryan recognizes that.

“Freeman has helped me quite a bit with some hope,” Ryan said. “But I haven’t seen results and it’s discouraging a bit. It’s nothing from him. It’s just the process.”

Jeongyoon joins us from a stint at NPR in Washington, where she was a producer at Weekend Edition. She has also worked as an English teacher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, helped produce podcasts for Hong Kong Stories, and worked as a news assistant at WAMC Northeast Public Radio. She's a graduate of Williams College, where she was editor in chief of the college newspaper.
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