When the temperatures dropped below zero for multiple nights last winter, local organizations and community leaders in Rochester came together to open the city's first emergency cold weather shelter. This was after other homeless shelters in the area had already filled up.
The mayors of Rochester, Dover, and Somersworth went on to form a regional council to address homelessness.
The group, consisting of government officials, business owners, and non-profit leaders, has met regularly over the past year, and this week they began presenting their 53-page report to the three cities. Read the full report here Jeremy Hutchinson, a member of the Rochester City Council and the chair of the Tri-City Mayor's Task Force, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello on All Things Considered about the report.
What did you learn about the problem of homelessness in your region after the cold snap in late 2017 and in early 2018?
One of the things we learned pretty early on was how many people actually live in the woods. It's easy to miss it if you're not looking. I learned how massive the problem was.
One of the things you discovered about Strafford County in particular is that the rate of homelessness rose between 2016 and 2018. Is it possible to put a cause or causes on that?
I think there are many things that lead folks to homelessness. I think some of the stuff that we don't really think of, which is like divorce or having some sort of medical procedure that puts you financially into a position where you have to choose between your health or your house. But through this process, one thing we did learn, which was pretty emphatic, was the lack of housing and the overwhelming lack of affordable housing. And I think that is one of the main contributors to homelessness is the rising costs of rent in Strafford County specifically, which has not kept up with the gross median incomes of the folks throughout the county.
In the report, you recommend some possible solutions for each of the issues you identified. What did you recommend for the problem of the lack of affordable housing in Strafford County?
Well affordable housing is kind of a multilayered, multifaceted problem. And it sort of starts with the local municipalities having the fortitude to look at their zoning laws and look at their ordinances and understand what transitional housing means, what affordable housing looks like. And then when developers come in to pitch a proposal, having this idea of, at some point in that conversation, what is affordable and what will these apartments or homes look like after they're all finished. I think a partnership between the city, the state, the landlords, and the developers needs to take place. We know it's a problem and it's up to us on the government side to help find the solutions.
The report highlights seven strategies to help prevent and deal with homelessness in the tri-city area. One of the recommendations is to create a seasonal cold weather shelter. Where would that be and how would it work?
Throughout this document there's literally nothing in here that mandates or suggests a requirement. It is all entirely recommended.
So you're saying one of the three cities would have to sort of raise their hand and say yes put it here?
Correct. So for example if the city of Rochester wanted to take one of their city-owned buildings and convert it into a seasonal cold weather shelter, they could certainly do that as long as the zoning permits that use. One of the problems that we're seeing is there might be some properties that are available to create a cold weather shelter. The issue is they're in a zone that doesn't permit that use. And so that's something the city can take on and say we can change this.
And you sort of wear two hats in this process. You're the chairman of the Tri-City Mayor's Task Force, but you're also a city councilor in Rochester. So would you as a city councilor be in favor of some of the changes you're recommending like changing the zoning laws and perhaps making Rochester the home of a seasonal cold weather shelter?
I would absolutely be in support of that. This past winter, the county opened up a facility in Dover and I worked very closely with the folks who were running that operation and overwhelmingly the number of folks who reported they came from Rochester were being housed there. So we know the need exists. We know the need is there. So I would absolutely support any zoning changes or any ordinances changes if the city of Rochester decided they wanted to move forward and construct a cold weather shelter. I would be proud if we made that move.
Changing zoning is one example of recommendations that don't at least at the outset cost municipalities any money. But some recommendations will eventually cost some money from the cities affected here. Can you talk a little bit about some of those that will cost money and whether or not cities might be amenable to doing that?
Well I think erecting the cold weather seasonal shelter, wherever that is placed, I think that is going to be some financial investment on the city's part. We are fully aware that life safety codes have to be met. It's possible that folks will have to be hired and trained to run the facility should it be implemented to open. And then there'll be some accounting that will have to take place.
What we didn't do in this document is estimate how much that would cost. We didn't want a sticker shock to take place and prevent folks from making the right choice which was voting to adopt this. And quite honestly, if we estimated how much it would cost, if we came grossly under or grossly over, I think we would be misrepresenting just exactly what the city should be doing, which is whatever it is that they can do. The beauty of this document is it leaves a lot to the cities to give them the autonomy on how best it is for each of those cities to enact that.
So for this report you're bringing it for public hearings to the three towns the report made its debut in one of the towns Tuesday night. Where's it going from here?
The task force that has been working on this document for the last year, we've finished our work. We've completed our analysis, we've done our research and these are the recommendations. It is now up to the three cities to take that brave step and move forward with implementing what we have found in this document.