LACONIA — In the Lakes Region, as elsewhere, stereotypes about homelessness abound.
The picture many people have is of someone who is either drunk or high on drugs, huddled in the doorway of a building, or curled up in an ATM vestibule.
But Bill Johnson says that situation, while certainly real, describes only a small fraction of the homeless population in Laconia and its surrounding communities.
A majority of the homeless people — or those at risk of becoming homeless — are people who have been impacted by the economy. Most often they are people who have lost their jobs and so they have fallen behind in their rent or mortgage payments and may have other overdue bills.
"Homelessness is not the problem, it's the result of a problem," says Johnson, who coordinates financial assistance provided by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic volunteer organization that helps the poor and disadvantaged in Laconia, Gilford, Meredith, Belmont, Alton and Gilmanton.
Johnson, who has been involved with the St. Vincent de Paul operation in Laconia since the mid-1990s, says he has seen homelessness become a major issue in the Lakes Region only in the last half dozen years or so.
"When we started (the organization) we'd seldom get a call about homelessness. But since 2007 or 2008 the problem has grown — and it's changed," he said. Johnson says what he is typically seeing is "the new homeless."
"Many have never been in financial trouble before. These are typically families; there are children involved," he said.
As the problem has grown, so has the public's awareness. Toward that end various agencies and faith-based groups are convening to discuss the issue of homelessness and the services that homeless people need. The event on Monday, Feb. 17, at the Laconia Middle School, is open to the general public. In addition to open discussion, the event will include a meal and the showing of a 30-minute documentary film ("Inocente") about a teen-age girl who rises above her homeless situation to find hope and fulfillment.
Johnson sees the real challenge is trying to help those who are on the brink of becoming homeless before they are actually forced out onto the street, or living in their cars or have to turn to friends or relatives to take them in.
"If we can catch them when they are at-risk then there is a chance of a much better outcome," he said. "Maybe we can help them work out an arrangement to get caught up with their back rent or mortgage payments or utility bills. You need to try if all possible to keep them in their house."
Johnson said that St. Vincent de Paul, which provides between $130,000 and $140,000 a year in financial assistant to the needy, is just one of the local organizations that is "working in the trenches" to help alleviate the problem of homelessness. Other organizations that commit significant financial resources in the city are the Salvation Army and St. Andre Bessette Parish, he noted.
To deal with homelessness effectively requires coordination among various government and non-profit agencies and various community groups. "Collaboration becomes extremely important between (local) welfare offices, agencies, churches and the like," said Johnson who in addition to his responsibilities with the St. Vincent de Paul Society also serves as president of Neighbors in Need, a non-profit organization that provides funds to agencies and churches which deal with people in need.
The two most important points of contact for dealing with homeless situations, says Johnson, are the individual municipal welfare offices and the office of the Belknap County Homeless Coordinator which is part of the Community Action Program. Another important local resource is the Continuum of Care, he added.
"Cooperation and coordination are so important," said Johnson, "not just to make sure you get the resources these people need, but that you don't do something to make the problem worse."
Because homelessness differs greatly from one case to another makes integrated and coordinated services all the more critical.
"Not every homeless situation is the same. It's not a cookie cutter sort of thing," said Johnson.