Belknap House at 200 Court St., shown here during Thursday's blustery cold snap, is expected to open by the end of January. This family-oriented cold-weather shelter will cope with specific needs. In one case, a boy was living in his truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot and staying there overnight while family was in the process of getting help, recalled Ginger Wells-Kay, who handles publicity for the Belknap House campaign. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)
By DAVID CARKHUFF, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A 20-below-zero wind chill howling into the weekend put pressure on Laconia's homeless shelter and the people trying to fend for themselves without housing.
"It's that combination of winds and maybe some snow that makes it particularly hazardous if somebody were to be stranded outdoors," said Justin Arnott, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, noting winds blowing at 30 mph in Laconia that resulted in a zero-degree wind chill Thursday afternoon and forecasts for a 20-below wind chill overnight into Friday.
Laconia Police Capt. Matt Canfield said patrol officers make a point of checking on homeless people when temperatures hover near or below zero.
"We do keep an eye on it," he said. "Patrol officers have contact with a lot of the homeless individuals on a regular basis."
The police legally cannot compel a homeless person to escape the elements, "as long as there are no mental health issues where they're a danger to themselves or others," Canfield said. But services are made available.
A fairly good number of homeless people will "couch surf," the term for finding impromptu temporary lodgings with friends or family, but Canfield counted "another several dozen who are truly homeless who have nowhere else to go."
All efforts are made to help those exposed to the brutal cold.
"If they need a place to stay, we will find different places for them to go even if it's the lobby of the police station," Canfield said.
The Carey House, located at 177 Union Ave., is the city's sole homeless shelter and tends to fill up during the cold months. Capt. Scott McNeil and his wife, Nora, are commanding officers of the Salvation Army in Laconia and see the demand first hand as operators of the shelter.
Scott McNeil said Thursday, "Our shelter, the Carey House, is full, but that changes on almost a daily basis. For the last several weeks, it's been solid, full." With a 33-bed capacity, the Carey House offers a family wing, two male wings and a female wing.
The Carey House last week opened its fourth family room, which can accommodate a small family of three, the Salvation Army reported. Upon its opening on Dec. 15, the room was instantly occupied, the Salvation Army reported.
Mountain View Church members painted the room, and Jack Robinson and Phil Huckins volunteered their time and skills, according to a press release from Amanda Lewis, shelter director.
As an emergency shelter, the Carey House is a "dry" shelter, meaning no alcohol or drugs are permitted. McNeil said shelter operators aim for a maximum stay of three months.
"We've had people come from northern New Hampshire, we've had people come from New York," McNeil said, and turnover rarely results in long-term vacancies — occupancy cycles so quickly "we barely have the room prepared and someone is on the phone saying, 'Do you have a spot?'"
Cold weather, as one would expect, heightens demand.
"Last year was actually quite different because it stayed relatively warm," McNeil said of last winter.
"I'm just thankful that we have such great support throughout the community," McNeil said, highlighting New Hampshire 2-1-1, an initiative of the Granite United Way. New Hampshire 2-1-1 provides a central information source (via the telephone number 2-1-1) for those experiencing or facing homelessness and other health and human service crises.
"If we don't have room, then we suggest 2-1-1," McNeil said.
A second homeless shelter is poised to open next month. A group is raising money to acquire and open a shelter called Belknap House at 200 Court St., specifically for families during the cold winter months.
"We decided the best thing to do was have a cold-weather shelter, and in the summer it's going to be a hostel," said Ginger Wells-Kay, who handles publicity for the Belknap House campaign.
Belknap House is expected to open by the end of January, she said.
"We had quite a problem with asbestos and lead paint, so the more they removed, the more they found, so instead of taking a month, it took three months," Wells-Kay said of the nearly completed renovations.
The programming at Belknap House will focus on family strength, since homelessness often splits up families.
"It's a chance to break the cycle, working with kids," Wells-Kay said.
The dynamics for families can be quite different. They typically can't stay in campgrounds when it's cold; teens may live out of their vehicles, while smaller children who can't stay in cars may be thrust on relatives or friends for a place to stay, Wells-Kay said.
And families can find it harder to couch surf, as friends will fear repercussions.
"If you have too many people coming into your apartment and the landlord kicks you out, then you could be homeless yourself," Wells-Kay said.
McNeil said Belknap House will relieve pressure on Carey House and its family units, which tend to fill quickly.
Organizers of the Belknap House are trying to raise $25,000 through their annual Open the Doors appeal, running now through the first week of January. For details, visit https://www.facebook.com/belknaphouse or www.belknaphouse.org.
On Wednesday, Dec. 28, at 6 p.m., Belknap House will be conducting its second orientation session for interested shelter assistant volunteers, 18 and older. Those interested in this position should sign up at http://signup.com/go/rFsb7v.
For information about the Laconia Salvation Army, or the Carey House, and how to support its efforts, call 528-8086.
For more about New Hampshire 2-1-1, visit http://www.211nh.org.