By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The Belknap House, a cold-weather homeless shelter that generates revenue as a hostel during warm months, has seen a lack of paying customers this summer. Organizers are wondering if reservations will pick up over time or if the nonprofit needs to change its operational model.
The building at 200 Court St., which has 19 beds, was empty Thursday and has hosted only about a dozen guests since it transitioned to a hostel on May 21, Executive Director Kathryn Holt said.
“It's not as busy as we had hoped,” Holt said. “It's been kind of slow.”
Belknap House opened on Feb. 28 and got good use as a homeless shelter for people in Laconia and surrounding communities. The idea was that it would morph into a money-making hostel in the spring before turning back into a shelter on Oct. 16.
Income from the hostel would support the shelter.
“That income is not going to be what we had hoped for,” Holt said. “We are having a couple of fundraising events coming up and are seeking donations, sponsorships and grants.”
Colleen Garrity, board president for the non-profit that operates Belknap House, said the lack of guests this summer may be typical for the first months of any new operation in the accommodations industry.
She said it's too soon to say there's a problem with the concept of operating a facility that provides rooms for the homeless over the winter and for paying guests during the summer.
“It's expected to be slow your first year,” Garrity said.
The shelter opened a couple months later than planned last winter due to abatement work for lead and asbestos.
“There was so much emphasis and work toward getting it open,” Garrity said. “After that, we finally started focusing on the hostel piece, and we were probably a little too late in doing that.”
Once the word gets around about the hostel, the proximity it has to attractions and its low price, it may see more success, she said. The rate is $30 per bed. There are six bedrooms, four bathrooms and a kitchen with two cooking stations.
“Time will tell if this model that we've chosen is for the best,” Garrity said. “If it doesn't work, we will make changes.”
She doesn't think potential hostel guests are put off at the idea of staying at a place that serves the homeless for half the year.
“Ninety percent of the bookings are coming through Bookings.com,” she said. “Anybody who is booking through an online travel agency like that wouldn't even know it's a shelter in the wintertime.”
Garrity said the idea of operating as a hostel part of the year resolves two problems: A need for revenue to offset expenses and decreased demand for shelter space during warm-weather months.
Revenue is needed in part to pay a monthly mortgage on the commercial building that was converted into the shelter. The non-profit raised $200,000 to get the shelter opened. Much of the money was used for extensive renovations. A smaller amount was used for a down payment on a loan to buy the $150,000 property.
“We purchased the building and had to put an enormous amount of funds into it to make it habitable and make it safe for anyone staying there,” Garrity said.
“We have a mortgage we have to pay every month, but the idea of a hostel was not just to help cover the mortgage, but to raise revenue to help families in the fall.”
When operating as a shelter, the facility is geared for people to stay no more than three weeks. It takes referrals from welfare offices in Belknap County towns and cities. A family support coordinator works with residents to help them find employment and permanent housing.
Garrity said she would like to see the homeless population eventually decrease to a point that the shelter is no longer needed.
“I would hope there may be a time when we might just open as a hostel all year long because we don't have that many homeless families,” she said.
However, she said there is typically a major upswing in the need for emergency housing starting in October. Rents are high in this region compared to the income most people earn.
Meanwhile, overall homelessness appears to be declining in the state and regionally.
The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness found in its most recent yearly report that the homeless population statewide was down 19 percent over the last four years. In Belknap County, it was down 13 percent.
The Belknap House has two fundraising events planned. A golf tournament is set for Aug. 21 at Lochmere Golf and Country Club in Tilton. A masquerade pumpkin ball is scheduled for Oct. 13 at St. Andre Bessette Parish Hall in Laconia.
Outreach programs providing services to the homeless can be accessed by calling 211.
Kathryn Holt, executive director of The Belknap House in Laconia, said that their 19 beds have been mostly unused so far this summer, when the nonprofit organization hopes to generate revenue as a hostel to pay for its expenses and programs in the winter, when it operates as a homeless shelter. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)