LACONIA — Freeman Toth has the weighty job of finding people before it is too late.  

As one of two homeless outreach and housing stability coordinators for the Community Action Program of Belknap-Merrimack Counties, Toth combs the woods, encampments, parks and gazebos, shelters, soup kitchens and cars. He looks for people who have no consistent place to sleep or to escape life-threatening weather. Late last year he discovered a young man passed out on railroad tracks in freezing temperatures.

“Had there not been an outreach worker in the field he would have died,” Toth said.

At his office after hours, homeless and nearly-homeless people leave messages he discovers the next morning, including callers from the Lakes Region who need counseling, medication, food stamps, applications for housing, money for rent, or just a friendly person who knows they still exist.  Before COVID, Toth said he fielded three to five calls a day; today, he and a fellow outreach worker take 20 to 30.

“There are days when I've called 50 people back," Toth said. "They're either homeless or at risk of being homeless. There are people in a state like New Hampshire that you would never think were living outdoors."

During COVID, callers to the Belknap-Merrimack CAP have crossed demographic lines. As the economic and social fallout of the year-long pandemic wear on through winter, Toth plays an increasingly critical role.

“We see people with healthy incomes, people who worked at state agencies applying for assistance, professionals, business owners, and family people. Not just retail workers or people with lower income jobs, or people who work under the table. Now it’s people from almost all walks of life, even the upper middle class,” Toth said.

At a time when communities statewide are grappling with ways to tackle the increasing problem of people living outdoors, the reasons behind homelessness remain complex and difficult to untangle – a web of misfortune that is often tied to losing housing, and being unable to replace it.

For some, homelessness results from a cascade of tragic events. Others run out of luck. Many lose jobs, health insurance, mental health care or stop taking their medications, then soothe themselves with drugs or alcohol, which unravels employment, family life and hope. Serving their addictions becomes paramount. Mental illness and substance misuse, and the poor choices that can result, play a decisive part.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, roughly 45 percent of people who are homeless have mental illness, and 20 to 25 percent of those who are chronically homeless have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, based on on reports from homeless people and their providers. Actual numbers are believed to be higher, according the mental health and homelessness experts.

“Homelessness is not a choice,” said Toth. "There is no one thing you can put a finger on that causes this to happen.”

In Laconia and the greater Lakes Region, the problem is worsened by an ongoing lack of affordable housing, and insufficient shelter for those who need someplace to stay in an emergency.

St. Joseph’s Church was recently poised to open as a temporary overnight shelter for use in cold and snowy weather – a stopgap until the city and social service partners could create a permanent solution – but lack of insurance postponed that option.

Throughout New Hampshire, shelter space has shrunk because of social distancing requirements during COVID – during the time of year when shelter demand swells. The shortage of affordable housing has become more glaring as incomes have fallen and unemployment numbers have risen. Rents have continued to climb. Urbanites have flocked to New Hampshire, squeezing available housing further, and fewer vacancies are being created as people move less often because of COVID and the uncertainties it has created – this in a state already beset by too few housing units for lower-income and middle-income people.

The result is an overflow of needs that can play out as home loss, especially at the lower end.

“Emergency shelters were full before the pandemic,” said Stephanie Savard, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness. To match capacity before the pandemic, communities have scrambled to provide alternative shelter despite COVID restrictions. "Some rented hotel rooms or floors, others repurposed buildings as shelters. The Hundred Nights emergency shelter in Keene purchased and renovated a bus to shelter folks,” Savard said. During COVID, municipalities across the state have reported an increased need for shelter space, and mounting numbers of unsheltered homeless, she said. Numbers from the state’s annual Point in Time count won’t be available until this spring, but the tally of people in emergency shelters and living on the street or in cars rose by roughly 21 percent between January 2019 and January 2020 - before the pandemic hit.

Cindy Field, 57, of Laconia has been homeless for two years, since her husband died and she could no longer afford to pay their mortgage.

Since then, her life became a routine of wandering between options – including in winter, mostly outside. 

“We just find a spot to sleep, then the cops tell us we can’t stay there. We’ve got to hide our blankets. When we go back to get them, they’ve been thrown out. If you put up a tent, they take it down. You have to keep them guessing,” Field said.

Police routinely sweep city locations where it’s unlawful to sleep or camp. “Ninety percent of the time they tell us to move,” said Field. “They have to have a place for us to go somewhere.”

Tim Haddock, Sr., 29, has been homeless on and off for four years, since he lost his job as a delivery driver for Hong Kong Garden in Plymouth, after losing his license for driving an unregistered vehicle. He’s a regular at Isaiah 61 Café, a location on New Salem Street that serves lunch to homeless people and anyone who comes to relax and warm up, and collect winter coats, hats, gloves, sleeping bags and tents that have been donated.

“A lot of people here segregate into two categories,” said Haddock. “They’re either alcoholics or drug addicts. But not all homeless people are homeless for these reasons.  Mine was financial.”

When he first became homeless, Haddock stayed with friends. Then he moved outside to the Belmont-Laconia line. “This emergency blanket? You line your tent with them. You line your sleeping bag.  You leave it there if you trust it. A lot of places you can’t do that because it’s private property,” he said. “I’ve lost stuff in the process of being out here. But it’s all material things at the end of the day.”

Right now Haddock’s 8-year-old son lives with his sister. He produces a photo on his cell phone. “It’s hard being away from my son,” he said. “I’m the only parent.” The boy's mother left when he was two.

“I’m five months sober off of meth,” Haddock said. “What could Laconia do? Have a certain area where we could go and stay, and not be bounced around. Or have another shelter.”

In greater Laconia, proposals have included a low-barrier homeless shelter that will admit people who are using drugs or alcohol, but not on-site, and a homeless resource center that could serve people throughout the Lakes Region who are referred by town welfare departments.

For three years, the Seacoast has had a temporary winter weather shelter, a collaboration between Dover, Rochester and Somersworth that is activated in specific weather conditions, said Savard. Last year the city of Manchester, in concert with Hope Tabernacle church, put up a winter weather emergency shelter, based on weather conditions. This year, Families in Transition set up a low barrier emergency shelter, she said.

“It really is a conglomerate of factors as to why we have a rise in the unsheltered homeless population,” said Savard. “It will take continued creative solutions to work toward meeting these individuals where they are at, and providing resources when they are ready for change.”

"You can only help people who want to help themselves. My dad had a substance abuse problem. I don't judge anybody," said Darcy Thibaudeau, age 42, who is an unofficial "auntie" to the young children at Isaiah 61 Cafe. "Everyone's got an addiction, whether it's candy, shopping, soda or caffeine. It doesn't have to be drugs."

Thibaudeau and her husband are going on their third year of living outside in Laconia, after relocating from Rochester, where she was laid off after 10 years of driving a taxi. Today she answers phones and helps out at the cafe. “My mom was a secretary, and I know everyone here.”

This is the second winter Thibaudeau and her husband have lived outside in a tent. “It’s a work out. It’s a relationship tester,” she said. “We were in Gilford last year, on top of a mountain. Every year is a learning curve.” A snowstorm in December was another challenge. “The snow went from our knees to over our waist.”

Living outdoors is not for everyone, she said. She is on a waiting list for housing, but believes her need is less urgent than others'. "Me and my husband can survive. Somebody can jump ahead of me because they've got a baby coming."

"People can say what they want and think what they want. Everyone has a concept of homeless," she said. "I’m not homeless. I’m living in a tent. I listen to the sound of waves on the lake. In a way it’s peaceful.” The couple keep their important possessions at Isaiah Café, she said. “You don’t want people slicing into your tent and stealing things.”

“The cops say just be careful. I don’t like to say we’re homeless. It’s like our fault that we’re out there. Just because you’re homeless don’t mean you can’t work,” said Thibaudeau, who is often annoyed by the stigma. “Bikes and backpacks usually mean homeless. It’s the judgement that we get that’s not fair.  I wish people would go out there and just try to live it for a moment. Everybody's experience is different. We're all doing it from scratch."

The tipping point into homelessness is different for each person, and communities need to carve multiple solutions, social service providers say.

“We need a variety of solutions,” Toth said. “Not everybody is right for one solution. Whether because of trauma or PTSD, we need more respite beds, crisis beds, more places for people to go when they are waiting for treatment, and a guaranteed place for them when they get out.”

Toth’s first exposure to homelessness came when he was in college and lost his apartment when his roommates were evicted by their landlord. Living outside in the elements is not a predicament he would like to repeat.

“Why are hospitals and treatment facilities discharging people to homelessness? It becomes a cycle," said Toth, who worked for Verizon for 18 years before becoming an outreach worker. "People come out of treatment and have no place to go. They have slipups and setbacks and they’re right back in the shelter or a tent or car. It sets them back even further, and increases their risk.”

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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