October 3, 2023 4:32 am

Local News

As Cities Race to Find Housing, Some Call for More State Homelessness Funding

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

In 2019, Keene’s Human Services Department recorded just one individual and one family formally asking the city for help with their housing. 

A year later, that number rose dramatically: 51 individuals and 20 families asked for housing assistance in 2020, Mayor George Hansel said in an interview last week. 

The increase – which Hansel says has only continued in the following years – represents a growing need for housing statewide, and a rise in displaced people since the pandemic. Last November, New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services drew attention to what it called a longstanding problem: the funding of New Hampshire’s homeless shelters. 

Addressing Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget director, officials with DHHS argued that the state had been underfunding the shelters in the state for years. Currently, the state allocates just under $5 million in state funds per year; the department asked Sununu to fund them at $12 million per year in his next proposed budget.

Sununu overrode that request. The budget proposed by the governor in February would continue to fund homelessness services at about the same rate as past years: $4.93 million per year in the next two years, up from $4.82 million per year in the last two. The budget passed by the House Thursday would keep that funding the same. 

Now, as shelter operators, community action programs, and mayors have raced to find housing for people as a key COVID-19-era rental assistance program comes to an end, some argue the state should increase its own homelessness investments as DHHS had asked. 

“The Governor’s budget proposal proves once again he is ignoring the problem and not committed to solving this issue,” Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said in a statement Tuesday. “His plan will reduce shelter capacity and could even result in shelter closures across the state.”

While Sununu did not include the additional funding in his proposed budget, the New Hampshire Senate appears likely to do so. A bill unanimously approved by the Senate in March would provide DHHS with $5 million a year for shelter programs, housing stabilization, and eviction prevention – on top of the $4.9 million proposed in the governor’s budget and House’s budget. 

That bill was tabled, a move that allows the Senate to add it to their version of the budget when they begin their process this month. 

In a statement, a spokesman for Sununu did not address the governor’s rejection of his agency’s request for funding. But he did point to one-time federal funding efforts the state has provided toward rental assistance and homelessness services in the past three years. That included a $5 million increase in funding to shelters approved last September for additional warming shelters for the winter, an expense the state doesn’t normally help cover. 

Moving forward, cities and towns will need to be more involved, the spokesman, Brandon Pratt, argued. 

“While the state has made unprecedented investments to address the crisis of homelessness, true solutions require the buy-in of local communities, who share responsibility in addressing the unique needs of their communities,” Pratt said. 

But mayors say they have already been grappling for months with how to source housing for residents amid increased demand. Municipalities are required by law to provide temporary assistance to residents in need, even if the person is a resident of another town and in the city temporarily. That includes housing aid. 

“It’s kind of a team effort: It’s the shelters working together with the city and trying to find a solution,” said Hansel. “We’re taking it day by day. So in the morning, we know we have people we need to place, and maybe a bed or two opens up in one of the shelters.”

“There isn’t any wiggle room,” he added. “Like it really is coming down sometimes to a single bed available in the city on that particular day.” 

The end of rental assistance

Concerns about homelessness have increased as a rental assistance program came to an end for many people on April 1. 

From 2021 to late 2022, the state had administered federal COVID-19 relief dollars to help people struggling with rent stay in their homes, an effort known as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. But the U.S. Treasury announced an end to New Hampshire funding in October, and the state stopped accepting applications for rental relief that month.

To help bridge the gap for families who had been staying in hotels under the rental relief program, the Executive Council approved $20 million in remaining COVID relief money to reimburse certain people for their hotel stays. That program ended for families without children on April 1, and will end for families with children on June 15. 

Looking ahead to that April 1 deadline, cities and towns pushed to get all residents who are temporarily staying in hotels to move to other accommodations. The effort has been exhaustive, many say. But most have managed to find at least temporary solutions. 

In Keene, organizations in the city have managed to rehouse all residents who were staying in hotels under the previous program, Hansel said. 

Southwestern Community Services, the Community Action Partnership agency for the Keene area, has worked to direct people to temporary shelters, permanent housing, and even hotels for some families willing to continue paying, Chief Executive Officer Beth Daniels said in an email. 

In Rochester, city officials have worked with people staying in motels in the city to either find new housing for them, offer space at a city homeless shelter, or direct them to their original hometowns for further assistance, City Welfare Director Todd Marsh wrote in an email Tuesday. 

“Because of our team’s efforts, no individual who was staying in emergency motel housing went without housing,” Marsh wrote. 

And in Manchester, none of the more than 40 single individuals who were previously staying in hotels have contacted the city seeking housing assistance since the April 1 deadline passed, wrote Welfare Director Charleen Michaud in an email to city officials provided to the Bulletin. Michaud said that was a result of efforts made by the city and local organizations to find avenues for those people before the deadline hit.

“The preemptive messaging and the wraparound services our department, Southern NH Services, and other local social service agencies provided, proved to be beneficial in helping individuals locate and transition to other housing options,” Michaud wrote. 

But Rod Dapice, executive director of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, which has overseen the rental relief programs, cautioned that while people have been moved to other housing options in recent weeks, they haven’t necessarily moved to ideal situations.

“My understanding, anecdotally, is that the majority of households have returned to situations where they’re doubled up or overcrowded or are staying in the hotel temporarily but can’t necessarily afford anything longer,” he said. 

Seeking stability

State officials say they have been working to provide similar services in recent months ahead of the April 1 and June 15 deadlines.

“Like with all of the pandemic-related programs, the minute we started implementing them, everybody was thinking, ‘Okay, what about the end? What about the end,’ right?” said Christina Santaniello, associate commissioner of DHHS, in an interview Tuesday. “So we’ve been planning around this for a while.” 

Last July, DHHS contracted with providers including Easterseals to provide housing stability services, allowing them to work with unhoused people to create action plans, Santaniello said. Meanwhile, the state’s new funding for warming shelters last winter helped an additional 1,100 people find housing, Santaniello said. That funding could continue in future years if Senate Bill 231 is added to the budget, she added. 

Still, while city leaders say they largely cleared the deadline hurdle for the emergency temporary housing program, the housing challenges are not going away. And for many, that’s translating to budget headaches. 

In Manchester, Craig has proposed increasing the state’s welfare budget from around $1 million per year to nearly $1.5 million, with $450,000 dedicated specifically for rental assistance, rental security deposit funds, and future hotel costs for displaced people. The final city budget must be approved by the Board of Aldermen in June.

Hansel, in Keene, said the city could also face financial difficulties over the housing needs. The city has managed to use the federally funded rental assistance program to save some money and build a surplus for housing-related expenses, but with the assistance program finished, the Human Services Department may need to start drawing down that surplus, he said. 

“I’m concerned (that) moving forward, if the levels of service continue or rise, we’re going to have to possibly move more money into that budget,” he said.

To find a long-term fix, Hansel said diverse approaches will be necessary, whether in state and local support for more housing development, more funds to support transitional housing, and more “wraparound” services to help work with people to stave off eviction and homelessness. 

“I just don’t see this as a problem that’s easily solved by throwing money at it,” he said. 

This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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