Concord Nonprofit Gives Up on Winter Shelter, But Moves Ahead with Plans to House Homeless

By MEGAN DOYLE Monitor staff Tuesday, June 23, 2015 (Published in print: Wednesday, June 24, 2015) A Concord nonprofit has given up hope of finding a new host for a winter shelter, but it is moving forward with plans to permanently house the city’s long-term homeless.

For more than a decade, First Congregational and South Congregational churches opened their basements to the homeless during the coldest months of the year. This past winter was their last. The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness has been searching for an alternative location, but Executive Director Ellen Groh said no one has agreed to take over that effort. “It seems unlikely that there will be a cold weather shelter this winter,” Groh said during an interview with the Monitor. “All of the faith communities and the service providers that we approached just did not see it possible.” The thought of a freezing winter without a shelter hits “like a shockwave,” Groh said. Once considered a stopgap measure, those shelters swelled to more than 60 beds. More than 180 people passed through this past year. “It’s still possible that something could emerge,” Groh said. “It’s not up to us to say there absolutely won’t be a shelter, but we’re not seeing one likely. We’ve reached out to everyone.” So the coalition is moving on. Groh is returning her focus to the coalition’s primary mission under her leadership – finding housing for the people who have been homeless in Concord the longest. “You don’t end homelessness with a shelter,” Groh said. “You end homelessness with a house.” Housing First To do so, the coalition has latched onto a strategy called Housing First. The traditional model of intervention requires that a person must demonstrate progress – a steady job, sobriety – before getting into permanent housing. Instead, the Housing First model places an individual in a home and then makes services available. The coalition has applied for both state money and a private grant to pay a full-time caseworker, who would help chronically homeless people apply for public housing through Concord Housing and Redevelopment. Those individuals would live in apartments for elderly or disabled tenants at either the John F. Kennedy Building on Thompson Street or the Crutchfield Building on Pitman Street. Their rent would be equal to 30 percent of their monthly income, or the $50 per month minimum. Concord Housing already accepts applications from people who are homeless or couch surfing. “Our mission is to house people,” Executive Director John Hoyt said. “Our mission is not to throw people out.” But the waiting list for these apartments is about six to nine months, and a transient person is hard to find when his or her name is called up. Even if the housing authority can reach the applicant, that individual must still participate in a rigorous interview process. And when – if – a chronically homeless person moves into an apartment for the first time in years, Hoyt said the struggle isn’t over. Concord Housing doesn’t have any support staff to help those tenants adjust to a new lifestyle. “They’re not used to the rules,” Hoyt said. “They’re not used to the neighbors. They’re not used to living in a house. . . . Without some guidance, without someone helping along the way, many of them fail.” So the caseworker is key. That caseworker would be responsible for chipping away at a list of about 25 people who have used Concord’s winter shelters for years. He or she would help those homeless people fill out and monitor their applications, find important documents to prove disability or age and advocate for that application during the interview process. And once the person is housed, the caseworker would help that person adjust to his or her new apartment. That person could work with 12 to 35 formerly homeless tenants, acting as a liaison with the landlord and the neighbors. “It’s all going to hinge on this caseworker being there,” Groh said. ‘It takes years’ Even with Concord Housing on board to work with a caseworker, challenges remain for the coalition. The money to pay that person still hasn’t materialized; Groh won’t find out whether the coalition got the grants for one to three months. And if it does, Hoyt warned the program has to be sustainable. “Getting into housing, following the rules and getting your life under control and moving forward in a positive direction doesn’t happen overnight,” Hoyt said. “It takes years. A caseworker would have to be around for years.” The housing authority also can’t accept everyone. Federal money subsidizes Concord Housing, so it cannot accept tenants who are registered sex offenders or who have been convicted of making methamphetamines. Hoyt said the housing authority’s own policy doesn’t allow tenants who have recently been convicted of a violent crime or dealing drugs. Without the emergency shelter as a last resort, Groh is trying to beef up her staff at the Homeless Resource Center during the winter months. With longer hours and more help, she’s hoping to divert people from the street. That could mean helping them buy a little more time at a friend or relative’s place by kicking in money for groceries or utilities. The money for that initiative, however, is also in flux. The coalition asked for $10,000 from the city, which has previously given that amount to the cold weather shelters. City Manager Tom Aspell said Concord has no plans to establish a winter shelter itself, but the Concord City Council could decide to spend that $10,000 however it chooses. While one option is to give the money to the coalition, the council could also save it for anyone else who decided to host a winter shelter. Or, Aspell suggested, the money could go to cover any increased demand on the welfare department. “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do,” Aspell said. In the meantime, Groh said she wants to prevent other communities from sending homeless people to Concord. “Our plan is to put the word out very broadly to other towns that there is no cold weather shelter,” Groh said. With no safety net and no secure funding stream for her proposed initiatives, Groh is anxious. “I’d be thrilled, but I’m not expecting to permanently house 25 people by December,” Groh said. “That would be awesome, but I don’t think that’s realistic.” But she describes this moment as “a turning point for Concord.” “Let’s try not to just go blindly back to what we were doing,” Groh said.