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Emergency shelters gear up for winter as N.H.’s housing crisis continues

Bunk beds inside a coach bus that the Hundred Nights shelter in Keene has converted into an overflow winter shelter.
Paul Cuno-Booth
Bunk beds inside a coach bus that the Hundred Nights shelter in Keene has converted into an overflow winter shelter.

Emergency overnight winter shelters open this week in some New Hampshire cities and towns, adding what shelter operators say is much-needed capacity as the weather gets colder.

Year-round shelters in Keene and Manchester have already been at capacity and have had to turn some people away.

“We really hate answering the phone right now, because we’re afraid that it’s another person or family that we’re going to have to say no to,” said Mindy Cambiar, executive director of the Hundred Nights shelter in Keene.

Cambiar and other shelter operators say the need seems to be going up. The state’s annual point-in-time study counted about 1,600 people experiencing homelessness in a one-day period in January 2022 —up 7.6% from a year earlier, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We're prepared to put out as many cots as we need to,” said Michael Reinke, executive director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter, which plans to open its cold-weather shelter Thursday.

In recent weeks, housing advocates had worried that the looming end of a pandemic-era rent relief program would kick out hundreds of people living in hotels because no other housing is available — which could have caused a spike in homelessness just as winter sets in.

Last week, the Executive Council approved using $20 million in federal pandemic aidto continue providing that assistance through June for hotel tenants with children and through April for other individuals. Separately, the council also signed off on more than $400,000 to help nonprofit groups provide emergency shelter this winter.

But rental relief for people in apartments is still set to end Dec. 29 as federal funding for the program dries up. And Reinke said the underlying problem remains: Housing is increasingly out of reach for many Granite Staters, as rents keep rising and few apartments are available even for those who can afford them.

The statewide vacancy rateearlier this year was 0.5%, well below the 5% that’s considered a marker of a balanced market, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.

“We have 30 people with some form of rental assistance that we just cannot find housing for,” said Connor Spern, the outreach services coordinator for the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, whose winter shelter opens Thursday.

Spern said she’s noticed an increase in families experiencing homelessness, as well as seniors and other people with limited mobility. That creates an added challenge, as most shelters aren’t set up to deal with their needs.

In Manchester, Families In Transitions’ adult shelter is usually full, and its family shelter has a 50-household waiting list, according to Chief External Relations Officer Stephanie Savard.

“Folks are waiting either in their cars, they may be on the streets, they may be living with family or friends but can't stay there permanently — it’s very short term stays — or in hotels,” she said.

She said a winter shelter is set to open Thursday at 1269 Café on Union Street, and Manchester has plans for backup emergency shelter if they hit capacity on extremely cold nights.

She’s concerned that more people could be evicted from apartments after rental assistance runs out for those tenants at the end of the year.

“The odds of them finding housing with such a low vacancy rate is pretty significantly low,” she said.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.