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Family finds home after weekslong search, but wider housing issues persist

A local family of seven will settle into their new home this weekend, nearly two months after being evicted and facing homelessness.

For the first time in weeks, Teresa Duncan, her boyfriend Jeff Tarver and the five children they share between them will all be under one roof, along with their dog, Honey Bun.

But the ordeal has taken a toll on the parents, who have stressed and lost sleep over where their family would end up, and some of the kids missed school during the instability of the past several weeks.

This one family’s struggle to get back on their feet sheds light on a growing need for emergency housing in Keene and the surrounding area.

The family was evicted from their Harrison Street apartment in mid-December, after Duncan said she’d spent months searching for housing. Finding an affordable place that would fit their family was a difficult task in its own right — Tarver earns about $18 an hour as a roofer and can have unpredictable hours week to week, Duncan said, and she collects about $1,500 per month on disability and takes care of the kids.

But their search was complicated by a dispute with their most recent landlord, which Duncan said resulted in at least two instances of lost housing opportunities due to a bad reference.

To make matters worse, Keene’s homeless shelters are full and have been throughout the winter. Neither Southwestern Community Services nor Hundred Nights has had room for one or two people most nights, much less seven.

After the family’s eviction, Keene’s Human Services Department helped pay for them to stay at Holiday Inn Express for a few weeks. The office then moved them to the Keene Inn in mid-January.

During that seven-week span, Duncan said she worked nonstop to secure a home, from contacting landlords of nearly every available three- and four-bedroom apartment in Keene and surrounding towns to regularly reapplying for assistance from Human Services.

“Mentally exhausting, is what it is,” she said.

In the meantime, Duncan and Tarver’s kids have been scattered with friends and family who offered to let them stay — for a few days at a time for some of the children, others for the length of the situation.

Because Tarver works a physically demanding job, Duncan said she’s borne the bulk of the emotional burden.

“But we got through it,” she said, smiling. “I pushed. I don’t give in easy. I’ve got a lot of willpower.”

The couple has signed a lease for a house on Pearl Street in Keene. It needs some love, Duncan said, but she’s more than willing to give the place whatever it needs. Two doors and evidence of a wall that was removed indicate that one bedroom was created from two at some point, and Duncan said they plan to add a partition to make it a four-bedroom house.

Ian and Evan Tarver, 17 and 15, respectively, will share a room on one side of the divider, and the girls — Savannah Rice, 13, and Aniyaha Tarver, 7 — will split the other. James Rice, 10, will have his own room, and the parents will, too.

Duncan sang the praises of Southwestern Community Services, which is assisting with the security deposit, first month’s rent and fuel to heat the home. Without the organization’s help, she said, her family’s situation might have lasted much longer.

Duncan lauded her new landlord, Laurence Saunders, whom she credits for giving her the chance many others didn’t. Although he was initially skeptical of her situation, Duncan said Saunders took the time to meet another person who had rented to her. After chatting and meeting a few more times over the course of a few weeks, he agreed to a lease.

When asked about this progression, Saunders recited a line of the Realtor Oath: “I pledge to protect the individual right of real estate ownership and to widen the opportunity to enjoy it.”

He also pointed out, though, that being fair isn’t the same as being charitable. He still approached the situation with caution and signed a six-month lease with Duncan and Tarver, rather than a full year.

“You have to be fair to everybody, including yourself,” he said.

Landlords can consider much more than a prospective tenant’s most recent reference, and there are protections they can add in a lease for themselves that allow them to offer this “second chance,” as Duncan calls it.

Saunders commended her work: “She’s really putting in some significant effort and more than putting in her part.”

Sitting in the empty house Friday where her family would soon live, Duncan was still processing the whirlwind of the past few months, from the stress leading up to eviction to their stints in hotel rooms. The plan, she said, is to get a truck Saturday night and move their belongings from their storage unit to the house over the weekend.

“And I’ll probably sleep all day Sunday and all day Monday,” she said, laughing.

Resources and referrals

The family’s experience highlights a housing crisis and lack of beds in shelters, but also the resources available in such situations, including the city’s welfare office.

From July 2018 to June 2019, Keene’s Human Services Department offered assistance in 718 cases, which can include referring someone to another agency or helping to pay for medication, utilities or rent. The city disbursed approximately $484,250 in aid that year, according to budget documents.

The department received more than 4,000 “case contacts” that year, which is a measure of people who reach out to the office to inquire about services, but not necessarily who apply for or receive them. Human Services Manager Natalie Darcy said that of those thousands of case contacts, few are looking for emergency housing — maybe two or three every couple weeks.

She also acknowledged, though, that the tides seem to be shifting.

“I believe that the situation with homelessness has increased,” Darcy said. “We haven’t had to use the hotel system in 15 years, and so everything is new when those type of things come up.”

Municipalities have a responsibility under state law to provide relief to anyone in town who can’t support themselves, regardless of whether they’re a resident. The city’s general assistance guidelines detail the application process, eligibility requirements and appeal procedure, among other things.

Few of the document’s 45 pages refer to an applicant in need of emergency housing, however, and Darcy said the section dedicated to people experiencing homelessness is “short, and it’s vague.” Certain parts say that Human Services refers applicants to a homeless shelter, but there is no remedy offered if facilities are full.

The guidelines point to an agreement between the city and Southwestern Community Services, through which the nonprofit organization “provides homeless services to City of Keene residents.”

Southwestern’s executive director, Craig Henderson, explained that his agency offers the same case management and other services to applicants, whether they’re sent by the city or come through other means. The organization isn’t allowed to give any preferential treatment to residents of one community over another, he said, so the agreement just ensures people who come to Southwestern are also being directed to Keene Human Services.

Regarding welfare guidelines, Henderson asserted that state legislators should re-examine the statute that gives municipalities this responsibility. It’s vague and leaves too much room for interpretation and debate, he said, and welfare administrators would likely appreciate a standard, rather than subjective guidelines of assistance.

“I think change really has to start from the top and that change is making what welfare is not ambiguous, but specific,” Henderson said.

Back in her office Friday morning, Darcy said that, overall, Keene’s guidelines seem to serve their purpose. Every case is unique, she said, and often needs its own solution; the guidelines point everyone in the right procedural direction. But she added that the document might benefit from another look at some point in the future.

The most recent revisions to the guidelines were approved by the City Council in early 2018.

When people indicate a need for emergency housing, Darcy said her office immediately suggests they call 211, a statewide referral service. The department also gets lists of the shelters’ occupancy every day for updates of any opening, and Darcy also checks other options in the state. The department can’t legally force someone to leave the state or Keene, if an applicant wants to stay in the city, she said.

“If everything else fails, then we’ll look at doing something with a hotel,” she said. But that’s a last resort, because it “would be very costly for the taxpayer to have to keep somebody in a hotel long term.

“I hate to put it that way,” she added, cringing.

As a city employee, though, there’s a line to walk.

“... Obviously I want to help people when I can help them. I don’t want to see anybody out on the street,” Darcy said. “But then again, I have an obligation to the city of Keene and the city of Keene taxpayers to make sure that we’re doing things correctly.

“So it can be tough sometimes, yeah.”

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Supreme Court clears way for Dunkin' in Winchester — again

Plans for a gas station/convenience store with a Dunkin’ drive-thru in Winchester can proceed, the N.H. Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Versions of the long-sought project at the intersection of Route 10 and Warwick Road have come before the Winchester Planning Board multiple times since 2012, each time followed by a court battle. This appeal was its third trip to the state’s high court.

The owner of a nearby grocery store, Kulick’s Market, had challenged the project after the planning board approved it a year ago. Last year, a Cheshire County Superior Court judge declined to overturn the planning board’s decision, and Kulick’s appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In its two-page order Friday, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, concluding that it “was neither unsupported by the evidence nor legally erroneous.”

Kelly Dowd, the attorney representing Kulick’s, declined to comment. Owner Stanley Plifka Jr. could not immediately be reached for comment. Gary Kinyon, the lawyer for S.S. Baker’s Realty Co. LLC, the company behind the Dunkin’ project, was also not reachable late Friday.

In challenging the project, Kulick’s had cited safety concerns about traffic turning left into and out of the parking lot on Route 10. The company also unsuccessfully appealed the planning board’s 2013 approval of a prior version of the project.