Hundred Nights leader says homelessness is at crisis levels
Homelessness has reached crisis proportions, and more shelter is needed for those risking their lives by sleeping outdoors in freezing weather, Mindy Cambiar, executive director of Hundred Nights in Keene, said Thursday.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Cambiar, whose nonprofit provides shelter and crisis-related services to those experiencing homelessness.
Cambiar began working at The Community Kitchen in Keene in 1983 and has been with Hundred Nights since 2013.
Her comments came in an interview two days after eight New Hampshire mayors, not including Keene Mayor George Hansel, sent a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu and other state officials demanding action on the statewide problem.
Hundred Nights has 24 beds on the second floor of its building at 17 Lamson St. and 12 more on a bus-turned-shelter. Options are limited for those seeking housing when the shelter is full — and it usually is, Cambiar said.
“We have multiple phone calls every day from people looking for shelter that we just don’t have,” she said. “The problem is that you only have so many beds, and there is no affordable housing, and your only alternative is hotel rooms, and the hotels don’t want to rent you rooms.”
Cambiar said she and other shelter workers are troubled by the idea that some families are sleeping in their cars this winter. She knows one man who sleeps in his car because he can’t make it up the stairs at Hundred Nights.
Two unhoused people died in Manchester recently, and a baby was hospitalized after his mother, who was unhoused, gave birth in frigid conditions, N.H. Public Radio reported.
“When are we going to find somebody who is not alive in the morning here?” Cambiar asked. “Because it can happen here as easily as Manchester.”
Perhaps the state could open relief centers to get people in from the cold, she said.
In their letter, the mayors asked the governor to consider calling up the National Guard to “assist in staffing additional shelters to prevent loss of life and keep individuals safe.
“Demand for shelter beds has reached a point that we can no longer only rely on nonprofit partners to meet the basic needs of New Hampshire residents.”
It also said the state’s “systems of care for individuals experiencing or at-risk of homelessness are not meeting the needs of communities across the state and are contributing to a statewide homelessness crisis.”
More than 4,500 New Hampshire residents will experience homelessness at some point this year, the letter said.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of individuals statewide who have experienced unsheltered homelessness has almost tripled, and in 2022, 95 unsheltered individuals tragically passed away.”
Sununu responded to the mayors’ letter in a written statement Tuesday, writing that he would not be calling up the National Guard. He also wrote that he was disappointed by “the tone and misleading content” of the letter, adding that the state has made “unprecedented investments” to address homelessness.
Mayor Hansel said in an interview Thursday the problem is getting worse.
“Unfortunately there aren’t any fast and easy solutions,” he said. “It’s a long-term thing. It has to do with a lack of housing stock, it has to do with increased financial pressure on people because of inflation, and it has to do with a lot of things. So we’re all going to have to just come together and work on it.”
He said he was contacted about the letter Tuesday — the same day it went out — by Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, but couldn’t take the call because he was getting a haircut. He said he called her back and left a message but they didn’t connect. Craig was one of the mayors who signed the letter.
But Hansel also said that even if he had been contacted in time, he wouldn’t have signed it.
“The letter sort of oversimplifies things,” he said.
“My experience has been that if you really want to find solutions you should strike the right tone and bring people into the process, not just shout at them.”
He was one of 13 mayors who sent a letter to Sununu in 2020 regarding homelessness.
“That was a call to action that opened up the door for collaboration between state and local government and as a result of that letter the governor appointed the housing stability committee on the statewide level,” he said.
Sununu appointed Hansel to that committee, which has produced reports on ways to address the issue.
Hansel said all levels of government as well as nonprofits and communities at large need to work on the issue collaboratively.
“We have a lot of different entities that are dealing with the homelessness situation in Keene,” he said.
“Folks have stepped up, and they all have to have a seat at the table, and they all have to work to come up with solutions. I don’t think that the state can just come in and fix things, and I wouldn’t want people to think that’s really possible.”
He noted that Hundred Nights is building a new 48-bed shelter in Keene.
Sununu endorsed Hansel’s unsuccessful Republican primary bid to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster of Hopkinton, who was ultimately re-elected.
Hansel said his opposition to this latest letter from mayors is not payback for Sununu’s support for his candidacy.
“I tend to just tell it like it is, and I try to work in a collaborative way where people can come together and work on the issues affecting citizens in New Hampshire and citizens in Keene,” he said. “We’re always fighting for citizens in Keene.”
Rick Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-355-8567.