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In keeping with Hundred Nights’ mission to help anyone at risk of homelessness, Executive Director Mindy Cambiar said the Keene shelter rarely turns people away when any of its 24 overnight beds are available.

Hundred Nights officials say the organization’s new Keene shelter will help keep guests safe, with men staying on a different floor than women and families.

That is an important element of the nonprofit’s planned move to Water Street, according to Executive Director Mindy Cambiar, who has said the shelter’s housed more families in recent years. The new configuration is meant to help quell concerns over Hundred Nights’ policy of admitting people with past convictions for sex crimes and other offenses, which Cambiar and multiple board members say is key to helping them reintegrate into the community.

That policy has prompted a spate of vitriolic attacks online against the organization — which also employs at least two registered sex offenders — in recent weeks.

In keeping with Hundred Nights’ mission to help anyone at risk of homelessness, Cambiar said it rarely turns people away when any of its 24 overnight beds are available. The organization does have a screening process for new guests, as required to get state funding, and warns everyone in the shelter that its residents may include people with a criminal record, she said.

Still, Hundred Nights’ intake procedures appear less stringent than those at other area shelters.

Guests arriving at the 17 Lamson St. facility are asked if they’re on New Hampshire’s sex offender registry — a database with the names and addresses of people who have committed sex crimes — or on probation for any other past conviction, according to Cambiar. Hundred Nights staff also call Keene police to check if the person has any active arrest warrants, she said.

Anyone in the state registry’s third, and highest, tier — typically people who have committed high-level or multiple offenses, especially against a child, and who are on the list for life — is turned away, Cambiar said. Only a couple Tier III offenders have requested shelter in her eight years at Hundred Nights, she said.

Cambiar acknowledged, though, that staff don’t check the registry for the names of all potential guests, instead relying on new arrivals to be honest about their criminal record. She said local police, who are notified of registered sex offenders in their community, can help Hundred Nights identify anyone on the registry, adding that anyone caught lying about their sex-offender status can face prison time.

“Most people are brutally honest when they come to our door,” she said. “… I don’t think that people come here and try to hide their pasts.”

But a local woman familiar with Hundred Nights’ intake process said she knows of at least one former guest who didn’t disclose he was on the registry when he lived at the shelter.

“There was no actual verification, to my knowledge, that anyone was or was not a registered sex offender or about their criminal background,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous over concerns she could face consequences for speaking out. “There was no criminal background check.”

Acknowledging that registered sex offenders need housing, the woman said “it’s not as simple” as labeling people on the registry as “evil.” But, she said, changes are needed to keep other Hundred Nights guests safe.

Emergency shelters run by Southwestern Community Services and the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention don’t admit registered sex offenders, according to officials with those organizations. Unlike at Hundred Nights, staff members there check the names of all potential guests against the state registry, the officials said.

Southwestern Community Services, which also offers housing aid and runs the local Head Start program, does provide shelter to people with “extensive” criminal records, CEO Beth Daniels told The Sentinel in an email. But the organization turns away sex offenders and people with active arrest warrants for “the health and safety of both other shelter guests and staff,” Daniels said.

“We have family shelters and some of our buildings are in close proximity to one another,” she said. “With limited staffing capacity, we have parameters such as these in place to align with our capacity.”

MCVP Executive Director Robin Christopherson said the Keene-based organization turns away sex offenders because its shelter — for survivors of domestic and sexual violence — has communal living and often houses families. She and Daniels both declined to comment on Hundred Nights’ intake procedures.

Four people on New Hampshire’s sex offender registry list Hundred Nights as their primary address — though Cambiar noted that some unsheltered people get their mail at the facility but don’t sleep there.

They include the shelter’s operations director, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to two counts of criminal solicitation, a felony that penalizes people for asking someone else to commit a crime, according to court records. He was charged in the same case with possessing child sexual abuse images, but that charge was dropped, the records show.

Hundred Nights conducts background checks for all employees and is aware that the operations director, who was hired in 2013 and lives at the shelter, is on the registry, Cambiar said.

She said no guests have ever told her they felt unsafe around either him or a staff member at the organization’s housing resource center who was convicted last year of indecent exposure, a felony, according to court records. The resource center worker, who prosecutors said exposed himself around a minor in Claremont at least twice, was barred from any unsupervised contact with children as part of a 2019 bail order in that case.

Cambiar defended Hundred Nights’ hiring policies, saying all its employees have “demonstrated a commitment to the mission” and, referring to the operations director, that it upsets her that people “keep questioning his abilities.”

“He wouldn’t still be here if he wasn’t doing an excellent job,” she said.

Hundred Nights began housing unsheltered families in 2016, according to Cambiar, who said the second-floor shelter is “far too busy for anybody to be alone, ever.” Most complaints that the organization gets about its guests involve petty disputes, such as a fight or theft, she said.

Signs posted at Hundred Nights also warn that shelter guests may have a criminal record. Touting the safety protocols in place there, Cambiar said staff stay up overnight to monitor the facility, that its private family room can be locked from the inside and that children can’t be left unattended.

“We have always, always done whatever we need to do to make sure that everybody is as safe as possible in the shelter,” she said. “That hasn’t changed since I’ve been here.”

The woman familiar with Hundred Nights’ operations said the organization once split the family room in half, using a folding partition, and had other guests sleeping in beds on the opposite side. On one occasion, she knew one of those guests to be a registered sex offender, she said.

“It’s the same common spaces,” she said of the shelter. “The family room, you open the door and you’re walking out in between bunk beds in the men’s section. It’s not as if it’s a whole separate entity.”

Cambiar explained that the registered sex offender who stayed in the family room was romantically involved with a woman staying in that room with her young child. That woman insisted that he be allowed to sleep there, Cambiar said.

Still, the local woman familiar with Hundred Nights’ operations said she’s most concerned that its guests aren’t notified when someone on the sex offender registry is staying at the shelter.

“The problem is that the other people in the shelter, particularly families or women, do not know that those people are there … which means that they cannot make an informed decision as to whether they want to be there,” she said.

Hundred Nights’ planned new shelter is designed with those safety concerns in mind, Cambiar noted. Staff there would still be awake overnight to enforce facility rules, she said.

“We want people to be safe,” she said. “That’s always been part of the philosophy here.”

Hundred Nights officials say their choice to admit people with past convictions for sex crimes and other criminal activity helps keep the broader community safe, too.

If those people were barred from the shelter, they’d likely be sleeping in tents and spending more time roaming the city, including among local businesses, according to Cheshire County jail Superintendent Doug Iosue, who serves on Hundred Nights’ board of directors.

“I think it’s the knee-jerk reactions … that assume that if we don’t house them, they will go away,” he said, noting that people on probation can’t leave the area. “There’s really no reason to think that will happen.”

Allowing sex offenders and other people with a history of violence to stay at Hundred Nights also helps police track their whereabouts, Iosue said. The organization also has resources to help them reintegrate safely into the community.

“That actually is safer than ducking our heads in the sand and reacting out of emotion, stigma and discrimination,” he said.

Past offenders need a stable living situation, Iosue argued, noting that research shows those without stable housing are more likely to commit further crimes.

But finding housing can be extremely difficult for registered sex offenders, according to Elliott Berry, housing project director at N.H. Legal Assistance.

To start, anyone on a lifetime registry is prohibited from living in federally assisted housing. And private landlords can reject potential tenants based on their sex-offender status or any other criminal record, Berry said.

“If you are on a lifetime registry, your only hope is a landlord that either doesn’t check [that list] or doesn’t care,” he said, adding that those units are often of poor quality.

Housing insecurity makes it difficult to stabilize one’s daily life, such as by finding employment and accessing mental-health treatment, Berry noted.

“All the normal things that a person needs to have a normal life are just blown up by homelessness,” he said.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.