For a family of seven, their three-bedroom apartment on Harrison Street in Keene is a tight fit, but Teresa Duncan says it works. She lives there with her boyfriend, Jeff Tarver, and between them they have five children. Ian and Evan Tarver, 17 and 15 respectively, share a room; so do the girls, Savannah Rice, 13, and Aniyaha Tarver, 7. That leaves 10-year-old James Rice on the couch in the living room.
Come Sunday, however, Duncan doesn’t know where they’ll be sleeping.
Though they’re losing their home now, during the holiday season, Duncan said she’s been trying to find a new one for months, with no luck. Affordable housing is scarce in the area, people who work in homeless services say, and her situation is exacerbated by landlords’ reluctance to rent to families that have been at odds with their most-recent property owner.
Duncan said her landlord opted not to renew their lease, which ended June 30. After trying to fight the eviction with a pro bono lawyer through Legal Aid, Duncan, Tarver and their five kids have to be out of their home Sunday. Cheshire County sheriff’s deputies will be on site to ensure it happens.
She’s been searching for a place since she got the news from the landlord in March, Duncan said. Their family came close to securing an apartment once, but lost it after failing to get a good recommendation from her landlord, she said.
Duncan has asked staff at Southwestern Community Services about staying in a homeless shelter in the meantime, but none of the city’s shelters have enough beds.
“If a family of two were to fall into a homeless situation right now, I think it would be hard for them to find shelter, much less a family of seven,” said Rob Waters, a homeless outreach specialist with Southwestern.
As for finding permanent housing, affordability is a major factor; Tarver earns about $18 an hour as a roofer and snags as close to 40 hours a week as he can in the winter, Duncan said. She collects about $1,500 per month on disability and takes care of the kids.
While price range is an issue, though, their main problem is the number of people they’re trying to house.
“... It’s almost impossible to be a larger family and be able to make it if you’re renting,” she said. “Everybody I talk to says, ‘Hey, have you thought about buying a house?’ ”
Of course, she said, that would be her preference, but that comes with a down payment, good credit and more bills.
A regional problem
Waters said “availability” is the key word, pointing out New Hampshire’s low vacancy rate.
The N.H. Housing Finance Authority’s 2019 residential rental cost survey, released over the summer, found that nearly every county in the state, including Cheshire, had a vacancy rate of less than 1 percent for two-bedroom units.
New housing complexes were recently completed in Keene, Waters noted, but the majority of the units at the Colony Mill Apartments and Washington Park Residences have one or two bedrooms.
“I’ve got a family of six, so if I were to move, it would be really hard to find somewhere that would fit all of us in it,” Waters said.
He acknowledged that some landlords might feel like they’re in a difficult position if they have three-bedroom apartment, for instance, with small rooms.
(While the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on familial status, there are no prohibitions on landlords setting occupancy limits in their units.)
On top of the lack of availability is the affordability question, he added.
“Anything larger than a family of three [and] it has to be a two-income family that’s not making minimum wage, because that’s the other piece; our minimum wage is extremely low,” he said.
Waters appreciated Duncan’s initiative to reach out to local agencies early rather than waiting, he said, even though she hasn’t found housing yet.
“People are accessing the resources, which are great, but they’re finite,” he said.
Ideally, education efforts would reach people long before they find themselves so close to homelessness, Waters said. If the cycle could be cut off that far upstream, he said, advocates could help people find permanent housing, and brief stays in shelters would be for emergencies such as natural disasters.
As for addressing the immediate need, Waters suggested funding to pay for rooms in local inns, similar to hotel vouchers that cover the lodging cost. Keene’s a sizable city, he said, “but I have a hard time believing that all our hotels and motels in town are full.”
Municipalities have a responsibility under state law to provide relief to anyone in town who can’t support themselves, regardless of whether they live there or not.
Not enough resources
Though she said she’s not familiar with Duncan’s situation, Keene City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said the city’s welfare office works with applicants to find immediate help and connects them to other agencies in the area that offer resources for permanent housing. Dragon said assistance from the city can come in many forms, and if absolutely necessary, the city could pay to put a family in a motel room, though she said that’s the last resort in any situation.
Dragon said the City Council seems to recognize the crisis in emergency housing, pointing to its recent approval of an overflow shelter for Hundred Nights at St. James Church, which required a suspension of the rules to get it done at one meeting. City staff also lined up all of the necessary inspections and completed those quickly, too.
“I think that’s a step in the right direction. We’re going to have to continue to have these conversations,” she said.
Long-term, however, she thinks the state government should step in to help communities find a solution together. Having homeless shelters and resources spread across a rural state with little public transportation makes it difficult for families who might have to uproot to find beds, she said. Keene is doing what it can, Dragon said, but other communities need to step up, too.
“I feel that it’s the responsibility of the state of New Hampshire to look at this issue and find a way to keep people closer to their homes,” she said.
As Sunday draws closer, Duncan said she’ll continue to contact local agencies and landlords in the area, hoping something comes together.
“This is my plan, is I’m doing everything I can to reach out and ask everybody for a place to be,” she said.