More than six weeks ago, we published the story of Teresa Duncan and her family. As told by staff writer Sierra Hubbard, Duncan was days away from being evicted from her home.
The timing — facing homelessness as the Christmas holiday drew near — was certainly unfortunate, but not intentional. In fact, Duncan had been staving off the eviction for months, and had been in a tug-o’-war with the manager of her apartment building for even longer. The specifics of that fight aren’t really the issue, though. The dispute was one that could occur between any landlord/manager and tenant.
What is important is that Duncan had been looking for a new place to live for more than eight months, with no luck. She’d called landlord after landlord, then started in on local social services, eventually reaching out to homeless shelters, preparing for the worst. In every case, she was rebuffed: No room at the inn, as it were.
True, her circumstances weren’t as favorable as some: She was seeking housing for seven people, including five children in Keene schools; she could not get a positive reference from her current landlord because of her dispute; and financially, while she and her boyfriend have a steady income, it was close enough to the bone to perhaps give some potential lessors pause.
It was, though, not that extreme a situation in this region and in this economy. Many renters here are barely scraping by, and coming up with first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, plus the cost of moving, could break them.
The good news is a safety net exists. The bad news is it’s stretched beyond its capacity.
“People are accessing the resources, which are great, but they’re finite,” said Rob Waters, a homeless outreach specialist with Southwestern Community Services, which operates shelters in the region. “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.”
Both Southwestern and the Hundred Nights shelter have seen increasing demand over the past few years, even as federal officials say homelessness in New Hampshire is on the decline. Part of that is people needing to stay longer; another is that more families with children are calling. That led St. James Episcopal Church to step in this year and offer space as an overflow shelter, as the United Church of Christ has recently. Still, the beds are full.
The city’s human services manager, Natalie Darcy, noted that while the welfare office spends close to a half-million dollars yearly on assistance, it hadn’t had to put someone up in a hotel, its last resort, in roughly 15 years.
As for finding an apartment big enough for the family, while the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on familial status, there are no prohibitions on landlords setting occupancy limits in their units. That, and the unwillingness of some area landlords to even answer calls from those in dire straits, as Hundred Nights’ Mindy Cambiar has noted, make the already tight rental market even harder to break into.
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.
Part of that is because many potential units are broken up into student housing, which is more lucrative — three, four or six students sharing a single home brings in more revenue than one family in that same space.
There are some indications of movement, however. Several large-scale apartment complexes have opened in the city over the past couple of years, and while they’re not inexpensive, they may fill some of the demand, opening space at less-expensive sites.
In the meantime, the best news: Duncan and her family have a new home. It meant spending more than a month in hotels paid for mainly by the city’s welfare office. Even with that help, the process wasn’t easy — at one point city officials demanded the family accept an apartment in Bellows Falls, which would have meant taking the kids out of their schools and across state lines, which could have triggered a custody issue. Duncan visited several potential apartments, and repeatedly thought she had worked out agreements, only to have them fall through.
Finally, though, with the city’s help, and that of Southwestern, Duncan found a property owner willing to give them a six-month lease.
That resolves, for now, one family’s crisis. But there are, or will be, others. The economic disparity that leaves people at the edge, combined with a lack of affordable options, ensures Duncan won’t be the last area resident faced with seeing her children without a home.