The Keene City Council Thursday will weigh spending a relatively small sum to help reimburse the cost of sheltering some of the area’s most vulnerable residents last winter.

It’s not the first time the shelter, which opened in 2010, has been a subject of debate. Funding, potential clients hanging around the Lamson Street area and whether its very existence draws homeless to the city have been issues raised in the past.

What cannot be disputed — and mustn’t be ignored — is the very real problem this nonprofit shelter is addressing and the responsibility we have as a community to help.

“The State of Homelessness in New Hampshire 2012,” a point-in-time count published by the N.H. Coalition to End Homelessness, tallied an estimated 1,725 people in the state who were homeless on a given night; 268 of them were in Cheshire or Sullivan counties.

“As it stands, national homeless numbers are expected to increase by 5 percent in the next three years and anecdotal evidence from service providers across New Hampshire suggests an expectation for continued levels of homelessness in the state,” the report reads.

In 2010, Hundred Nights joined the list of area organizations and shelters helping fight the problem. On what Executive Director Melinda L. Cambiar calls a “shoestring” budget, Hundred Nights runs an emergency shelter on Lamson Street from Dec. 21 through March 31, plus the Open Doors resource center year-round.

The city agreed to help with funding, through Southwestern Community Services. In a deal struck last year, Southwestern Community Services would have paid Hundred Nights, and the city, in turn, would pay SCS, said William A. Prokop, Keene’s assistant city manager and human services director.

The city agreed to pay $11,000 to assist the shelter’s operation, but only if clients were screened for eligibility. Somehow, absurdly, that called for the clients to go to City Hall and fill out eligibility forms once they left the shelter each day.

Unsurprisingly, those requirements weren’t met, though the warming shelter kept its doors open in the winter of 2012-13, reporting an average of 17 people served per night.

The city then balked at paying; a City Council panel now recommends paying about $6,200.

It looks like this funding glitch won’t be an issue in the future; Hundred Nights has changed the way it requests money from the city and has already been approved for $11,000.

“They don’t have to put in any receipts. They will get $11,000. In fact I believe it’s already been paid for the fiscal year that will start December of this year and go through March of next year,” Prokop said Tuesday.

In the meantime, it doesn’t seem constructive to withhold previously planned support for an organization because of its failure to meet terms that weren’t very practical in the first place.

The same factors that make some of Hundred Nights’ clients so vulnerable — substance abuse, mental illness, transience — make it unrealistic these clients would follow a shelter stay by heading to City Hall to fill out paperwork.

Both Cambiar and Prokop discussed the potential for city staff to meet with Hundred Night’s clients at the shelter this coming winter. We applaud the cooperative effort. We also believe city councilors are justified in asking questions, seeking Hundred Nights’ financial records and scrutinizing any funding request. Anything less would be a disservice to their constituents — especially at a time when households here, as across the country, are facing such tough financial realities.

But as the councilors do so, we urge them to look at the big picture.

Rather than take what feels like a punitive stance toward a young organization serving a challenging population, councilors should focus on deepening their partnership with a group that’s helping keep homeless residents out of Keene’s emergency rooms and off of its streets.

Rather than engaging Cambiar in a needlessly technical debate on who counts as a Keene resident, councilors should focus on the simple reality that the shelter’s clients are suffering, they’re homeless and they’re here.

Rather than denying Hundred Nights a relatively small amount of money, councilors should concentrate on helping leverage those funds toward a more comprehensive solution to the homelessness in our midst.

And rather than holding back funding because Hundred Nights fell short of agreed-upon, though unrealistic, obligations, councilors should focus on their own obligations — to make sure nobody in the city is left out in the cold.

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