Credit the mayors of New Hampshire’s cities for taking action to jump-start a state-level focus on creating a more comprehensive blueprint for tackling homelessness and the issues that contribute to it.
On Nov. 5, the 13 mayors, including Keene’s George Hansel, sent Gov. Chris Sununu a letter urging that the state develop a new statewide plan to address what they describe as a homelessness crisis in their cities. Quite rightly, they point to a near-term emergency as cold weather and winter loom and COVID-19 precautions have, as here in Keene, limited capacity in shelters. With federal unemployment benefits and tenant eviction relief running out, and the Trump administration and Congress shamefully incapable of agreeing on additional relief even as the pandemic surges dangerously nationwide, homelessness numbers seem certain to rise here beyond the cities’ capabilities to deal with the emergency.
But the mayors make an additional — and critical — point that even before COVID-19 showed up homelessness statewide was well on the rise, not only among individuals, but even more among families. The burden of providing sheltering options disproportionately falls on the cities and other larger communities which, as Hansel told The Sentinel, are often the only places those with housing insecurity can find shelter and support services. The result, the mayors’ letter states, is that “communities like Keene ... bear the responsibility for homelessness and support services for their entire county.”
The mayors are spot on in telling the governor that a coordinated statewide plan is needed and that it must be comprehensive in providing for both increased transitional and affordable housing options and improved access to related services that can address mental health, substance use, domestic violence and other issues that contribute to housing insecurity.
New Hampshire’s last homelessness plan was completed in 2006, and a new one is due. Without adequate statewide coordination among communities, homelessness strategies have been, in the mayors’ words, “reactive rather than proactive.” Specifically, they urge the state implement “an incident command infrastructure” that would establish metrics to measure success, provide accountability and track progress. For a model, they point to the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs.
When asked about the mayors’ letter at his Nov. 5 press conference, Sununu acknowledged the pandemic has compounded homelessness issues and addressing the various issues contributing to homelessness will require better coordination at the state level and between the state and communities. He also endorsed the idea of tasking a commission to move “fairly quickly,” but would want from it not just a study, but also specific action steps. That’s encouraging, but it’s less clear how much weight he’ll put behind addressing the issues with the Legislature to enact solutions and provide funding, saying he “will kind of lean on them a little bit.”
The number of people experiencing homelessness has been increasing, and the pace will only accelerate as the pandemic continues. Certainly, a well-tasked, action-oriented body to develop a statewide plan is an excellent start to more comprehensively addressing the issue, and the governor should establish it quickly. But more will surely be needed from the Legislature, and the governor must be forceful indeed if long-term progress is to be made and adequately funded. In Hansel’s words, “we need the state to step up and lead.”