When the founders of the Hundred Nights shelter first raised the idea of an emergency facility to give the area’s homeless somewhere to go in the worst of New England weather, it was quickly embraced by city leaders. After all, the need was obvious, and having such a shelter would alleviate the pressure on the city to take care of that population, which state law requires.
Since then, Hundred Nights has done everything it promised, and more. It’s expanded with the growing need, extending to what is now essentially a year-round operation that serves men, women and, importantly, families without homes. But along the way, support has wavered at times, and critics have cropped up.
Several attempts to purchase property for a larger, more organized shelter have been met with harsh opposition, usually focused on the agency’s clients, who haven’t done themselves any favors by congregating outside the Lamson Street facility, smoking, swearing and occasionally, requiring police calls.
But then, that’s kind of the nature of the beast. The population most likely — though not alone in the current economy — to be without stable housing is also most likely to lack some social control. Hundred Nights Executive Director Mindy Cambiar and board members have been pretty up front about this, and stressed the agency’s commitment to helping such clients nonetheless — even those who won’t, or can’t, help themselves.
Finally, the agency has in place a plan to build a larger facility, on Water Street. Even that deal didn’t come without opposition, with city approval at first withheld, then a lawsuit filed by some nearby property owners to keep the shelter from moving. But it did get done.
Anyone thinking the shelter’s critics would now take a break would be mistaken, however. And the most recent charges, primarily through social media, have raised some concerning issues.
As is the case with many states, New Hampshire requires those found guilty of certain crimes to be listed on the state’s sex-offender registry. The crimes that can get one put on this list vary greatly in seriousness and scope, ranging from capital murder to sexual assault to criminal restraint to possessing pornographic images to public exposure. Offenders are required to keep their status updated, including their appearance, any name change and current address.
Hundred Nights employs at least two people on the state’s sex offender registry, and critics have spared no vitriol in attacking the agency for it, as well as for its policies regarding clients. Specifically, although staff asks incoming guests whether they’re on the registry, it does not verify that information. And while the shelter does post signs noting it accepts clients with criminal pasts, critics say that’s not enough; that anyone staying at the shelter ought to be warned when someone on the sex offender registry is also there.
Further, they say because of its limited space, there is sometimes little separating potential offenders from families staying there. Cambiar notes staff are always on site, and said the shelter is typically too busy for anyone to be alone. As they move to larger space, however, that may not always be the case.
That proximity ought to be lessened when that new space opens. It calls for men to be housed on a separate floor from women and children, something that can’t be done effectively on Lamson Street.
But policy changes ought to be considered to deal with other issues.
Cambiar says anyone found to be on the list’s tier 3 — considered the most dangerous offenders — would be turned away. But if the agency isn’t checking, how would it know if someone lied? Verification isn’t hard, and it’s a step other shelters routinely take. Hundred Nights should, too.
Cambiar notes most clients are “brutally honest” during intake interviews. But given the potential harm an abuser could inflict, the priority should be tilted more toward protecting clients, and staff. At the very least, the signs notifying that criminals may be present should also note that includes sex offenders.
As for those employees who are on the state’s offender list, we’d trust that knowing those staffers, Cambiar and her staff are capable of making the decision to provide them employment without endangering others. She says there have never been any issues with those employees and that no one has ever complained of feeling unsafe near them. And having faith in someone you know and work with is different than taking the word of someone who shows up at the door seeking help.
There are good arguments to be made in favor of accepting most of those at the shelter who may be on the offender registry. They need to be someplace, and at least there, presumably, they’re known. Better that, says board member Doug Iosue, who’s also superintendent of the county jail, than to not know where they are, and to have them be in less-stable environments.
But overall, this is one case where the shelter’s critics have a point; the policies in place appear more lax than is warranted for protecting those who are, almost by definition, among the region’s most vulnerable.