In the tight time frame it was given, it’s no surprise the initial report on homelessness and housing insecurity recently submitted by New Hampshire’s new Council on Housing Stability is more of a plan to make a plan than an outline of specific steps. But the report does give Gov. Chris Sununu and the Legislature a New Year’s roadmap for developing a comprehensive plan to tackle the issue more effectively, and it also identifies a few immediate steps it recommends action on right now.
Sununu created the council on Nov. 18, but the impetus for it came from a Nov. 5 letter sent to him by the state’s 13 mayors — Keene’s George Hansel among them — that urged the state to develop a comprehensive strategy to address an existing homelessness crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic has made worse. In his charge to the council, Sununu directed it submit preliminary recommendations for the upcoming legislative session to him in under a month, and the council sent the governor its initial report on Dec. 14.
Much of the report is a survey of the growing seriousness of the issue and of existing state, federal and other funding resources available to help address it. Particularly troubling were statistics indicating the rise in homelessness in recent years, with children representing a disturbingly high percentage of those staying at state-sponsored shelters. The report also lays out many of the ancillary issues homelessness and housing insecurity contribute to, including health concerns, substance use disorders and educational limitations. And it cites the state’s very low vacancy rate and increasing median rent as evidence of the lack of available, affordable housing that could help address homelessness trends.
With so little time to produce an initial report, the council focused many of its recommendations on organizing itself into priority areas it will address in the coming months “to create housing stability for all” — planning and regulation, data metrics, a housing instability and homelessness system, and regional coordination. Its goal is to update by June 1 the state’s Homelessness Plan, which was last updated in 2006.
Still, the council recommended a few immediate steps. These include increasing the state’s investment in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund by $5 million this year and next, considering extended tenant protection measures during the pandemic and funding additional supportive housing units with coordinated services. Related to the latter, it recommended the state apply by May for expanded federal Medicaid services support that will help those dealing with substance addiction, mental illness or behavioral issues obtain and maintain supportive housing. And the council backed renewing Sununu’s proposals last year to increase the state’s housing stock, in part though improved predictability in the zoning process, which too often derails affordable housing projects.
These are worthwhile recommendations, and the council’s plan for focusing on its priority areas to update the statewide Homelessness Plan by June seems a sensible approach to more comprehensively tackling homelessness and housing insecurity. But the council’s report is only a “first step,” as Hansel, who himself is a council member, noted. For his part, Sununu issued a statement calling the report “an excellent foundation” and directed his administration to recommend actions that can be taken through executive action, including submitting the federal Medicaid supportive services application.
Yet much will depend on the Legislature, which will have to approve the additional funding the council recommended, and in his statement Sununu went only so far as to say he was “hopeful” that legislators would move the council’s action items forward. It was encouraging, then, that a spokesman for the state agency N.H. Housing told The Sentinel that both Sununu and incoming Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley have indicated support for the additional affordable housing trust investment.
While these plans for a longer-term approach to addressing the issue are developed, however, the governor and the Legislature should not lose sight that the immediate needs are pressing and increasing. Here in Keene, the Hundred Nights sheltering organization — which continues to be stymied in its effort to find additional space — has resorted to outfitting a bus to provide overnight emergency shelter. That’s a creative response by Hundred Nights to a difficult situation. But what does it say about us as a state and a region that, right now, our best solution to helping families and individuals experiencing homelessness — many of whom, particularly during the pandemic, do not do so by choice — is to put them up in a bus?