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Monday, January 17, 2011

Homeless numbers a hard read


NASHUA - It's difficult to say if the news contained in the National Coalition to End Homelessness report "The State of Homelessness in America" is more good than bad.

While the country's homeless population increased 3 percent by about 20,000 people from 2008-09, based on point-in-time counts conducted those years, the total population in New Hampshire fell nearly 20 percent, or 374 people, according to the report, including 50 percent fewer unsheltered homeless people and a quarter fewer chronically homeless.

State and local homeless outreach workers caution such calculations and conclusions are complicated. While the report is based on 2008 and 2009 counts, 2010 was not exactly an easy year for homeless people or people living on the edge of homelessness.

While exact numbers aren't available, anecdotal evidence suggests Nashua's homeless population, particularly first-time homeless residents, has grown. A lot of new faces are showing up at shelters around the city, officials say.

"We've seen a lot more people coming in that have maybe lost a job recently or become homeless for the first time," said Nathan Goodwin, who runs Harbor Homes' Connections Clubhouse. "We've seen a lot of new faces who have lost their job or not been able to pay their rent or pay their mortgage and had to leave their homes."

Harbor Homes' 25-bed emergency shelter also filled up earlier than usual this year, according to Carol Furlong, Harbor Homes' vice president of operations.

"Anecdotally, we know in our shelter at least we have had people at capacity and beyond many times since the fall," Furlong said.

The shelter isn't normally full to bursting until the frigid weather has a firm hold on the area.

"It doesn't appear that the homeless population has declined," she said. "I think we're seeing more people in the shelters right now, and you're seeing a different group of people right now. I think you're seeing more temporarily homeless right now."

Lisa Christie, executive director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter, said she and her staff have had a similar experience in 2010.

"Our shelter numbers are pretty consistent, but that's because we have the same amount of beds every year," she said. "We're seeing more first-time people come in who need help."

Christie has another measure, though. While the numbers at the shelter remain unchanged, the number of meals served at the soup kitchen on Chestnut Street skyrocketed in 2010 from more than 2,000 in 2009 to more than 4,000 last year, she said.

"We're off the charts," Christie said. "Fortunately, the community has been very generous. Hopefully that continues."

The soup kitchen serves breakfast and dinner - and hands out fruit, toiletries and other items during the afternoon - and has had to extend its dinner service to 2½ hours for the first time, Christie said.

"I don't think we've seen an 18 percent decrease," she said.

Another population that is chronically undercounted is homeless children. That's partly because federal authorities don't count young people who bunk with friends, or are "doubled-up," with nowhere else to go as homeless. State officials do, said Dr. Lynda Thistle-Elliot, an education consultant for homeless children at the state Department of Education.

"We've seen the number of children who are homeless in New Hampshire rise every year for several years," she said.

During the 2008-09 school year, school officials around the state reported 2,132 homeless students to the Department of Education. That number rose to 2,573 for the 2009-10 year, Thistle-Elliot said.

Even those numbers are likely lower than reality because while the homeless population is difficult to accurately track, young homeless people are even more difficult to get a handle on.

"There are a lot of youth who would not even call themselves homeless because they might be squatting somewhere," said Kat Strange, a spokesperson for Child and Family Services of New Hampshire.

That's not to say there aren't bright spots, at least locally. Some subgroups of the city's homeless population are almost nonexistent because of programs and housing options built specifically for them. There are virtually no unsheltered homeless veterans or HIV/AIDS patients in Nashua for that reason, according to Cynthia Andreola, Harbor Homes public relations manager.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.

NH's homeless by the numbers

2008 2009 % Change
Total Homeles 2,019 1,645
-18.5
Chronic Homeless 437 330 -24.5
Homeless Families 847 754
-11
Unsheltered Homeless 484 239
-50.6







Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness "State of Homelessness in America" report. Get the full report at www.endhomelessness.org/stateofhomelessness2011.