For the latter part of summer and into early fall, Jamie Shue lived an easy walk to her job as a hostess at a West Lebanon restaurant.
It wasn’t as ideal as it sounds.
Shue, who is six months pregnant, and her partner, Damien Harrington, became homeless in late summer. With nowhere to go, Shue and Harrington, both 25, bought a tent at Walmart and set up camp in a patch of woods near the Connecticut River.
The proximity to Shue’s work is “why I chose this spot,” said Harrington, who as a kid had explored the woods and fished the river.
After hearing about a homeless encampment behind a Route 12A shopping plaza, I headed in that direction last Monday. Two men were coming out of the woods. They didn’t live in the encampment but had a friend who did, they said.
They introduced me to Harrington, who said he and Shue were the only ones currently staying in the encampment.
How did they end up homeless?
The lack of affordable housing in the Upper Valley is only part of their story. As a young adult, Harrington struggled with substance use but is doing better now, he told me.
Still, “we were constantly broke,” said Harrington, who is unemployed and looking for a work as a mechanic.
After months of “couch surfing” and staying in hotels when they could afford it, the couple’s fortunes improved earlier this year when Lebanon’s welfare office connected them with the nonprofit Tri-County Community Action Program.
Tri-County gets its name from serving New Hampshire’s three most northern counties — Grafton, Carroll and Coos.
Tri-County and four other community action programs were started in New Hampshire in the mid-1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
It’s a war the U.S. still hasn’t won, and the COVID-19 pandemic made it even more of an uphill battle.
In 2020, Congress enacted the $46 billion Emergency Rental Assistance Program, or ERAP for short, to help people who were struggling to pay rent and utilities, among other things. Money was also available for temporary housing in motels and hotels.
In February 2021 — just weeks before the federal money started pouring into states — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced the five community action programs would “accept and process applications and payments” for the emergency housing aid.
New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, a quasi-state agency, was put in charge of overseeing the program. New Hampshire Housing, as it’s known, was established by state law in 1981 to finance and promote affordable housing.
New Hampshire Housing contracted with the five community action programs to do ERAP’s “on-the-ground” work, Executive Director Rob Dapice said in an interview last week.
To qualify for ERAP, residents must show they’ve experienced financial hardship related to the pandemic and are at risk for homelessness. Their household income has to be 80% or less of the area median income. That puts the income ceiling at about $49,000 for a single person and $70,000 for a four-person household in Grafton County.
Shue and Harrington are among 25,000 New Hampshire households who have qualified. As of Sept. 23, New Hampshire had distributed $221 million in ERAP funds since March 2021, according to a state online dashboard.
More than $176 million, about 80%, has gone for rent payments. Grafton County residents have received $16.2 million in total assistance, including $7.9 million for rent.
Tri-County has also used millions of ERAP dollars to pay for the homeless to stay in motels and hotels. (I couldn’t get my hands on a precise dollar amount last week, and more on that in a bit.)
The Quality Inn on Route 120 in Lebanon is among the lodging establishments that Tri-County works with. Since April, the motel’s 47 rooms have been by occupied entirely by ERAP recipients.
Shue and Harrington arrived at the motel in early July. Without a car, Shue rode to and from work on an electric bike that the couple made regular payments on at a rent-to-own store. Thank goodness for the Northern Rail Trail, which runs between Lebanon and West Lebanon, she said.
Motel living can be chaotic. The last time I checked, Lebanon cops were averaging about 20 calls a month to the Quality Inn.
“The calls vary,” Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts told me, rattling off a list that included drug overdoses, assaults and thefts.
Other guests were always knocking on the couple’s door while Shue was trying to rest between her restaurant shifts, Harrington said.
Pregnant with her first child and working a job that requires her to be on her feet much of the time, Shue finally got fed up. She taped a note to their room door, asking in no uncertain terms for people to stay away.
“I work, and I mind my own business,” she told me during an afternoon break outside the restaurant on Monday. “I just got tired of people bothering us for no reason.”
Shortly thereafter, Shue and Harrington said they found a note under their door. The motel’s management wanted Shue and Harrington out by the end of the day. Apparently, management was under the impression that the note was directed at them when it wasn’t, Harrington said.
“They didn’t like the note,” he said. “They kicked us out onto the street.”
On Thursday, I talked with Ketan Rawal, Quality Inn’s general manager about what had happened. Shue and Harrington were “never informed they had to leave,” Rawal said. “They were good guests.”
If that was the case, I asked, could the couple return?
“No, I don’t have any rooms now,” Rawal said.
Shue and Harrington hoped Tri-County could help them find new lodging.
No such luck.
“They said they want to help people, but once you get kicked out of a place, Tri-County drops you,” Harrington said.
I figured it must just be a case of miscommunication. Tri-County has been given the task — and millions of dollars in public money — to help the homeless weather the pandemic. With winter looming, why wouldn’t Tri-County do everything it could to make sure a pregnant woman and her partner weren’t sleeping outdoors?
In interview with Tri-County CEO Jeanne Robillard last week, I brought up the couple’s plight. She explained what Tri-County does — and doesn’t do — in its ERAP role.
After verifying that applicants are eligible for help and enrolling them in the program, Tri-County gives them a list of motels and hotels that have indicated a willingness to take in ERAP recipients. Tri-County is aware of 13 motels and hotels in Grafton County that accept ERAP funds.
But getting on the phone or sending out emails on behalf of needy people who have lost their temporary housing? It’s not a Tri-County priority.
Robillard assured me, however, that people who are tossed out of a motel can still have their lodging bills covered by ERAP. They just need to find a place on their own.
Easier said than done.
Most hotels and motels limit the number of rooms available to the homeless, if they take them at all.
This summer, the Quality Inn, operated by Jamsan Hotel Management, of Lexington Mass., stopped taking homeless families and couples. Only individuals are welcome.
“I had a bad experience with two or three families,” Rawal told me. “They were always fighting.”
After not getting anywhere with Tri-County, Shue and Harrington recently turned to Listen, the social service nonprofit based in Lebanon. A Listen social worker is helping figure out what public assistance is available to them and, just as critical, navigate the paperwork.
Where’s Tri-County in all this? As I see it, a big problem is geography. Tri-County’s main office is in Berlin, N.H., a two-hour drive from Lebanon. Out of sight, out of mind.
Tri-County has a large presence in the state’s so-called North Country. It operates a dental clinic in Tamworth and Cornerstone Housing North, which has a dozen affordable apartments for seniors. Tri-County also runs homeless shelters in Lancaster and Littleton.
Lower Grafton County, meanwhile, is an afterthought.
Not surprisingly, Robillard disagrees. Tri-County assists Grafton County residents with rent, electric and heating bills and home weatherization, among other things. In Lebanon alone, 1,260 households received $6.6 million in assistance last year, she said.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Robillard, who has worked at Tri-County for 26 years, including the last five years as CEO. “Clearly, we’re not sitting around the office drinking coffee and eating bonbons.”
Tri-County rents a fourth-floor office in the old Citizens Bank building in downtown Lebanon. I’ve stopped a few times in recent week and found the door was always shut. Only once did someone answer, but she wouldn’t give me her name. I didn’t see any signs for office hours.
The case manager who works out of the office is often out in the field meeting with clients, Robillard said. “You can’t be in the office, answering the phones all the time,” she said.
Tri-County also employs two homeless outreach workers who leave food and other supplies at homeless encampments in Grafton County, Robillard said.
Lynne Goodwin is Lebanon’s human services director, a position she’s held for nine years. From what she’s seen, Tri-County’s efforts with the homeless in Lebanon fall short.
“The reality is the police are performing much of the homeless outreach,” Goodwin said, mentioning the laminated cards with phone numbers for social service agencies that Lebanon cops give out when they encounter a homeless person.
If Tri-County is visiting homeless encampments in Lebanon, Goodwin said she wouldn’t know. Tri-County has told her that privacy laws prevent it from sharing any information with the city, Goodwin said. As far as ERAP goes, Goodwin points to the state’s online dashboard that shows how much money is being awarded and the services provided. Grafton is the only county where less than half of total assistance went for rent.
Where has a lot of the federal money gone?
A big chunk — $7.5 million — shows up in the online dashboard’s “other expense” category. Of the $16.2 million in total assistance handed out Grafton, 46% is listed under other expenses — far more than any of the state’s nine other counties. The statewide average was 10.9%.
From reviewing ERAP’s federal guidelines, I think it’s safe to presume that a hefty amount in the “other expense” category covers payments made to motels and hotels for taking in the unhoused.
Robillard wouldn’t confirm it. Tri-County is “not authorized to speak about the program,” she said. So I asked Dapice, New Hampshire Housing’s executive director, how much of Tri-County’s $7.5 million in other expenses has gone to motels and hotels.
“We don’t have that information at our fingertips,” he told me. “It’s not tracked in a way that is readily available.
“We’ve been reluctant to release information that is too granular,” he added. New Hampshire Housing wants to protect the privacy of ERAP recipients, he said. It’s also concerned that motels and hotels in the program could suffer, if more of their financial information became public. Lodging establishments that have a large number of occupants who were previously homeless can be frowned up in their communities, he added.
That’s true. The homeless are often viewed as second-class citizens. The reputations of hotels and motels who cater to them can suffer.
But when we’re talking about millions of taxpayer dollars, the need for transparency and accountability trumps privacy concerns of private business. The public has a right to know who is profiting from a program dependent on tax dollars.
New Hampshire Housing and Tri-County also aren’t saying what taxpayers are footing per night for rooms at individual hotels and motels. Rawal, the Quality Inn’s general manager, declined to say how much his motel was charging. Tri-County and the other community action programs examine rates to “decide if they’re reasonable,” Dapice said.
“The hotels price their rooms,” Robillard said. “They are what they are.”
It’s rumored that ERAP funding could end as early as December. When the money runs out, New Hampshire’s cities and towns will likely be picking up lodging bills under state law.
It’s Goodwin’s job to figure out who was a Lebanon resident when they qualified for ERAP and is staying in one of the city’s motels. If they aren’t Lebanon residents, the community in which they’re from will be responsible for paying their lodging bills after ERAP shuts down.
Tri-County hasn’t been very forthcoming with information about the people living in the three Lebanon motels that the Valley News has reported is accepting ERAP funds. “We do not control where people go,” Robillard said. “It’s up to them.”
Goodwin credited Tri-County with “getting a roof over the heads” of many of the unhoused during the pandemic but wishes it was doing more to find them permanent housing. It could also do more to help the unhoused sign up for food stamps, Medicaid and other public assistance programs as stipulated in New Hampshire Housing’s “administrative guide” for the community action programs.
“I don’t expect Tri-County to do it all,” Goodwin said. The city and Listen have “tried to work cooperatively” with Tri-County, but a “partnership hasn’t materialized,” she added.
I asked Listen about its relationship with Tri-County.
“At Listen, we frequently get calls from folks who are looking for resources for housing and work together with local partners to try to find solutions for them,” Angela Zhang, Listen’s program services director, wrote.
Robillard wasn’t as diplomatic. Tri-County’s services “may not line up” with what the city and Upper Valley nonprofits expect, Robillard said: “An expectation that (Tri-County’s) outreach services will solve the issue of homelessness or eliminate unsheltered people in Lebanon is unrealistic.”
Where does that leave Shue and Harrington?
They moved out of the homeless encampment last week, after city officials informed they couldn’t remain on city property and gave them a week to leave.
After I brought their situation to Robillard’s attention, she emailed that her staff was reaching out to the couple.
I hope something can be done soon. Nights are getting colder.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.