ROCHESTER — The Homeless Center for Strafford County says it has increased its entry requirements, including some related to mental health and recovery, to better protect the children they serve.
Some area welfare directors and elected officials say they worry the decision limits or takes away one of the pathways available to a population that already struggles to find assistance.
Jeremy Hutchinson, chairman of the Tri-City Mayors’ Task Force on Homelessness, was among those who made strong allegations this week while voicing their objection to the Gonic shelter’s changes.
“I think it’s shameful that the Homeless Shelter of Strafford County would use children as a fear-mongering technique to perpetuate the myth that being homeless is synonymous with being dangerous or addicted,” said Hutchinson, a Rochester city councilor. “I believe this organization may be exercising discriminatory practices within their high-barrier entry requirements to cherry-pick who receives life-saving services.”
HCSC is a nonprofit six-bedroom shelter that operates from October to May in a Waste Management-owned building on Isinglas Drive. It accepts single women and families, but like most New Hampshire shelters doesn’t accept single men.
Since the start of this season, HCSC has required “stabilization.” New Executive Director Tracy Hardekopf said that means individuals must produce a physician’s note or other documentation to show they are receiving treatment for their mental health and substance use disorders, as well as documentation for the factors they tell intake staff have influenced their homelessness.
Other new HSCS eligibility requirements for this season include one that mandates individuals spend 15 to 20 hours a week on caring for themselves or the shelter, or on volunteering or working in the community, according to Hardekopf. The center also now requires, according to its website, that adult members of a family to show birth certificates that prove they are legal parents in order to be sheltered there.
When asked about the changes, Hardekopf said she doesn’t see them as an indicator HCSC is a now a “high-barrier” shelter or discriminatory because she feels the requirements are being misconstrued. She also claimed the changes are based on “some very specific evidence-based reports,” while Hutchinson claims he has evidence-based reports that show more shelters need to operate as “low-barrier” shelters.
According to Hardekopf, HCSC has never been a “low-barrier” shelter in its 20 years of existence. She also said HCSC uses the new entry requirements to ensure staff know the shelter is the “right place” for any given person or family, and so they know where they can send them if HCSC isn’t that right place.
“Everyone we’re seeing tends to be on a very healthy path,” Hardekopf said, adding her shelter had 16 people Thursday and an intake scheduled for Friday. “We have a strong mix of adults and children here. One of the very important things with housing children is avoiding really adverse childhood events for them.”
HCSC has reportedly recommended that those denied shelter due to the new requirements seek assistance through Community Partners, a local social service agency, and Goodwin Community Health.
The increase in entry requirements has resulted in some Dover residents being turned away this year when they would’ve been accepted in past years, according to Dover Welfare Director Lena Nichols. Nichols said her office and the city are instead using taxpayer dollars to temporarily house those people in local motels because other area shelters are full.
Local welfare departments’ use of motels has increased in recent years as homelessness and the demand for affordable housing have outpaced shelter availability and other resources, officials have said.
Rochester Welfare Director Todd Marsh reported he’s chosen not to refer some individuals to HCSC because he knows they wouldn’t be able to meet the new requirements. He claimed HCSC is requiring people provide verification that they have gone 90 days in recovery since their last substance use, have been taking prescription medications for 90 days, and have gone 90 days since the last occurrence of their mental health symptoms.
Farmington Welfare Director Erica Rodgers said she’s found it “definitely has been difficult” to place clients at HCSC because many of them don’t qualify.
Nichols, Marsh and Hutchinson said the new requirements are disappointing, particularly since local municipalities appropriate money or allocate federal grant dollars for HCSC. For instance, Rochester contributes $20,000 from its annual budget, in addition to having a 1-year-old consideration agreement that gives the city first priority when HCSC has beds available.
Hutchinson said HCSC’s entry requirements changed after the city’s funding and agreement were finalized. He said he’d like to work with HCSC to ease the new requirements. However, should the requirements remain unchanged he said he would be prepared to propose Rochester revisit whether to fund HCSC. He said he’d also motion for his task force to recommend other communities do the same.
“I personally don’t think a city should be contributing money to a facility such as HCSC while they’re actively turning away our own citizens for the very things we know are part of why they are homeless,” Hutchinson said. “Instead of helping them, we’re giving them a cold shoulder. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Hutchinson also voiced strong opposition to HCSC’s birth certificate requirement to prove parenthood. He said there are many forms of a family in which a person isn’t biologically or legally considered to be a child’s parent or guardian.
Marsh, who was HCSC’s original director when it was created in 1998, said he hopes the center revisits its entry requirements. Marsh said the shelter was created as a “moderate-barrier” shelter and he believes the new requirements are outside its “original and historical intent.”
“The homeless center has a right to change from its historical course, but I hope the board of directors and shelter management reconsiders,” he said.
When asked for a response, Hardekopf said she would love for welfare directors to contact her if they have concerns and that she’d be happy to discuss the changes with them. She said her center has reached out to the departments when rooms have opened due to individuals transitioning out of the shelter. She said rooms have opened in that manner twice so far this season.
“I can tell you there has not been huge rate of declining people entry here,” she said. “That’s not something we’ve experienced at all.”
At the same time, Hardekopf said she’s “not in the least bit offended” that area officials have raised concerns or questioned the shelter’s change in entry requirements.
“I think there’s nothing wrong with all of us being very motivated to serve people who are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “While each group’s approach may be different and we may be coming from different angles, we all want the same thing, which is to be out of business.”
According to area officials, Portsmouth’s Cross Roads House is the only “low-barrier” shelter on the Seacoast, but it isn’t a wet shelter and no substance use is permitted on the premises. My Friend’s Place in Dover is considered a “moderate-barrier” shelter, they said.
They also said organizations like Hope on Haven Hill in Rochester, Lydia’s House of Hope in Somersworth, Seacoast Family Promise in Exeter and New Generation in Greenland are considered “specialty” shelters because they serve specific populations.
Hardekopf came to HCSC this year after 11 years with New Generation. When asked if the new HCSC requirements are modeled after New Generation, Hardekopf said no, that “every shelter has requirements” and she wouldn’t speak “to what other shelters are doing.”
The Homeless Center for Strafford County is in the middle of a $500,000 capital campaign to create a new, larger year-round shelter by summer 2021. Area businesses have already committed to providing in-kind services. More information about the campaign can be found on the shelter’s website, homelesscenterforstraffco.org.