New Hampshire's Housing Crisis

Ross Newton snacked on chocolate cream Yodels and watched the History Channel in a Concord motel room as he waited to find out if he would soon become homeless.

Newton has a Section 8 housing voucher, multiple case managers, Medicaid-funded services and access to free legal representation.

Yet, two weeks ago, he found himself living out of Marriott’s Fairfield Inn in Concord, unsure if the next day he would be tending to his complex medical needs in an emergency shelter.

The current harsh housing market is tough for any renter, but it’s worse for people like Newton, who is older, has significant medical issues and needs financial assistance to pay his rent. With a rental vacancy rate below 1%, finding an affordable unit in New Hampshire can be close to impossible.

Newton, 67, is originally from Portsmouth. He receives medical care and “home-making” services like cleaning and meal preparation through Choices for Independence, a Medicaid-funded program that enables independent living for eligible adults who want to avoid nursing homes.

Last week, Newton used his walker to navigate the halls of the Marriott’s Fairfield Inn in Concord. A bad fall and a COVID-delayed hip replacement have left him wobbly. He also has digestive problems and diabetes.

Humor is one way Newton copes with challenging circumstances. Asked if he had kids, he scoffed. “Not with a face like mine,” he said.

This May was not his first brush with homelessness: He was homeless once back in the 1980s and again before moving into his former apartment in Sunrise House in Laconia, where he lived in one of 12 subsidized units.

He dreams of saving up to buy a small trailer or just a place where he could smoke in his own living room.

“If I had a lot of money, I’d like to buy an acre and a half of land,” Newton said. “I want to build a place for homeless people.”

After signing an agreement in February to move out of his apartment after 90 days, Newton left Sunrise House on May 9 with no place to go.

Tom Cochran, executive director of Laconia Housing, said the affordable housing provider tried to ease Newton’s transition after he violated his lease.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Cochran said. “We pretty much did as much as we could.”

A whirlwind fortnight followed, as various people coordinating the services Newton receives struggled to find a new place for him to stay.

The housing crisis has hit people who rely on vouchers especially hard, in part because some landlords don’t accept them. A House bill that would have banned “source of income discrimination” was tabled this year.

Carolyn Virtue, president of the case management agency that coordinates his Choices for Independence services, put Newton’s belongings into storage. Virtue, who owns and operates Granite Case Management, also paid for his hotel room before knowing whether or not she could be reimbursed for the costs.

Laconia’s city welfare division paid for a Best Western hotel room for Newton through this weekend. He could have a space in a Laconia rooming house by May 23, but as of Friday afternoon, nothing was set in stone.

“As long as I have a roof over my head,” Newton said. “I’m too old to be out in the street or the cold. If some guy comes by and tries to beat my head in, I’m homeless, defenseless.”

Virtue would like to see Newton find housing somewhere that allows disabled people to live independently and receive health services in their homes, like the nonprofit housing provider Betty’s Dream in Portsmouth.

“This man is among the most disenfranchised group in the state,” Virtue said. “Nobody really believes that they will be elderly or disabled.”

Yet New Hampshire’s over-60 population is growing more quickly than any other group. By 2030, 26.3% of the population will be 60 and over, an increase of 40% from 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Tim McKernan, director of policy and advocacy at Advocates Building Lasting Equality in New Hampshire, said the organization that serves people with disabilities decided to launch a housing initiative last September.

“It’s gone from bad to practically impossible,” McKernan said of finding housing.

Most of the families associated with ABLE-NH have an adult child with intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities who receive services through Medicaid. Among more than 300 family caretakers surveyed last fall by ABLE-NH, 68% said their relative was at risk of homelessness.

The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness reported that 19% of New Hampshire’s homeless population in 2021 experienced “chronic homelessness” – a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition that describes someone with a disability who has been continuously homeless for a year or had multiple episodes of homelessness in the last three years.

“Homelessness itself can create disabling conditions,” McKernan said. “Living without a sense of security in your living space is devastating psychologically.” He knows this firsthand, from his own experience living unhoused and couch surfing.

In state fiscal year 2021, family homelessness went down in New Hampshire but chronic homelessness increased.

“With less affordable housing available, people living in emergency shelters are not exiting to permanent housing options, likely causing an increase in chronic homelessness,” the coalition’s annual report said.

Newton could be counted among those statistics this year, but it’s too early to tell. On Friday, he was moving from a Concord hotel room to one in Laconia. He hopes he can find more permanent housing and get surgery on his leg.

Someday, he wants to get a dog – a bloodhound.

“I’m going to build a new future for myself,” he said.

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