Rockingham Struggles To Find Safe Lodging For Homeless

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(Host) Low-income advocates in Rockingham and its village of Bellows Falls are working overtime this winter to find safe lodging for people who are homeless.

The town’s overnight warming shelter is closed for lack of a zoning permit, and its supporters have been scrambling for alternatives.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The Greater Falls Warming Shelter was about to start its second winter in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Bellows Falls.

But at a series of zoning hearings this fall, some people complained that the shelter was disrupting the neighborhood.

The hearings ended in a split decision, which meant no permit could be issued. The case has been appealed to the state Environmental Court. But no one knows how long the appeal will take.

Daisy Chase, 48, was at those meetings. She was living in a tent at the time.

(Chase) "But they wouldn’t allow any of us homeless people to speak, and they downgraded us like we’re all felons – we carry bed bugs, and we just got labeled like we’re all bad."

(Keese) Chase, who suffers from depression, became homeless after leaving an abusive marriage.

She sits on a sofa at Our Place, a Bellows Falls day shelter and food pantry. A dozen clients talk over lunch at some tables nearby. As she speaks, Chase works steadily on a pair of crocheted slippers made of donated yarn.

(Chase)  "I crochet. It’s a way to give back for people who want mittens and slippers and blankets. And it keeps my stress level down so I’m not worried about things."

(Keese) When the warming shelter failed to open as scheduled in November, the operator of a homeless shelter in Keene, New Hampshire stepped in.

He arranged a van – at the Greater Falls board’s expense – to drive people in need to his shelter in New Hampshire.

(Pitcher) "There was probably an average of five people a night that went to the shelter in Keene."

(Keese) Lisa Pitcher directs Our Place and serves on the Greater Falls Warming Shelter Board. She says the transportation was expensive.

(Pitcher) "And then the weather started getting  pretty iffy and there was a lot of ice and snow and storms, and the Board just thought, ‘Let’s try to find  solutions here instead of taking people to Keene and see what we can come up with.’"

(Keese) Since then the warming shelter board has put some people up in motel rooms, while local agencies struggle to find housing they can afford.

Ronald Ramos has been sharing a motel room with two other men. He says the board made the right choice.

(Ramos) "Why send the people from this community to another community? We’re from here! This is where we belong. People think because you’re homeless it’s due to alcohol and drugs. It’s not true. It’s not like I did something bad to make myself homeless."

(Keese) Ramos worked on the railroad until an accident left him disabled. He had a home in Westminster, but lost it in a divorce.

Pitcher says people on disability or social security often live on less than a thousand dollars a month. It’s hard to find even a small place in Rockingham for less than $600, plus security deposits.

(Pitcher) "The equation just doesn’t work."

(Keese) Pitcher says the shelter’s board and another agency plan to help with upfront costs for people who do find housing.

And community volunteers who had signed up to work at the warming shelter are finding ways other ways to help.

But Lisa Pitcher says what’s really needed is more low-income housing, more housing subsidies, and more options for people with no income.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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