“We’d rather be in the housing business instead of the shelter business,” said Michael Redmond, executive director of Upper Valley Haven, a nonprofit that serves homeless and low-income residents on the New Hampshire and Vermont sides of the Connecticut River in the Upper Valley.
The organization is working mightily to mitigate food insecurity and to provide supportive housing for people struggling with finances, addictions, mental health issues or any combination of the three.
“Our vision and values are clear: No one should go hungry or be faced with food insecurity, and everyone deserves a home,” Redmond said.
The organization was founded 40 years ago by five area churches. It is now almost entirely funded by private donations, and its services have expanded to rental education, which covers tenancy laws and basic budgeting education, courtesy of Citizens Bank; a work practice program addressing composing a resume, interview coaching, and job search assistance; community vegetable and flower gardens; a financial literacy series to help guests repair poor credit while focusing on self-esteem and wellness; continuing education for both children and adults; a Farms For City Kids summer program; and other related services. Some of these services have been scaled back or put on hold in recent months.
In 2018, the Haven provided food to 4,099 different area households totaling 11,915 people. Adjunct services were offered to 2,164 adults and 1,149 children. The organization has a paid staff of 48 and utilizes several hundred volunteers. There are no charges for any assistance the Haven provides.
As with many other nonprofits, the Haven had to cancel one of its major 2020 fundraisers, Chefs of the Valley.
“We lost $150,000 because of the cancellation of fundraisers,” Redmond said.
“We’ve been fortunate, however, as private donors have stepped up.”
Three senior staff pointed to adequate and affordable housing as the No. 1 item on their wish lists.
“There’s a stress in not having secure housing,” Community Service Coordinator Gwen Williams said. “We now go out to deliver food and to check on people living in hotels. We were up to 162 units at one point. It’s hard to access services without a car too.”
According to Williams, Cover Home Repair Inc. of White River Junction, Vt., provided both a truck and driver gratis for three months during this time of increased outreach. The Haven also works with Good News Garage to provide transportation for people receiving services.
Some 130 Upper Valley households have been moved into hotels and motels. Vermont has a voucher program for this emergency housing, a program New Hampshire lacks. Redmond cited the request for emergency housing within just Vermont as increasing from 250 pre-pandemic to a peak of 2,000. This has eased with warmer weather and the addition of eligibility stipulations.
According to data provided by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, $23.43 is the hourly wage needed in New Hampshire for a single earner to rent an affordable two-bedroom apartment.
“Family supportive housing, keeping people safe and reducing repeated homelessness are three of the goals for our guests,” Service Coordinator Ellen Hender said. “Our guests are resourceful and motivated. We help them connect the dots.”
“This is a tight-knit community,” Renee Weeks, director of shelter and clinical services, explained. “Connecting people to the community is key. Still, the most challenging part is watching people decline the services they need,” Weeks continued. “There’s only so much we can do.”
The pandemic has cost the Haven the on-site services of Dr. Bob Drake, who consulted on mental health services, Weeks added.
Haven has many success stories. One of these is Matt H., who is chronicled in a short film “Under the Bridge,” produced by local videographer Matt Gannon.
In the film, Matt H. chronicles the three years he spent living under a White River Junction overpass. He explains how he lost a successful 38-year contracting business, his family and his home because of alcohol.
“I’ve heard people behind closed doors say it’ll never happen to them,” the formerly homeless man says in the film. “Well, guess what? It can happen to you.”
Thanks to the Haven, Matt H. has been doing well in supported housing for the past three years.
According to Redmond, some people prefer to live outside during the warmer months. Haven does distribute sleeping bags, while bicycles are always in request.
Gov. Chris Sununu has earmarked $35 million to the New Hampshire Housing Relief Program from the funds directed to the state through the CARES Act. Families or individuals are eligible for one-time relief of up to $2,500, with emphasis given to those who will be able to maintain their present housing. It must be proven that there was loss of income or increased expenses after April 1 because of COVID-19.
The Housing Relief Program will also work with those transitioning from shelters to more permanent housing provided the person is working. This can include the first month’s rent and short-term rental assistance.
“The problem is that CARES Act money must be spent before 2021,” Redmond explained.
To date, only a fraction of the $35 million has been tapped, largely because of the complicated application process. The application — which was shortened at the end of Aug. 25 to make it easier to fill — is available online at capnh.org.
Food distribution during the pandemic has required a major shift for the Haven. Daily distribution is offered from a large food tent six days a week with volunteers selecting and packing. Anyone is eligible.
According to the organization’s Food Shelf manager, Lori Wick, there is a registration to receive a monthly food box with information used only to record the number of people and households being served.
“People were reluctant to come at the beginning of the pandemic, but the numbers are going up,” Wick explained. “The biggest challenge has been losing volunteers.
There’s been almost a complete turnover. Understandably, many of our 70-year-old and older volunteers have decided to stay home. It’s good to see some of them coming back. There is a greater need for the Food Shelf during this pandemic.”
Hannaford grocery stores in New London and Lebanon have been supportive with Food Shelf donations, allowing the Haven to offer a variety of produce, meat, eggs, bread, desserts and dairy. The Haven is also able to purchase food at cost from the Hanover-based Co-Op Food Stores. The Freihofer’s Bakery Outlet in Lebanon also donates two days a week.
“We don’t want to lose sight that the pandemic has resulted in an economic devastation that is quietly being played out,” Redmond said.
This piece was first published in the New Hampshire Business Review.