Pandemic adds to burdens for New Hampshire’s homeless families 

Building Exterior: The Families in Transition shelter in Manchester. Courtesy photo.

In February, things were looking good for John Hartigan and his family: his wife of 14 years and their two children, 11 and 4. Hartigan had two new jobs and the family was starting to settle into New Hampshire, where they moved last year. 

“We always went to New Hampshire for vacation, so we figured, why not live there?” said Hartigan, who previously lived in Massachusetts and Minnesota. “We fell in love with the trees, the nature, just being more in the country.”

But when the pandemic hit, things quickly changed for the family. Hartigan lost both his jobs. Because he had been at them just a short time, he wasn’t eligible for unemployment. For a while, the family lived off their federal stimulus check, but they soon fell behind on rent in their Hudson apartment. Their landlord evicted them as soon as she could, Hartigan said, between the time that the New Hampshire eviction ban was lifted and the federal ban from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took effect. 

Since September 9, Hartigan, 37, and his family have been living at The Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter. The family — along with the four others living in the shelter — have a private room to themselves. There are common areas for cooking and lounging, but during the pandemic they’ve been mostly empty, undermining the sense of community in the shelter, said Olga Cruz, the Director of Housing Services at the organization. 

“Before COVID we had families that would cook together, watch TV together, or play games,” she said. “Since COVID-19 people are tending to stay in their own rooms. I think they’re scared. I know they’re scared. It’s so lonely”

Family homelessness was an issue in New Hampshire even before the pandemic. Federal data from January 2019 estimated that 206 families in New Hampshire are homeless on a given day. There’s not yet data available that reflects changes to that data since the pandemic, but shelters around the state have reported an increase in families experiencing homelessness.

“Although we have heard from street outreach professionals that they are seeing more encampments, we don’t have data at this time to suggest an overall increase in homelessles,” said Elissa Morgolin, Director of Housing Action NH. 

The pandemic has arguably taken a toll on all families. But for families who are housing insecure, the stressors are magnified. Doing remote schooling at home is strenuous enough, but doing it in one room at a shelter is even more stressful, Cruz said. One family at the shelter had six children and two adults, all trying to be productive in their room. 

Hartigan was hoping to avoid that for his family. 

“We were living in fear all summer,” he said. 

But eventually, he realized that they needed the help. 

Remote Learning At The Shelter

Since the Hartigan family arrived at the shelter, they’ve settled into a bit of a rhythm. Hartigan’s wife looks after their 4-year-old, who isn’t yet in school, and helps their sixth-grade daughter with remote learning. During that time Hartigan tries to look for work or housing, but he often gets pulled in to help with school. 

“She really needed that little bit of extra attention,” Hartigan said of his daughter, who has special needs related to hyperactivity. 

Hartigan hasn’t been able to enroll his daughter in hybrid learning, because he’s focused on finding a home and a job, he said. He’s worried about the impact that isolation will have on his daughter long-term, especially since she just moved to the state. 

“She just started making new friends and getting to know people in the area,” Hartigan said. 

Building Interior: A family room at the emergency shelter run by Families In Transition in Manchester. Courtesy Photo

Kevin Neal understands the challenges of doing remote learning in a shelter. Neal, 28, has been staying at the shelter run by Families In Transition/New Horizons in Manchester. He’s there with his fiance and his three sons, 8, 10 and a newborn. He’s been spending a lot of time helping the older boys with school.

“I’m their teacher in a way,” Neal said. “It’s supposed to be accessible and easy for them to do assuming they have a quiet space and no interruptions, but it comes down to me needing to be with them all the time.”

Neal’s infant has had some health complications and has been in the hospital, so either he or his fiance are at the hospital each day with the baby, while the other handles remote learning for the older boys. That leaves little time to look for a job or housing. 

At the Nashua shelter, during non-pandemic times, kids typically attend school or childcare during the daytime and parents are required to leave the shelter to look for work or housing. 

“With the remote learning now, it’s going to make it harder and people will be staying longer,” at the shelter, Cruz said. “It limits how much the parents can do.”

Still, Neal said that the Manchester school district has been very supportive of his family. One of his sons attends class one day a week in-person, and a teacher even came by the shelter with supplies that the family might otherwise not have had, he said. 

Social Distancing With Limited Space

One of the key tenets of staying healthy during the pandemic is staying six-feet away from other people. To make that possible, Families In Transition/New Horizons has put policies in place limiting how many people can be in common areas. Families can reserve access to living rooms, which are limited to two families at a time, said Katelyn Gagnon, program manager, at the shelter.

Neal feels comfortable with what the organization has done. 

“It’s not overcrowded. You can keep your distance between our family and others,” he said. 

In their room, “things are as clean and germ-free as we make it,” Neal said, so he and his fiance are comfortable bringing their baby to the shelter. 

Hartigan, however, is always conscious of the extra exposure that his family has because they are living in a shelter. 

“This is scary,” he said. “I have to interact with people, [and] I don’t know where they’ve been.”

Cruz said that all homeless shelters in the state are focused on safety measures like limiting interactions and requiring residents to wear masks. Although those steps can make shelter life more isolating, she said, it’s better than the alternative. A coronavirus outbreak could shut down the shelters, leaving families even more vulnerable. 

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” she said. “We have to leave it open so they have a place to stay.”

The Lasting Impact of Homelessness

Experiencing homelessness is always a strain on families. Living through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), like homelessness, have been linked to physical, mental and emotional health consequences including increased risk for conditions from substance abuse to cancer

Cruz is afraid that being homeless during the pandemic is going to be even more taxing for families. 

“Being in the shelter with COVID-19, I think people are going to need some therapy sessions because especially for the kids it’s too much,” said Cruz. 

Hartigan is already making plans to do family and individual therapy to help his 11-year-old process the experience. For now, he’s trying to answer her questions honestly, without overwhelming her. 

“I’m trying to keep her as informed as possible without having her think about things that aren’t an 11-year-old’s problems,” he said. 

Neal’s sons have also asked about why they’re living in a shelter. While he tries to talk about it openly with them, it’s difficult. 

“Having to be labeled as homeless or whatever else you might say, it hurts to say it in a way,” he said. “It sucks to have to say that to your children.”

Still, he said that in some ways his family today feels more stable than it did when he was in a tumultuous relationship with the older boys’ mother. 

“We’re going through a hard time, but they’ve been happier than they have been in the past,” Neal said. 

Gagnon worries about the mental health toll not only on kids, but on parents too. 

“With the pandemic, because everything is so isolated, we’re seeing some high-end mental health concerns,” she said. “In general it’s really hard for families to be living in a shelter. Having the layer of parenting and remote learning, really does interfere with families’ ability to remain as stress-free as possible.”

A Problem that Precedes The Pandemic

Michael Reinke, executive director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter, said that the issues contributing to family homelessness were at play before the COVID-19. 

“The pandemic has made problems more visible that were always there,” he said. 

Families that are working low-wage jobs simply can’t afford housing in New Hampshire, he said. With state and federal lawmakers not investing in affordable housing, families are often one crisis away from homelessness. Recently, the shelter had a family whose homelessness started with a blown tire, Reinke said. They couldn’t afford to fix the tire, so couldn’t get to work. Once they lost a job they couldn’t pay rent. 

“We hear again and again,” that just one crisis can upend a family’s security, he said. Neal and Hartigan could be any number of families in New Hampshire, Reinke said.

“This is a systems issue, this is not an individual issue,” Reinke said. “The individual family will help tell the story, but we need to be thinking about what is the state of affordable housing in New Hampshire and federally.”

Neal hopes that six months from now, he and his family will have secure housing. 

“I want to say home and mean it,” he said. “I want kids to have their own secure place to lay their heads at night.”

The day he spoke with the Collaborative, Hartigan was refreshing his email every 15 minutes, waiting to hear back about housing that he had applied for. He’s picturing his family’s first night at home. 

“We’re never going to take being alone for granted again,” he said. “Just to do what we normally do: just watch TV together, to be together and have our belongings with us.”

Hartigan looks forward to the day that he’s employed and able to volunteer to support homeless families in New Hampshire, he said. 

“I’m hopelessly optimistic,” Hartigan said. “We’ve been together through thick and thin. This is one more challenge for us.”

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