The woman who calls herself Zelda wears pink eyeshadow and doesn’t want to live in the tent in the woods along the Merrimack River. If she had what she wanted, the New Hampshire native would be in a house in a sunnier location, like Savannah, Georgia, or maybe Beverly Hills.
Later this month, she will abandon her temporary home not to move into a warmer climate, but because the owner of the land south of Black Hill Road in Concord near Exit 13 of Interstate 93 wants develop the wooded area where she and a dozen or so other homeless people live.
She is already on several waiting lists for accommodation but nothing has materialized.
“Just because you have all your ducks in a row doesn’t mean you don’t have to wait,” Zelda said. “Very patiently.”
In the meantime, she plans to pack up her tent and move to another encampment in town, joining the slow exodus of homeless Concord residents leaving the site of the old drive-in cinema before October.
The 22 acres on a triangle of land sandwiched between Manchester Street and the highway are owned by a family trust, which is in the early stages of applying for the city’s approval for plans to turn the area into a huge mixed-use development with up to 266 apartments spread over five buildings, as well as a gas station, a car wash, a sandwich shop and a convenience store.
Subsequent plans could include a supermarket, medical office building, restaurant, assisted living facility, and independent townhouses.
Landowner lawyer Ari Pollack said contractors would start clearing the area in late September or early October to make it more attractive to potential development partners.
“It is a difficult and delicate situation and we are trying to manage it as best we can,” Pollack said. The landowners have asked Concord police to coordinate the removal from the encampment, but have yet to ask the police to make arrests if people refuse to move.
Deputy Chief Steven Smagula said that while Concord Police have the resources to perform a sweep – effectively evicting everyone within hours – a slower approach gives residents more time to move their belongings and allows for a little more dignity.
“We decided that the best course of action was basically to spread a soft message first, through awareness,” said Smagula. This means Julie Green, clinical director of case management at the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, reminds people she sees every week that they must move out by the end of September.
“At the end of the day, the million dollar question is’ where do I go? “, and we never have a good answer for that,” Green said. She and other Coalition staff can help make calls to shelters, get people into drug treatment or apply for housing, but the waiting lists are long.
“Some of our people have already applied for emergency housing through New Hampshire Housing, some of our people have applied for Concord Housing Vouchers,” Green said. “Most people, due to the delay, will have to move to another location in Concord because applying for vouchers is a tedious process.”
When she started telling people the landowners wanted them to leave, Green said there were 30 to 45 people staying there. Those numbers have declined to close to 15 or 20. Some have managed to find more permanent housing, including a veteran who Green said had been homeless in Concord for 12 years and now has a place to live in. Nashville, Tennessee.
Later this month, police will give a more formal notice to anyone still present, accompanied by outreach workers.
“The agents will inform who they’ve spoken to that the owner wants to chase them, and then…” said Smagula.
Police and lawyers used a similar outreach strategy to dismantle a camp between the freeway and Storrs Street this spring, executing a planning process that took eight months.
Some of the displaced people from Storrs have moved to the current Black Hill Road settlement, Green said. She expects many of the people who are leaving now will remain homeless, moving their tents or cars to unused land elsewhere in Concord to start over.
Most of the people living on this overgrown land have been homeless for a long time.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a person as “chronically homeless” if that person has a disability and has been living in an area unsuitable for human habitation or in an emergency shelter for more than a year. While the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness prefers the broader term ‘long-term homelessness’, the organization focuses primarily on people who have been homeless for years, rather than families or those who briefly lose their homes. .
“The focus is on the long-term homeless because they use most of the resources,” said Gregory Lessard, director of housing initiatives for the Coalition. Without a plan to help people who may have nested issues like substance abuse, criminal history, or severe mental health issues find housing, communities end up depending on expensive emergency services like hospitals, police, and firefighters. .
While palliatives like the emergency winter shelter act as necessary band-aids, Coalition Executive Director Ellen Groh says real solutions require finding ways to permanently house people in one place. where they can access services. About two years ago, his organization realized that housing for their clients simply did not exist and that the coalition needed to take a more active role in building these homes.
“The problem is really the lack of housing,” says Lessard, “it’s very difficult for everyone to have housing, and for our clients, it’s particularly difficult.
The Coalition has a multi-year plan with different housing solutions for people living in long-term homelessness and aims to permanently house around 130 people over the next six years. Some of these strategies include providing housing services with round-the-clock support services, convincing landlords to rent to their clients, working with developers to reserve units in future projects, and purchasing land for housing people in mobile home parks.
Groh and Lessard say the Coalition plans to present the various avenues they are working on at the end of October.
Meanwhile, if Concord residents want to help their homeless neighbors, Groh said they can volunteer with the Coalition or sign up for legislative updates from Housing Action in New Hampshire or groups. national organizations such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“You break the encampment, everyone will disperse until you break the next encampment. It’s going to happen again, they’re going to go somewhere, ”Lessard said. “There will be fewer and fewer places out of sight of the public.”
Zelda knows that people lucky enough to live in homes make assumptions about people like her – that everyone who lives without a home is drug addicts or bad people. But some people develop addictions after becoming homeless, she said. Others are unlucky or have no support to bounce back from making a mistake.
“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Some people are very, very smart and have made bad choices, ”Zelda said. “My mother made a bad choice. She had an alcoholic for a boyfriend and he kicked me out.
She’s one of the few women at the camp near the Merrimack, and she tries to keep the men who remind her of the Lost Boys of Neverland online. It can be a stressful place to live, but there is also friendship and solidarity between people united by the absence of a safety net.
“It’s not just about being homeless and using drugs. It’s not that at all, ”Zelda said. “It’s about being a community and supporting each other.