‘It’s become a crisis’: Homelessness in the Upper Valley
Many factors contribute to the issue in the region, while local organizations work to support homeless folks.
This article is featured in the 2022 Winter Carnival special issue.
Students have bumped up against the Upper Valley’s housing crisis over the past two years, but the region’s lack of affordable housing has also caused a significant number of local residents to face housing insecurity. In the Upper Valley, where homelessness manifests in a rural setting, a lack of visible indicators can create the guise that it doesn’t exist.
Homelessness is extremely difficult to quantify due to the number of different conditions under which a person could be considered homeless — couch-surfing, sleeping in a car or living in a motel all may or may not be considered conditions of homelessness under different survey mechanisms. One “Point In Time” survey counted the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January. The survey conducted by several community organizations on Jan. 26 found that at least 110 people are experiencing homelessness in the southern Grafton County area alone.
In addition to counting the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, PIT surveys can help community organizations determine how best to allocate their limited resources, according to Heather Griffin, the assistant programs director for LISTEN Community Services, a non-profit that helps underserved communities in the Upper Valley.
“We were able to gather [that] we definitely need a shelter on the New Hampshire side, and more homeless outreach, because it was the outreach organized on that day that was really helpful in gathering accurate numbers,” Griffin said.
While LISTEN provides services such as community dinners and food pantries, thrift stores and monetary support to go toward housing or heating costs, they do not operate a shelter. According to a report published by the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy’s Policy Research Shop in June 2020, the primary shelter that serves the Upper Valley area is the Upper Valley Haven, located in White River Junction. However, the closest shelter in New Hampshire is located in Claremont, a 40-minute drive — or a seven-hour walk, for those who do not own a car — from LISTEN’s food distribution center.
In addition to providing shelter for up to eight families and 20 individual adults between two different shelter facilities, the Haven helps people find permanent housing and runs the Food Shelf, which Haven executive director Michael Redmond said serves up to 7,000 local families each year.
“Our real intention — our real goal — is that no one should be homeless,” Redmond said. “Putting it positively, everyone should have a home. That’s why we focus on support.”
Both LISTEN and the Haven, in addition to other community organizations, have faced difficulties during COVID-19: In addition to limitations on their services — the Haven’s shelters, for example, are still operating at half capacity, and the organization is not running its regular winter shelter — there are now more people than ever in need following pandemic job losses.
“It was a challenge prior to COVID, but it’s become a crisis at this point,” Griffin said.
Griffin explained that because many local residents lost their jobs during the pandemic, or were forced to work fewer hours in order to care for children no longer attending school in person.
“Some of those households that were just getting by could no longer get by,” Griffin said.
While LISTEN and other community services were never closed during the pandemic, Griffin said that increased need has caused the organization to “get stretched kind of thin at times.”
Both Griffin and Redmond did note a silver lining to the pandemic: Griffin said that Listen received additional grants to purchase cell phones and service cards so that homeless individuals could more easily contact doctors and landlords, and Redmond said that the state of Vermont offered more motel rooms for a longer period of time to homeless individuals this winter than in previous years.
In addition to the pandemic community organizations face challenges in providing aid due to the lack of visibility of rural homelessness.
“Rural homelessness is a hidden phenomenon — you don’t see people on sidewalks as frequently as in D.C. or New York,” said Matt Gannon ’22. “It really requires work on the ground in addition to educating oneself about housing security and food insecurity.”
Gannon, who has produced award-winning documentaries that have raised money for and awareness of people experiencing homelessness, is currently working on starting a student coalition to aggregate knowledge about the local homeless community in order to encourage students to get more involved in the Upper Valley community.
“Engaging with the Upper Valley community is so essential to a complete Dartmouth experience, and it’s also absolutely essential to addressing issues like homelessness and housing insecurity or food insecurity in the Upper Valley,” Gannon said. “I think students can be a huge help in addressing those issues if we just take the initiative to step outside of Hanover and step outside of the Dartmouth bubble.”
Despite the limited visibility of the homeless population in the Hanover area, Griffin and Redmond said that students can help provide support in a variety of ways, including holding drives for food, winter coats, pet items or menstrual health products as well as volunteering at food pantries or community kitchens.
“Just to keep staying informed, stay interested, care — often just that in and of itself, when people actually can look at [the problem] and see it and care, that's huge,” Griffin said.
Gannon said that he believes that Dartmouth students have a responsibility to learn more about how their presence at the College can impact the issue of local homelessness.
“Dartmouth College is the reason that rents are so high in these areas, and that really puts the onus on people who benefit directly from this institution to be engaging with the community and finding out how our mere presence in the area is affecting people's lives,” he said. “That is something that we should be really careful to think about.”
Matt Gannon ’22 is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff.