Keene Sentinel Editorial, April 15, 2018
The Hundred Nights shelter will “officially” close for the winter season in a day or two, and it’s fortunate it’s stayed open this long, given the poor prognostication powers of a certain Pennsylvania groundhog Feb. 2.
Despite the unusual length of this winter season, Hundred Nights has had fewer guests than a year ago. That’s not because demand is down — the shelter has been at capacity virtually the entire winter — but because the city has clamped down, making clear the shelter would face repercussions if it takes in more clients than it’s licensed for. (Hundred Nights would like to add that we agree with their reasoning – which is why we need a bigger space.)
Since Hundred Nights’ unsuccessful request for a variance to move into a larger space on Rear Washington Vernon Street last May, an effort mainly thwarted by opposition from neighboring property owners, it’s become apparent there’s a growing discomfort in Keene for the shelter’s clientele, that at times borders on anger.
We’ve seen it when drivers at key intersections roll down their windows not to offer help to those asking for money, but to hurl insults at them. We saw it in social media posts after one familiar downtown panhandler won a lottery prize. It’s been made clear in letters and columns on our pages, and it was very evident in the public discussion last year regarding the proposed Hundred Nights move.
Surely there are several factors behind this resentment. From some, there’s a clear message that panhandlers could find regular jobs if they really wanted to, and that the homeless seen on the city’s streets could rebound if they were willing to play by the rules of conventional society — and there’s some truth to this. Perhaps seeing street people is off-putting because it reminds us how close to that edge we are ourselves. The prospect of being approached and asked for money may lead to guilt because we don’t help as much
as we really could, or it might trigger a fear of being confronted, or even accosted.
And maybe some people in the region just aren’t as compassionate and empathetic as we’d like to think they are. Whatever the cause, the dynamic is clear, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Hundred Nights may wrap up its winter season this week, but that doesn’t mean it will be empty.
The shelter and drop-in center, like other agencies, offers help year-round in various ways to those who need it most. If you see its clients and think they’re “not like us” — that the issues in their lives are far different from those you face — consider who will remain in the shelter once its season is done.
According to director Mindy Cambiar, while some clients are moving on to couch surf or head elsewhere, and others are looking to set up camp somewhere in the woods or another quiet place during the warmer weather, a few stragglers will stay behind because they physically can’t leave. They’re too sick.
This is an aspect of the area’s homeless population few ponder day to day. When Cambiar and her staff and board say their clients are just like everyone else, they don’t mean in terms of habits and circumstances, though that’s sometimes true. They mean the people they help also face the same issues everyone else does. That includes the same health problems we’re all subject to: heart conditions; allergies; infections; cancer.
There is a safety net in place to help the most-needy get medical help, but it has limits. Even those with more robust health insurance plans will reach a point where they’re told they must convalesce elsewhere. Most of us return home to be cared for by relatives, perhaps with some assistance from a visiting nurse or aide.
But if they didn’t have that option, where might they go? Even the county nursing home, which exists to care for the elderly and infirmed, has limited space, capped by law. Most of us have, unfortunately, had someone in our lives touched by a serious, debilitating, even terminal illness; someone who had to be taken in and cared for. It’s a common occurrence.
So, the next time you’re thinking of “those people” — the ones served by Hundred Nights, The Community Kitchen, Southwestern Community Services and other agencies — picture such a friend or relative, if they didn’t have that caregiver at home or the resources to be placed in a nursing home or rehabilitation center.
Where would they be? And how would you think of them?
*From the Spring 2018 Newsletter