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Warming center offers hope for the homeless in Strafford County | Social Issues

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People who are experiencing homelessness in Strafford County say a new emergency cold weather warming center offers hope that they will be able to survive the winter.

“We’re human like everyone else, just in different chapters of our lives,” Michael Dart said last week.

The Rochester man has been living in his car on and off for the past three years. Dart said he is grateful that he has a vehicle.

“Living in your car is different than living in a tent. There’s less chance of being robbed. If you need to move, it’s much easier. You don’t have to move under the cover of darkness,” Dart said.

Dart said last Wednesday that he has stayed the night at the warming center at 30 Willand Drive in Somersworth for several nights since it opened on Dec. 16.

Last winter, leaders in the cities of Somersworth, Dover and Rochester worked together to provide overnight emergency warming locations in area churches and other municipally owned facilities. Because of COVID-19 concerns, that practice cannot be relied upon this winter.

“There is truly a need for an alternative location to be established this year,” Dover City Manager Michael Joyal told his city council during its Dec. 2 meeting.

That night, councilors accepted a $975,240 grant from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority (NHHFA) to cover the $749,900 purchase of the building and land, closing costs, equipment, supplies and staffing needed to get the facility up and running.

“Grants like this are just a godsend,” Dover Mayor Robert Carrier said of the CARES Act money. “This is wonderful for those people in need.”

City officials requested additional funding for an emergency backup generator. Grant monies from NHHFA covered those costs and it has been installed. A sanitizer was also installed into the HVAC system to help protect against the spread of COVID-19.

Diane Graham said the new warming center is a blessing because many places where she could typically stay during the day in the winter months are closed, or are extremely limited in their capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graham said the struggle is heightened by the fact that people who have secure housing often judge those who are without a permanent roof over their heads.

“There’s the horrible stigma that all homeless people are drug addicts,” Graham said.

Having a place to be is important to people without secure housing because so much daily energy is spent on survival when you are without shelter, Zralarm America of Dover said.

“We spend a lot of time going from place to place to place,” America said.

“You can’t do anything if you can’t be in any one spot.”

Jess Clay of Somersworth has been helping at the warming center and said during a phone interview on Wednesday that anyone who spends a few hours there understands that the people who need these services are complex and dynamic individuals who need a hand up.

“A lot of them play music. They have hobbies. They all have a story,” Clay said. “They’re in a situation. It isn’t who they are as a person.”

Some homeless shelters have strict rules, including curfews, bedtimes and restrictions about going outside for a cigarette after a certain time, according to people who were staying in Somersworth last Wednesday night.

Sandi Denoncour, who was helping put together dry bags at the center, said the only rules there outside of following COVID-19 protocols are “no substance use on site and don’t be a jerk.”

“This is all about harm reduction and keeping people safe. It’s about keeping them safe while they make their own choices,” Denoncour said.

Dover Fire Chief Paul Haas said last Thursday that over 50 different people have stayed at the warming center since it opened just before Christmas.

“It at least lets people make it to the next day,” Haas said of the center.

Haas, emergency management officials from Somersworth and Rochester, and staff at the center will determine this winter when the weather is severe enough to warrant opening it for the night.

“We would like to keep it open all the time when the weather is bad, but unfortunately the challenge is staffing,” Haas said.

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