Homeless During the Winter

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Dover, Jacob Guyotte serves people with a smile as he hands out food and conversates with the many people that stop by there. This is just one of the many things Guyotte does to help homeless people in need during the winter months.

Guyotte currently works at the University of New Hampshire’s Grounds & Events, and was formerly homeless as a child in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He is a former community coordinator, working with people who are close to being homeless or are homeless. He was inspired to work in human services after volunteering at local soup kitchens and working with some of the people there.

“I was in the sixth grade and it was winter time and at the homeless shelter you would have to be outside all day because they expect you to be out looking for a job,” said Guyotte. “When I was there at that age there was no jobs I had at the moment. Even the children had to be out in the cold trying to find warm places. You were expected to come back at 5 p.m. that night and expected to leave for the day by 9 a.m.”

He said, “In the summer time the second time I was homeless I slept in a tent, and as a kid it was great; it was like we were camping. But when it got to be October or November, then it was really rough to be outside, it was really cold. My brother and I had to share a tent.”

With limited places for homeless people to go, shelters like My Friend’s Place in Dover and Cross Roads House in Portsmouth have maximum occupancy throughout the winter months and have to turn many people away. My Friend’s Place has eight bedrooms, and a 17-person capacity. Crossroads House has 88 beds in total.

Susan Ford, executive director of My Friend’s Place, said they’re booked completely throughout the year.

“There are a lot of people that get turned away unfortunately,” said Ford. “We are full seven days a week, 365 days a year. That said, we do get more calls in the winter months from people seeking shelter. In Strafford County we do currently have an organization that prioritizes the ‘waitlist’ for shelter. In other words, someone who is outside or sleeping in their car would get referred to an empty bed in either our shelter or Cross Roads House before someone who is couch surfing or doubled up in an apartment.”

According to the NH Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH), there has been a 10 percent increase in overall homelessness from 2016 to 2018. Strafford County saw a 45 percent increase.

According to NHCEH, Strafford County also saw a 150 percent increase in “unsheltered homelessness” between the two years. “’Unsheltered homelessness,’ which is when homeless people literally have no shelter to stay in and sleep either in the woods or another place,” said the NHCEH. Unsheltered homelessness is the most visible face of homelessness, and in many cases face the greatest barriers to stability. They often have longer histories of homelessness and higher rates of physical, mental and behavioral health challenges.

“The homeless populations down south like in Florida are a lot bigger and more spread out,” said Guyotte. “They have the opportunity to have an easier life as a homeless person and have more opportunities than around here. The cold is the big problem; it’s really hard to be homeless here. There’s no real funding or structure for people who become homeless.”

Most solutions for homelessness like shelters include a criteria for being able to get in, like staying sober.

“Our criteria for eligible clients are as followed: one, they cannot be a convicted felon arsonist or sex offender,” said Ford. “And two, they are willing to sign and agree to the house rules, major among them stay clean and sober during their stay here. We will also take clients from wherever they find us if we have space.”

This criteria works well for families who are struggling to find housing, which, according to the NHCEH, was about 42 families in Strafford County this past year.

However, over half of the people homeless in Strafford County are not in families and are by themselves.

“My Friend’s Place is hard to get into,” said Guyotte. “They except only women and children, and if you were a single male you pretty much get turned away. The single male has really no place to go.”

When homeless people aren’t accepted into the shelter, they have to look for other places to sleep, which can include the woods.

“In Dover down in the woods is a popular place and down by the rivers there was a lot of homeless people, but they cleared that out a lot so no one can stay there anymore, but behind Broadway Street by the train tracks is popular too,” said Guyotte. “When you sleep in the woods, you’re stripped of everything everyone else has, so your self-esteem just drops. It’s hard.”

As the cold temperatures continue on, My Friend’s Place is looking for possible solutions to combat homelessness in this area during the winter months, especially for single people who are homeless.

However, over half of the people homeless in Strafford County are not in families and are by themselves.

“There is a task force right now looking into a low barrier warming shelter for those that are outside,” said Ford. “This would be for singles only and no eligible criteria other than homeless and single. Right now, we need more low income housing. There is nowhere to put clients once they come in here.”

“Volunteering and doing what we can is good. It’s vital,” said Guyotte. “Donating waterproof gloves. Donating wool socks and boots. Finding out what the kids needs is very important. More importantly we need to raise more awareness with our communities and our leaders.”

For My Friend’s Place, more space is needed to shelter more people.

“I think we need more single bed spaces and a separate place for more family bed spaces,” said Ford. “Ultimately for the numbers to go down especially for families we need more housing stock to place these people into, and case managers to assist them to staying in their units.”

“We need to let homeless people know that there’s hope,” said Guyotte, “and there’s a future.”