Mark Hayward's City Matters: Welcome Home mat worn, but still welcoming
All sorts of different kinds of homes exist in Manchester, from a tarp and sleeping bag beside the river to stately North End mansions.
Somewhere on the lower end of this range, you find Welcome Home/The Prayer Hall.
Opened nearly 12 years ago, Welcome Home is a 48-room rooming house in the Janesville section of the city. It started as a nonprofit organization, with a mission to help struggling people - including families with young children - to their feet one step at a time.
Nowadays, the welcome mat is a little worn at Welcome Home.
Two years ago, the city Welfare Department stopped placing people there after several clients complained, said Welfare Director Paul Martineau.
"I don't need people to go there and come back and indicate they're not happy," said Martineau, who added clients can still bed at Welcome Home if they're OK with it.
Last year, another nonprofit housing organization - The Way Home - visited Welcome Home and found pesticides within easy reach of children, possible mold, clutter in hallways and possible lead-paint hazards.
The Way Home said the premises is unfit for children under the age of 6.
But city inspectors visited Welcome Home last April and found only minor problems, such as cracking paint on an inside door, said Kevin Kincaid, part of the city's multi-department inspection team. The manager fixed those problems, and he was working on a bigger problem of bedbugs, Kincaid said.
"There are worse places," Kincaid said. "Any time there's high turnover it's not going to be in the best shape. From my observation, I'd say it's managed properly."
"For a lot of people in this building, this is the last stop," said Julio Chea, the daytime manager who runs Welcome Home. He said he still works with the city Welfare Department and the Way Home, and inspectors are always going through the building.
We sat in an office cluttered with papers, tools and pesticide spray cans. We walked along narrow hallways, with worn floors but bright, clean walls of white and blue tones.
We peeked into the $135-a-week rooms, some neat, some cluttered.
The city has its share of social-service agencies - Families in Transition, The Way Home, Helping Hands - that will house people and prod them toward self-sufficiency. Even New Horizons homeless shelter provides a social worker to the homeless.
At Welcome Home, Chea said what happens outside his doors doesn't matter. Residents just have to follow the rules when they're inside 286 Concord St. - no drugs or alcohol, no fighting, shirts and shoes in common areas, clean up your mess, pay your rent on time.
"I'm not a caller," he said. "I don't call DCYF. I don't call the police department unless I absolutely have to do it."
He said a part-time employee with the state Division for Children, Youth and Families lives at Welcome Home, and agencies are always coming into the house to meet with families and hold parenting classes.
Thirty-five children were living at the house this week, most with single parents but a few with intact families. The third floor is reserved for them. It includes a common area with microwaves and hot plates. (The kitchen is shut down because Chea can't afford the $14,000 to bring it up to code.)
Adults live on the other two floors. Parolees, whom Chea insist make for good tenants, live on the ground floor.
Chea said crises come nonstop. A tenant gets cut from food stamps. A hospital calls and needs a room for a patient. A washing machine breaks down. A parolee isn't home when he should be.
Just recently, he got rid of disruptive tenants who weren't properly using their medication.
"There's too much noise, but I like Julio for a landlord," said Tasha Smith as she sprayed cleaner onto the door to her room. She shares the pull-out bottom of a bunk bed with her 9-year-old son; her 11-year-old gets the top bunk.
She said she gets by on food stamps and state welfare, which she uses to pay for her room.
Smith said she was living at the Families in Transition shelter on Liberty Street but moved out because she was getting nickeled and dimed. ($6 a week for laundry, she complained.)
Stephanie Waites, 25, shares her room with her three children. She moved into Welcome Home after getting kicked out of her mother's house.
She lives on $710 in disability payments and $668 in food stamps. She doesn't like to be alone, so the rooming house provides the security of having people around. Some residents hold petty grudges over things such as a size of a room, Waites said. But Waites has made friends with others.
"It's kind of like I'm renting a room out of my house, and everyone keeps to themselves."
As Waites speaks, her 7-year-old boy arrives home from Wilson School, dressed in neat, clean school clothes. Her 4-year-old daughter has her hair in braids. She gives Chea a hug and asks for candy.
"Our No. 1 priority in the building is the kids," Chea said. Some 1,700 children have gone through Welcome Home in 11 years - 372 of them newborns who came from the hospital to Welcome Home, and three who were actually born there, he said.
Chea said lead is not an issue. Replacement windows were installed years ago, and the city has issued a certificate deeming it lead safe, he said. However, the city Health Department said it has nothing in its files about 286 Concord St. when it comes to lead, officials said.
Neither city inspectors nor The Way Home actually tested for lead. Smith, whose son suffered from lead poisoning when they lived in an apartment, said she doesn't see lead paint in her room. No bugs either, she said.
Chea said he spent $4,500 last year on bedbug eradication, only to have a tenant violate rules and bring in used furniture along with hitchhiking bedbugs. He said he quickly sprayed and believes he eliminated them.
"Do we still get them? Yeah," Chea said. "I get them. Everybody in Manchester, the whole city, has them."
Last August, the city gave Welcome Home a three-year certificate that deems it in compliance with health and safety codes. An initial inspection found 35 violations, ranging from missing outlet coverplates, to missing windows, to faulty smoke detectors.
After three months, the repairs were completed, and a certificate was issued.
Meanwhile, Chea, who is 60, said he's ready to give it up in a year, take his motorcycle and move out West. But within an hour, he talks about opening a similar rooming house, perhaps at the soon-to-be-vacated Farnum Center.
"There just isn't enough affordable housing in Manchester," he said. "Everybody's coming here."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.