Director Jake King of the Manchester Homeless Services Center installs a new countertop on Tuesday afternoon at their 140 Central St. location. The center will re-open Monday at 8 a.m. (Bruce Preston/Union Leader)
MANCHESTER — A center that provides daytime, indoor space for homeless and destitute people closed this week, and plans to open next week with a new emphasis on getting help to those who want it, organizers said.
The changes follow a realization that the Manchester Homeless Services Center, started four years ago at the behest of downtown businesses, may have ended up enabling homelessness, acknowledged Susan Howland, director of homeless services for the city.
“I never really liked going in there and seeing a bunch of chairs facing the television,” Howland said. “We might have made it a little easier (to be homeless). You had a place to go and a place to be.”
Gone will be nonstop movies and TV shows, she said. Social service agencies have committed to providing access to programs such as job-skill coaching and counseling, and to benefits such as food stamps.
New Hampshire Catholic Charities will still provide a free noontime lunch. But unless people are attending an afternoon class or have an appointment with a social service agency, they will be asked to leave at 1 p.m., she said.
The day center operates on $150,000 a year, which comes from Granite United Way, the city of Manchester and several foundations. Located at the former Helping Hands building at Pine and Central streets, the center sees an average of 140 people a day and has counted as many as 200 visitors in a single day, Howland said.
The center opened to fanfare in 2010, after the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce complained to then-Mayor Frank Guinta about homeless people hanging around downtown and in the park, said Charlie Sherman, the executive director of New Horizons New Hampshire, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Sherman said the Chamber walked away from the effort after opening day. The day center cycled through directors rapidly, and it never had a plan, he said.
Sherman said the day center worked against the efforts of New Horizons, which assigns a case manager to its homeless clients and expects them to work toward self-sufficiency. Many ended up in front of the television at the day center, he said.
Sherman, whose organization put in an unsuccessful bid to run the day center, is not sure if the changes will work. “From one o’clock on, there’s going to be maybe two people in there,” Sherman said. “Where is everyone else going to be? In the park?” Police Chief David Mara said he’s not sure what will happen with the day center’s new approach. Early last month, police increased patrols downtown and in the parks, he said.
“We’re just prepared to make sure everyone complies with the law,” he said.
Mara said he remains a supporter of the day center. He said a refocused day center may make Manchester less attractive to homeless people and actually reduce the homeless population.
This week’s closing allows for some renovations — a new front counter, tile in the shower, new computers, and repairs and maintenance.
Once it reopens, social service agencies will offer access to social workers from various agencies in the mornings. The television will show morning news, but then be limited to instructional programs. After 1 p.m., the day center will be only available for people with appointments or those interested in classes that will be offered by organizations such as New Hampshire Legal Assistance, the YWCA and Serenity House, Howland said. Howland said drug problems have contributed to the day center’s atmosphere. Drug addicts caused “issues and turbulence,” which proved disruptive, especially to people in recovery.
“It seems,” she said, “to be always the same people.”