As communities address homelessness, should smaller towns should share the cost?
Reimbursement to larger communities by smaller ones can be a struggle
The town of Conway does not have a homeless shelter. But it does have a few motels.
That’s enough to draw unhoused residents in the area to the town’s welfare office to seek temporary relief. When they arrive, General Assistance Officer B.J. Parker is happy to help. With 23 years in the job, she knows which motels have the best policies for long-term stays, and when those motels might evict those residents to make room for summer tourists.
It’s the next part of the process that gives Parker headaches: paying for the service. Conway will pay for motel rooms for people in need, but if the person is coming from another town, their hometown is supposed to reimburse Conway for what has been paid.
That is easier said than done.
“They will say, ‘Well that’s not what we would have done and you didn’t call us ahead of time and whatever, so we’re not going to do it,’” Parker said in an interview, referring to her conversations with other towns. “Or they just completely ignore your email.”
It’s an aggravating conundrum, and it carries financial consequences. “You’re using our resources to temporarily house somebody and then you’re making it our responsibility when that person has lived in your town for 40 years,” Parker said. “Really?”
The issue is not unique to Conway. Many cities and larger towns that provide housing services to out-of-town residents say they have struggled to get reimbursement from the person’s hometown. The outcome, they say, is that some smaller towns are able to escape the financial ramifications of a housing and homelessness crisis that has continued to challenge the state.
This year, lawmakers are taking action. A bill that passed the Senate unanimously in March is seeking to provide balance between the town that sends its resident to get services and the town that provides those services.
Senate Bill 110 would clarify in law that a person does not lose their hometown residency just because they travel to another town for certain emergency services. The bill is currently being considered by the House.
Under the bill, anyone who goes to a different town than their town of residency and stays in a hospital, treatment program center, or an emergency housing arrangement will automatically remain a resident of their original town until they find more permanent housing. Those who leave that emergency housing voluntarily will still count as a resident of their hometown for 30 days, the bill states.
The bill is the result of a collaboration between the NH Local Welfare Administrators Association, the NH Municipal Association and NH Legal Assistance. Some cities argue it will help spread the cost burden more evenly.
“Homelessness, housing insecurity, and the need for substance use treatment, physical and mental health care are increasing across the state of New Hampshire,” wrote Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig in a letter to lawmakers in February. “… And it is critical that individuals are supported by their home communities rather than the communities where they access services.”
The bill, which is modeled after an ethics resolution put out by the Welfare Administrators Association last year, stipulates that towns and cities must “communicate and coordinate” resident welfare services, as well as any necessary reimbursements.
Advocates for the bill say it will help solidify a reimbursement process that is not used enough and will create more balance between what a larger town pays for welfare and what a smaller town pays.
“Some towns work really well together and some towns don’t work at all together – that’s what the issue was,” said Sen. Donovan Fenton, a Keene Democrat, in an interview.
Others say that restoring a fairer payment balance will help residents of larger towns continue to support providing welfare services in the first place – knowing that they won’t be saddled with unnecessarily high bills in return.
“‘If they build it, they will come,’” said Todd Marsh, the Rochester city welfare director and president of the NH Local Welfare Administrators Association. “That is often heard … behind closed doors of municipalities. ‘If we support this warming center, it will draw people from other regions, and then based on current law, we may be responsible financially.’”
The bill would help combat that narrative, and boost the goal of “maximizing municipal support for emergency housing,” he added.
And some say the bill could also spur smaller towns to take more responsibility for welfare services. Rather than pay out hefty sums for hotel or motel stays, those towns might consider other forms of housing assistance that could prevent their own residents from losing their homes in the first place.
“They haven’t really had the incentive to keep that eviction from going forward, because they haven’t really been paying for the costs of letting it go forward,” said Stephen Tower, a staff attorney at NH Legal Assistance.
“I think this gives towns more consideration of, ‘Well, we could pay the 600 bucks that somebody owes on last month’s rent, or we could be paying 100 bucks a night for the next 30 days (in a hotel),’” he added.
1861 court case
The expectation that towns pay for their residents’ services – wherever they go – dates back to the Civil War era. Back then, Augustus Sanborn, a Tuftonboro resident, became seriously ill while at his father’s house in Moultonborough. He was poor and sought medical help from Moultonborough.
The Moultonborough selectmen sent medical help, assessing that Sanborn likely had smallpox. Then they tried to bill Tuftonboro for the services. Tuftonboro disagreed that they should have to pay; Sanborn more likely had measles, not smallpox, officials contended. And they argued that Moultonborough shouldn’t have provided the services as welfare because Sanborn was not poor enough to qualify for the help.
The matter went to court and in 1861, the state Supreme Court found that the services were justified. Tuftonboro was liable for the bill.
“Where a person is found, in any town in this State, poor and unable to support himself, the overseers of the poor of such town are bound to furnish adequate immediate relief,” the court held.
Today, in Conway, Parker says she recognizes the challenges facing her surrounding towns. Many have only part-time welfare officers, offering limited hours. In those cases, a family who was just evicted may not be able to find an open office to receive those services and that Conway is the best option.
But Parker said the lax enforcement of the current reimbursement requirements means that those towns are also not incentivized to improve their own services, and work with their neighbors to find better long-term solutions.
“The town of Conway is not going to pay to take a neighboring town to court over 500 bucks,” she said. “So then what happens is these towns figure that out, right? So then they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do that more often.’”
Marsh said that he believes welfare officers in smaller towns are beginning to cooperate more with other cities and towns over reimbursement requests. But he said the bill would help to facilitate that.
“(It says) that a person needs to belong somewhere,” he said. “That people should not be treated like Ping-Pong balls.”
To Parker, the bill is not an end-all solution. Some town welfare officers could still continue sending people away and choosing to pay the reimbursement costs rather than finding new ways to help their residents. But she said the bill provided a starting point for better collaboration.
In Carroll County – the only state county lacking a housing shelter – welfare directors are beginning to work together better. Recently, Parker created a welfare director group for the county, seeking to get more towns on the same page when it comes to handing off services and finding unique solutions.
“In the face of adversity, educate,” she said. “It always works. … This law is going to give us more teeth to go on. Before, we had nothing to go on.”
This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NH Business Review and other outlets to republish its reporting.