WHAT HAPPENED TO GENE PARKER?
WHAT HAPPENED TO GENE PARKER?
This past winter, a car struck and killed a homeless man in Concord, N.H. His name was Gene Parker.
He lived on the streets for five years and in that time, his friends and advocates fought hard to get him into an apartment. But he died before that could happen.
So what happened to Gene Parker?
Just off Main Street in Concord, N.H., there's a steep drop down a set of concrete stairs, into what’s basically a hole in the ground. Gene Parker lived down there one winter.
He had no legs by then. Parker’s friend Liza Urena tells us he dragged himself down into this hole and didn’t come up for a month.
Just a few weeks after his death, Urena brought us to a bunch of Parker’s old sleeping spots. They were best friends. She still has all these voicemails from him on her phone.
This is the last one he left her, 20 minutes before the car hit him.
Here is a picture of Parker in those last years of his life: scraggly gray beard, sunburned face, wheeling down Main Street, panhandling at intersections.
Most of the time he slept on the fringes of the city, in bushes, under bridges, along train tracks.
The federal government reports they make up only about 15 percent of the homeless population. But at least half the money spent on homelessness goes to this small group.
Gene Parker had just about all those obstacles. And those obstacles made his life on the street very dangerous.
Andy Labrie of Community Action Program has seen a lot of his chronically homeless clients die on the streets of the state capitol.
And from the moment Labrie met Parker, he says he knew how to save his life: get him an apartment.
That sounds really simple but advocates, doctors, the White House all call that the solution. Just giving chronically homeless people saves lives and lots of taxpayer money. But it hasn’t gained much traction in New Hampshire.
So as the years ticked by and the longer Parker was on the street, the harder it was to climb out of it.
Gene Parker was a really complicated guy. Andy Labrie says it wasn’t his job to judge him.
"There were good parts of Gene and bad parts of Gene, just like the rest of us. Gene made some mistakes and he unfortunately paid for them - with his life in the end," he says.
The first reason Parker was homeless, and the reason you may decide to not like him, was that he was a sex offender.
Decades ago, Parker was living in Wilton, married, and a father. That’s when he sexually assaulted two children. He served nine years in prison, and in 2010 was released right into homelessness.
Public housing, shelters, landlords almost always say no to sex offenders. So Parker slept outside, often illegally. Concord police had 89 interactions with Parker between 2011 and 2016.
Parker bought time however, and wherever he could.
In the messages, you can hear Parker is sober and coherent sometimes, and drunk other times.
Parker was a serious alchoholic; one friend told us he could drink 36 beers in a day.
Dr. Dominic Geffken works at a clinic at Concord Hospital, where Parker spent a lot of time. Geffken says studies show homelessness cuts life expectancy by twenty years.
"Nutrition, you know, so those kind of basic things we take for granted," he says. "They might stay out until they have a heart attack and not get preventive care."
People like Parker are also more vulnerable to uncommon, traumatic injuries. Like the one where he lost his legs in the winter of 2013. Parker kept warm with an open propane flame inside a plastic tent, which is as dangerous as it sounds.
And one of those nights his tent caught fire, Parker burned his legs really badly. A few days later he passed out drunk, outside, and woke up with frostbite.
Which sent him back to the hospital, this time for a double amputation.
Around then is when he met Alyssa Norton, a homeless 20-year-old alcoholic who became one of his closest friends, and one of the handful of people who helped keep Gene Parker alive.
"You could tell on the inside he was like, really, 'What the hell’s my life now?'" says Norton.
Here’s what Gene Parker’s life was, after he lost his legs: Norton pushing him in his new wheelchair down to the street to buy booze. Literally dragging himself into campsites, or somewhere to have a bowel movement.
Liza Urena and Alyssa Norton both told us his tent got so bad they cleaned it for him a few times.
"That was horrible," Norton says. "We found spiders, dead mice, mice that were alive. I mean, yeah...no. no. Moldy food, stuff like that. Even thinking about it I can smell it."
In what would turn out to be the last year of his life, the idea that Gene Parker would ever dig himself out of chronic homelessness seemed pretty much impossible. For everyone who knew him, just getting Parker somewhere indoors felt like a matter of life or death.
Advocate Andy Labrie even worked with the cops to get Parker into jail for three months—for not re-registering as a sex offender, which he had to do four times a year.
But then, just as winter 2016 was coming, Labrie’s work to find Parker a home looked like it was paying off.
"I found this landlord who said he would take him," Labrie says. But he thought it was better to wait to tell Parker.
"I didn’t tell him this time because it blew up last time. I just told him he should expect to be going someplace. I didn’t think it was going to be heaven...or hell," he says.
But on January 28 of this year, Gene Parker ate dinner at the soup kitchen and wheeled out into the snowy, wet night, not knowing that somewhere across the city the paint was literally drying on an apartment for him.
He was navigating the shoulder of I-393, when a car hit him. He died three days later at Concord Hospital.
He had just turned 62 years old.
DO N.H. CITIES ASK HOMELESS PEOPLE TO DISAPPEAR?
DO N.H. CITIES ASK HOMELESS PEOPLE TO DISAPPEAR?
Drive the highway between Manchester and Concord, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of the tarps and tents lining sections of the Merrimack River and the train tracks.
When winter shelters close, homeless people find refuge outdoors, in public—but that’s an act that’s often against the law.
But with no unified policy to work with, New Hampshire's cities tend to make it up as they go.
We’re outside the Friendly Kitchen, a meeting place for homeless people in Concord—it’s a couple hours before sundown, and folks here are lingering, nervous to head back to their sleeping places.
"We’ve had the Concord PD say if we police ourselves they’ll leave us alone. Then you have another officer come down and it’s the opposite," Mike Barton tells us.
It’s April, and the first week of the year officers are out shutting down homeless camps.
Barton, who’s homeless, and Melissa Sieredski, who used to be homeless, say talk at dinner tonight was all about when police officers might show up and tell them they need to leave.
We ask them if the cops shut down all the camp sites in the next week, where are the homeless people going to be sleeping?
"We’re gonna have to sleep on the sidewalks down on Main Street," says Barton.
Sieredski jumps in: "That’s what’s gonna end up happenin’ and then there’s really gonna be a lot of trouble. They want them out of the city. Do they think we’re just gonna disappear?"
That’s a question that rings all across New Hampshire’s cities—and no one really seems to have the answer. Public policy tends to answer it with where they aren’t allowed to go.
Lieutenant John Thomas of the Concord Police says he sends out officers to homeless camps when he get complaints—about anything from open beer cans to violent assaults, even murder. And he says three summers ago he got so many complaints that the city just cleared them all out.
"I’ll tell you if you saw when the city cleaned up and down Storrs Street? I mean when I’m telling you tons I mean in weight tons of trash left by some of the camps that were down there I mean it actually made some folks like disgusted, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’"
All that stuff left behind—it went to a landfill. But the people who got cleared out—they just went somewhere else.
Lt. Thomas says he’s not trying to make homeless people’s life harder.
The Department of Justice agrees. Last year it filed a brief that said making it illegal for people to sleep in public places, when there aren’t shelters that can take them criminalizes homelessness.
Some cities in New Hampshire have backed away from rules against camping or panhandling, while others still choose to enforce them.
And through these layers of conflicting policy, it’s unclear for homeless people what their rights actually are.
Which means if you’re living on the streets of New Hampshire’s cities, you’re expected to pull off a kind of magic trick: make yourself disappear, right in plain sight.
This is the fragile geography of homelessness.
Kevin Kintner, who directs programming at New Horizons, Manchester's biggest shelter, takes us to a bridge overlooking the city.
"You want to be away from backyards," he says. "You don’t want to have too many private owners who can see you. You want to kind of hide," he says, and points up the Merrimack River to the rocks under the Granite Street Bridge, a spot he says people always camp, despite how dangerous that can be. "And we always worry about them when the river rises because people actually can get trapped over there. There was actually someone that drowned not too far from there a couple years ago."
Most of these spots Kintner points out from here are on public property. And he says the Manchester police know about them, but most of the time, they leave them alone. Thirty miles up the river, Lieutenant Thomas of the Concord PD says most of the time, that’s how it should be.
"There is a no camping policy on city property. But if I sat here and told you, ‘Yeah, we’re shaking everybody off city property’? I’d be lying to you. If you’re outta sight outta mind and nobody’s complaining about you, the last thing we wanna do is bother you and up root you."
In the middle of a sunny May day, Walt Healey lies on a bare mattress a few feet from the train tracks in Concord. Cars and trucks on Route 93 make a constant roar. He's set up camp here hoping this spot won't get him in trouble--he says last time he chose the wrong spot it sent him to jail—three months, for trespassing.
"Right. I did three months. I was crossing the tracks behind the liquor store? And bingo, they hooked me."
Guys like Healey say they know their best option is to stay out of the way, even if it means sleeping alone on the highway. But just a couple days after we met, Healey got hooked again--arrested for trespassing right at that spot.
Sitting up in his office in Manchester’s City Hall, Mayor and Republican Gubernatorial candidate Ted Gatsas says for most of his constituents, homelessness is mainly a cosmetic problem.
Gatsas’s city, Manchester, is New Hampshire’s biggest—and it’s the latest to be sued by the ACLU for approving policies that target the homelessness—this one is against panhandling. But every city handles it differently.
Concord cracked down on camping and panhandling. Meanwhile, Rochester officials repealed a panhandling ordinance after a lawsuit. Nashua’s City Council passed a panhandling ban twice, but both times, the mayor vetoed it. And just this summer in Lebanon, a hundred people showed up at a city meeting to protest a camping ban—the protesters said it wasn’t a solution to homelessness, and the City Council didn’t pass it.
Manchester Mayor Gatsas says there’s only so much a city can do. "I can only tell you that some people want to be homeless. They don’t want any help. They want to live under a bridge. They’ll be homeless no matter what you give them. So some people make that choice," he says.
On that night last April, outside Concord’s soup kitchen, we met a guy named Kevin. He told us he didn’t think the city was treating him or other homeless people fairly. But he also didn’t seem like he had any option but to sleep on the street.
"I just love bein’ outdoors," Kevin told us. "I don’t like being confined inside. I don’t stay inside very long if I can help it."
With that, Kevin walked down toward the tracks, back somewhere we can’t see him.
It’s nearly impossible to say how many homeless people there are in New Hampshire. And the biggest reason is that most people without a home in this state aren’t on the street or in shelters—they actually have a roof over their heads.
Some stay on friends' or families' couches; some rent rooms by the week at a place like the PK Motel in Effingham.
A woman named Ami lets us into her room up on the second floor of the PK Motel. Her long brown hair is pinned up high. She holds an unlit cigarette in her hand. "Like I said I don’t have sitting room. You can sit on the edge of the bed."
Ami, who asked us not to use her last name, has packed her whole life into this room: plastic bins of clothes, boxes of canned food she gets from the food pantry and heats up in her microwave.
The object that she says is most important to her: a photo of her holding her daughter in the hospital just after she was born. "I’ve never been without that picture. That picture’s always been beside my bed," she says.
Ami says her life really fell apart after her partner assaulted her so badly that in order to heal, she had to have metal rods and screws put in to hold her spine together.
"Sleeping is very difficult. I have days where I can get up and I can move around pretty good and it’s an OK day. And I have days where I can’t. So since I don’t know what days are gonna be good, how do you really hold down any kind of job?"
Because of her injury, Ami collects social security each month. Nearly all of that, $550 a month, goes to paying for this room.
The PK Motel rises up over a big, dusty parking lot, part way down a rural road in Effingham, close to the Maine Border and wedged between the lakes and the White Mountains.
The place looks more like a warehouse than a motel.
It's not a place families stop on vacation. It's where local town welfare offices send people when they're out of options. And behind each of these doors are stories of people stranded by poverty - stories about addiction, violence, rural isolation, bad luck, and bad choices.
Ovi Charast lives two doors down from Ami. He's 31, and says he’s stuck because he can’t get a job. "Jobs around here are tough," he says. "The rates aren’t that good. They’re awful."
And he says even if he had a job, he couldn’t get to it because - like a lot of folks at this motel - he doesn’t have a car. We meet him just as he's about to walk to the nearest grocery store--it's three-hours, round trip--with his friend Francesca Wright. She says when most jobs are low-wage and part-time, it’s hard to get a leg up and out of a place like this.
"I work at McDonalds. I’m 30 years old. I’ve got 15, 16 years experience, and they were paying me $7.75 an hour."
Over on the other side of the building, Stephanie Agiton stands outside her room. She has a car and a job. But on the day we meet her she tells us she can’t get to work because she didn’t have money for gas.
"I don’t like living here but I do it because, at least it’s a roof over our head."
She lives here with her fiance and two babies. She’s 20 years old. "I mean I have food stamps but it doesn’t last the whole month," she says, "because I have to buy formula – my son, my youngest one’s three months and my oldest is a year and half."
Her boys are the third generation in her family to have lived out of motels, homeless. Like other folks we talk to, she wants to find an apartment, but can’t scrape together first month’s rent and a security deposit, which around here adds up to about $2,000.
A lot of people got here because they were running away from something. Agiton’s fiance says he became homeless as a teenager. He ran away from home after his father put a gun to his head.
Sitting on the stone step outside her room, Vicky Leathers says this motel is a refuge for her and her husband. Next to her is a bed of flowers they put in as soon as they arrived. The flowers are plastic but she says next year they’ll plant real ones. The Leathers moved here from Maine a couple months ago. They’re vague about why they left, but Vicky says there were surrounded by drugs and drug addicts.
"It’s time that my husband and I had a life of our own, because we’ve always been raising our grandkids. And between us we have 22."
Mark Leathers roll up on his electric wheelchair he got from the VA. He wears camouflage pajama pants and in his lap there’s a tiny red dog sprawled out on its back. It’s a miniature Pomeranian, Mark’s service dog. "He likes to be held like a baby," he says.
Back up in Ami’s room, she says she’s been homeless for months. But before the PK Motel, it was worse. "For a couple nights, I have to laugh about this, I actually slept in a laundromat for a couple nights because it was warm," she says.
Ami says she’s been on the waitlist for subsidized housing for eight years. In the meantime, she lived in substandard apartments - one place had no heat. After ending up at the laundromat, she met a social worker who told her about the PK Motel. Ami lives here on her own. Her daughter is 19-years-old and in Philadelphia. And Ami says of all the times in her life to be stuck in this motel, she says at least it wasn’t when her daughter was still little and living with her.
"But then they say all things happen for a reason," she says, as she starts to cry. "Because I could not imagine being a mother and being in this situation. To have children and be in this situation? That is what would horrify me. That’s what would scare me. That’s petrifying to me and thank God I was never there when I had my child with me."
Most of the time, though, Ami says she’s working on an exit plan--on the phone with insurance, family court, the housing authority. She says she actually has a deadline for herself to get out of here.
"This January coming up I’ll be 50. Wow…it happens fast. And I hope not to be homeless, or staying at the PK, at 50. I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed."
That’s one thing a lot of people who live in these rooms have in common--they're thinking about leaving, they just don’t know where they’re going yet.
Ten years ago policy makers in New Hampshire made an ambitious promise: to end homelessness by 2016. We haven’t gotten there yet.
Cathy Kuhn directs New Hampshire’s coalition to end homelessness and joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to discuss where the issue stands today.
Listen to their conversation below, or click here to read the transcript.
Communities in New Hampshire are grappling with this question: where are homeless people supposed to go? Cities tend to answer that question by spelling out where homeless people can’t be, imposing bans on panhandling and camping.
One city that recently came together to strike down one of those bans—Lebanon, N.H. Tim McNamara is on the city council there and was at the public hearing where over 100 people turned out. He joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to talk about these issues. Listen to their conversation below, or click here to read the transcript.