Homeless center finds a new home

More than two years after it opened in the basement of the South Congregational Church, the Concord Homeless Resource Center has moved into a new home on South State Street.

The resource center, a project of the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness, re-opened April 4 in a church-owned building at 6 S. State St. that also houses Cornerstone Family Resources, said Marcia Sprague, director of the resource center.

"It's not a larger space," she said yesterday, "but it's our own space. . . . We pretty much had taken over the basement of the church. The church has been very generous in letting us use their space, and we've been there for two and half years. So now it gives the church back their space so they can use it for their functions."

The center, which first opened in January 2009, is now open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Staffed by Sprague plus volunteers, she said it's intended as a place where homeless people can get legal, dental and other assistance and connect with services to help them get into permanent housing.

"What we try and do is help people get on their own feet," Sprague said. "We try not to do things for them. We try to empower them to do things on their own."

The center was open 18 days in March, she said, and was visited 353 times. Thirty-six people were visiting it for the first time. The previous month, there were 265 visits in 14½ days, with 29 new faces.

(The center isn't affiliated with the Open Hands Resource Center that opened in February at 208 N. Main St., though Sprague said she hopes to coordinate with that center, which is run by members of the River of Grace Church.)

The coalition's resource center has been growing, Sprague said, and is now receiving regular grant funding and has partnered with the Granite United Way.

Hence the move to the new building, which is adjacent to and owned by South Congregational Church at 27 Pleasant St.

"Because the space was available at the community building . . . it just made sense to give them a dedicated space where they could have more independence and hopefully ease of access for the people who would be coming to take advantage of what they offer," said the Rev. Jed Rardin, South Church's pastor.

The space, which Rardin said had been vacant for a while and was used on-and-off by a smaller congregation, was renovated in 2010 by Cobb Hill Construction, 206 N. State St., which donated the work. A wall was taken down to turn two smaller rooms into one larger one, a handicapped bathroom was added along with other construction, Sprague said.

"It's a wonderful, very cozy space," she said.

The center was staying in the church basement for free, and has an agreement to use the new space rent-free for two years, said church administrator Mae Murdoch.

An open house to show off the new space is scheduled for June 1, Sprague said.

Meanwhile, with the resource center on solid ground, the coalition is looking to assemble a broad approach to fighting homelessness. About 50 people attended a public forum Monday evening hosted by the group for a wide-ranging discussion of homelessness, its causes and possible solutions, said coalition board member Maggie Fogarty.

Several years ago, when it was newly formed, the coalition "convened a lot of large meetings of interested people to share information and ideas," said Fogarty, coordinator of the New Hampshire Economic Justice Project for the American Friends Service Committee. "But then it became responsible for developing a few key projects that the community needed done," such as the resource center.

Now, she said, "the board realized that really it was up to the coalition to be this catalyst for the community coming together constantly, to be strategic, to work together."

And, Fogarty said, the coalition wants to harness the energy of the volunteers who staff the city's two emergency shelters each winter - the cold-weather shelter at South and First Congregational churches and the emergency family shelter that was at the Anna Philbrook Center this winter. Both have closed for the season.

Several committees are being formed from the people who attended Monday's meeting, she said, including boards for education and information, fundraising and advocacy. One goal: Creating a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Concord.

There was, Fogarty said, "a strong sense that solutions to homelessness were possible, and that collaboration and added resources would get us there."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)