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Ruais Unveils New Initiative to End Homelessness

Mayor Jay Ruais is moving to address Manchester’s homeless crisis, announcing a new initiative Tuesday to connect homeless residents with the help they need to get into stable housing and improve their lives.

“We got to make sure we’re getting people what they need,” Ruais said. “The ultimate goal is getting them out of this and breaking the cycle.”

While Ruais’ clashes with Adrienne Beloin, former director of the city’s Housing Stability program, dominated headlines in recent weeks, the mayor has been focused on rolling out his pragmatic plans to alleviate homelessness.

Ruais’ proposal for new Resource Fairs at the Beech Street Engagement Center will feature dozens of partner agencies sending representatives to meet with homeless people, connecting them to healthcare and recovery services, as well as education and employment opportunities. 

Ruais has 10 organizations like Hope for NH Recovery, Anthem, Amoskage Health and Workpath joining the new effort, along with long-time partners like Catholic Medical Center, Easter Seals, and the Farm Center. Those providers will be at the weekly Resource Fairs, meeting with people who need help. 

The fairs will be held Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. Ruais hopes to expand the times and days. There will also be a new database of contact information that people can access outside of the fairs to get connected with participating agencies.

The city is focused on addressing homelessness as a solvable problem where people can have hope to get into a better life. Ruais said that requires addressing the reason why people ended up on the streets, and working with them to find realistic solutions.

“Homelessness should be rare, brief, and one time,” Ruais said. “A stay at a shelter should be temporary.”

Beloin took a $57,000 payout to leave her job last month after she publicly fought with Ruais and members of the Board of Aldermen. Beloin accused them of interfering with her job when they raised questions about her effectiveness, while she advocated a slow approach to getting people off the streets. 

Beloin was a holdover from Mayor Joyce Craig’s administration which saw the city’s homeless crisis worsen. After a number of homeless people died in December 2022, Craig called on Gov. Chris Sununu (R) to send in National Guardsmen to fix the city’s problem. 

Sununu declined.

Ruais won the mayor’s race by defeating Craig’s handpicked successor, Kevin Cavanaugh. Ruais made addressing the homeless crisis a top priority. He said Tuesday the drive has been to quickly enact policies that will help people and lift the quality of life for the whole city.

The resource fair announced Tuesday is just part of Ruais’ response. A major barrier for some homeless people seeking services or employment is the lack of a driver’s license or state ID. The city is addressing that by partnering with Catholic Charities and Members First Credit Union. Ruais said 19 people have already been able to get copies of their birth certificates and then state IDs.

The macro-economic challenge facing the homeless is the lack of affordable housing — a problem that impacts the entire state.

To promote the creation of more affordable housing in the city, the Board of Aldermen is set to declare 15 parcels zoned in residential and mixed-use areas as surplus, meaning that property can be auctioned off. Ruais plans to use the auction proceeds to fund affordable housing initiatives in the city. 

He’s also pushing for changes in Manchester’s zoning ordinances to make it easier for people to add so-called in-law apartment units and build multi-family homes. More housing stock would help drive down rental costs and make it easier for people to get their lives on track, he said.

Post-COVID, Chronic Absenteeism Hits Manchester Schools Hard

On her way out the door, former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and her fellow Democrats approved a $290 million bond to fund new school construction across the district.

The question now is, who’s going to show up to attend them?

For years, Manchester enrollment has declined, even as spending has soared. But the impact of the COVID pandemic has contributed to a new problem: chronic absenteeism. Kids are enrolled, but they’re not showing up.

According to New Hampshire Department of Education data released this week, Manchester’s high school reported an 85.7 percent attendance rate for the 2022-2023 school year, among the lowest in the state.

Chronic absenteeism is when an individual student has at least 10 or more unexcused absences from school per year. The state average for high school attendance in the 2022-2023 school year was 90.8 percent, and the average for all grades was 92.3 percent.

Manchester’s total attendance for all grades was 89.2 percent.

(New Hampshire’s data does not differentiate excused absences from unexcused, leaving the public with just the rate of attendance.)

Manchester is hardly alone.

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute using data from 40 states and the District of Columbia estimates that 26 percent of public school students were chronically absent last school year, up from the pre-pandemic rate of 15 percent. This study defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of a school year, which is nearly a month of classroom instruction.

New Hampshire, with one of the best-educated states and top-performing education systems, isn’t seeing numbers as low as the national average. But attendance among Granite State students has declined, and Manchester Mayor Jay Ruais tells NHJournal city leaders know they need to do more to get kids in class.

“School attendance is critically important, particularly coming out of the pandemic and mitigating the learning loss experienced during these unprecedented times. The Manchester School District initiated an attendance campaign last summer, which has played an important role in increasing attendance in the schools,” Ruais said.

“We are not where we want or need to be, but by embedding attendance goals into the core objectives of every school, we are reaffirming our commitment to providing a supportive and conducive environment where every student has the opportunity to succeed academically.”

Student attendance took a major dip during the pandemic years, and while the rates in New Hampshire are improving, Manchester Superintendent Jennifer Chmiel Gillis said more is being done to get kids back into the classroom.

“In the last year, we hired a district-wide attendance coordinator and launched our Show Up Manchester attendance campaign,” Chmiel Gillis said. “Additionally, schools have built attendance improvement into their yearly goals. We are now starting to see the early fruits of these efforts between the district and schools, with attendance increasing at all grade levels. We have more work to do, but we are encouraged by the progress and will continue moving forward.”

Experts say the social isolation that was created by social media and boosted by extended school closings is fraying the social connections between children and making it easier for less-motivated students to stay home.

A similar dynamic may be at play in schools, where experts say strong relationships are critical for attendance.

“There is a sense of, ‘If I don’t show up, would people even miss the fact that I’m not there?'” Charlene M. Russell-Tucker, the commissioner of education in Connecticut, told The New York Times.

Jason Bedrick, a Research Fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, told NHJournal that while the causes of the current crisis are complicated, the disastrous impact of COVID-related closure cannot be ignored.

“A significant factor is almost certainly the prolonged and unnecessary school closures that the teachers unions pushed. School closures sent the implicit message that attending school in person was not necessary. Putting the genie back in the bottle won’t be easy,” Bedrick said.

Data on private school attendance rates in New Hampshire is not available.

A representative for New Hampshire’s Department of Education told NHJournal that public school attendance is once again heading in the right direction. A decade before COVID, the state’s schools averaged 95 percent attendance. In the 2021-22 school year, it fell to of 90.8 percent. Now attendance is up to 92.3 percent — a marked improvement.

“Following an academic period when respiratory illnesses often resulted in above-average absences, attendance in New Hampshire’s public classrooms are not only steady but strongly improving,” the representative said.

But in Manchester that year, attendance fell to 87 percent, and among high school students, it was a dismal 82.4 percent.

And, critics say, the Manchester School Board didn’t help matters last November when it changed school policy and ended the practice of giving a “no grade” to high school students who have five or more unexcused absences in a class they are passing.

“There are parents who take their children out of school to go away on vacations or to go for an extended period of time back to their home country, and think it is acceptable for their child to have missed school for days or weeks with no consequence,” school board member John Avard said at the time.

Manchester’s Combative Homelessness Czar Resigns Before Hearing

Hours before her termination hearing in front of Manchester’s Board of Aldermen, Housing Stability Director Adrienne Beloin took a deal to resign her post and end her public spat with elected officials.

Beloin walks away with a $57,000 payment, according to sources, after she spent weeks trashing board members in public when they began questioning her management of the city’s Beech Street shelter. Aldermen complained about Beloin’s condescending answers to their questions and her refusal to follow the board’s guidance.

When asked for comment, Mayor Jay Ruais’ office released a statement: “The personnel matter has been resolved, and the mayor has received Ms. Beloin’s resignation effective tomorrow, April 12, 2024. The mayor will not be commenting on personnel matters.”

Beloin refused to accept the board’s policy and said it lacked the necessary experience to set the agenda for her department.

“I know it’s very hard for you to understand what the work is that we’re doing, because this is not your field of work,” she told Aldermen at a public meeting last week.

Beloin doubled and tripled down, going to the media and blasting the board for pushing her out and claiming it lacked the expertise to instruct her regarding homeless policy.

At one point, she claimed the board giving her an office in the Beech Street shelter was retaliation.

Beloin’s lack of a permanent office in city hall was something she wanted corrected, but apparently balked when given an office in the shelter she oversaw.

While Beloin tried to turn the controversy into a personal issue between herself and individual board members, a source close to the negotiations told NHJournal the real problem came down to policy.

It was Beloin’s refusal to be accountable to elected leaders and to follow their policy directive that ultimately ended her tenure.

“This isn’t personal; it’s policy. She refused to do what the board wanted. What else were they supposed to do?” the source said.

Another city insider told NHJournal Beloin was protected by former Mayor Joyce Craig, who kept her away from aldermen who questioned how she did her job.

According to a report by the Union Leader, Beloin’s settlement included $27,064.36 in wages, $25,000 for compensatory damages, and $5,000 for attorney fees.

Manchester’s homelessness crisis, and Craig’s mishandling of that crisis, is seen as a primary reason for Ruais’ win in the mayoral race last year. The Republican ran on a promise of fixing the problem.

Beloin is now the city’s second Housing Stability Director to leave since the position was created a few years ago. The first director, Schonna Green, suddenly quit in 2022 after about a year and a half on the job, citing personal reasons.

Manchester’s homelessness crisis peaked in the winter of 2023 when a homeless woman gave birth to a child at an outdoor camp, and two people died in their tents. Homeless camps dominate parts of Manchester’s downtown, and those camps account for at least half of the city’s opioid overdose calls.