An Interview with Jen Hunter of the Plymouth Family Resource Center


On January 25, the United States completed its annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. Though the final numbers for 2024 are not available yet, homelessness from 2022 to 2023 increased by 52%, and New Hampshire has a growing housing crisis that may see even more residents experiencing homelessness this year.

Municipalities are often on the front lines. Over the past year, we have heard that one of the most difficult challenges for towns is to meet the needs of people who are homeless or at risk of losing housing. Another challenge is to engage this community and gain input from these vulnerable community members, even when they are the people we most want to hear from.

Jen Hunter

I connected with Jen Hunter, Community Engagement Director of the Whole Village Family Resource Center in Plymouth. Whole Village serves individuals and families in 19 towns throughout lower Grafton County, providing social services, information and referrals, parent education, family fun nights, play groups, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), family supports and case management. They also host offices for partner agencies, including the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Jen has spent decades working to support vulnerable families, so I asked her what lessons she would share with municipal housing advocates to help them reach the people she works with. Although this series focuses on housing, her advice applies to community engagement around any topic.

Connect with local service providers. Organizations like Granite United Way have been working with at-risk and economically marginalized people in the community for decades, and they can help you to understand the trends and current problems. Unfortunately, marginalized people have not always been heard in our local forums. Local service providers, however, have a track record of listening to and meeting the needs of marginalized community members, and they bring that reputation and those positive relationships with them. Collaborating with local service providers and organizations will help you to build trust.

Educate yourself, volunteers, and staff about homelessness and what resources are available locally to support vulnerable people and families. If you do interviews or focus groups, you want to know what people are talking about. You also want to be able to connect people with additional resources that might help them. Do your homework first. A local service organization will be happy to help with this.

Do it online and make it accessible over the phone. Many at-risk residents of your town do not have access to reliable transportation or to the internet. A solution to this is to make your community engagement events hybrid and make surveys and other similar tools accessible from a cellphone. This is especially important in the White Mountains and further north, where winter storms can impact roads and power for many months out of the year.

Provide a meal and think about the kids. People who are very low-income often make decisions based on where they will be or how they can feed their families. On top of the existing challenges posed by public meetings that start around dinnertime, these meetings mean that people who are food-insecure may be asked to choose between eating and participating in civic activities. You can address this by providing food at your community engagement activities like forums, focus groups, and informational sessions. Further, these families may not have childcare available in the evenings. To help parents participate, provide childcare or a way for children to take part in the activity, too.

Finally, Jen mentioned the stigma around homelessness, which is a growing problem as the housing crisis pushes more people into precarious housing situations and homelessness. It is important to learn the stories of real people who have experienced homelessness to understand why and how it happens, what helped them, and what barriers still exist that we can break down. For some groundbreaking work on this, Jen recommends checking out WMUR’s 2023 series, Faces of Homelessness, which features interviews with different people who have experienced homelessness across New Hampshire. Jen believes this campaign is a massive step toward peeling back the stigma and building true understanding.


WMUR Faces of Homelessness

WMUR Homelessness in New Hampshire: Shelters, resources, statistics

Whole Village Family Resource Center

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing homelessness or need resources to help you stay in your housing, call 211 to get connected to resources in your area.