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After Rejecting Ban, Lebanon Weighs Holistic Approach to Homeless Camps

Doug Kerr
Downtown Lebanon, NH

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. That's often called criminalizing homelessness.

We hear now about 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.

So take us to that night in June, when so many residents came to speak out against this ordinance, this ban. What would it have done, and what was the argument against it?

Let’s take a step back. This ordinance had been in draft form for about 18 months before that, with our previous Police Chief. Most recently we had had some complaints from businesses that folks who were camping in the vicinity, on city property, were using those businesses for bathing. There was also some loitering going on. So the police investigated and found that we indeed had an encampment on city property on Route 12A.

So they took what had been developed to date, as far as an ordinance goes, and brought that forward to us last month. Basically what the ordinance would have done was to give the city a mechanism to remove people who were camping on city lands, and to impose a small fine of $100 for that activity. We had a hearing on it, and we had over 100 people show up. Faith based groups, community action groups, individuals—quite a variety of folks, most of whom were in opposition to us adopting this ordinance. The two primary concerns were:

One: that it was not a good idea to criminalize homelessness.

Two: that it would be great if there were some sort of positive way to address these encampments beyond just ejecting people from city property.

What were some of the “positive” things that could have been an alternative?

One thing that we discussed was letting folks stay where they were, but providing them with basic sanitation. Such as portable toilets, dumpsters, and a water tap off city hydrants. And there was a least one individual in the group who offered to fund that for a year—a private citizen.

Our discussion was, given the level of interest we had out there, that we should put off any decision on this particular ordinance. We should set up a task force, which we do on occasion in Lebanon, to address this issue. A couple of councilors took on the task of coming up with a plan for that force and presenting it to us earlier this month.

And we should note that the council was unanimous in its decision to not adopt this ban.

That’s right. And we are not striking down an existing ordinance—this would have been a new ordinance. And we elected not to adopt it.

Was one of the arguments against it that the ordinance would not have solved the problem of homelessness, but perhaps even made it worse for these people?

Yes. It could have had the potential of causing them to incur some fines, and obviously when you’re in that sort of economic condition, $100 is a big deal. I don’t want to say that we would have selectively enforced it, but certainly there was a tremendous amount of compassion on the part of our city staff, including the police department, in helping to transition people out of these encampments, if that is what the council determined was appropriate.

So instead of cracking down in this way, Lebanon is taking an opposite approach: creating a task force. Is there a hope within this task force to find more systemic solutions, and if so, what are they?

Our task forces are very focused. They are looking at a specific problem in a specific area. The task force will take a look at that encampment, and then decide what can be done to address it. Our hope, as a council, is that this discussion with the public has served to heighten the issue of homeless encampments, and will result in an organization that will consist of a combination of municipalities (and not only Lebanon) and outside groups who will address this problem in a cohesive, logical way.

Let’s talk about homelessness and homeless encampments for a minute. We know they are all over the state and the upper valley. They result from a number of things. They can result from an inadequate number of beds in shelters, or folks who choose not to enter shelters. There’re a number of other reasons that people end up in these encampments.

The answer (maybe) is established encampments in various places in the upper valley which have all of the features that you would find in a more conventional homeless shelter. In order to really be effective, a sanctioned homeless encampment needs to have all of the features you would find in a well-run homeless shelter. Proper sanitation, mental counseling, drug-abuse counseling, and a presence that allows the whole thing to be supervised so things don’t get out of control. It’s sort of a homeless shelter without walls.

Why not just open a homeless shelter?

Homeless shelters are expensive to open, as any shelter operator will tell you. I don’t know how widely nationally this sort of model has come into place, but it may be less expensive to operate a seasonal, sanctioned homeless encampment. You don’t have the bricks and mortar that you’d have in a year-round homeless shelter, but you do have a place for people to go seasonally if that’s what they need.

We know that, particularly in this part of the world, these encampments don’t always last through the winter. The number of residents tends to go down in the colder months. Part of that, from what we’ve heard, is that they will go into these encampments in the summer to save enough money to be able to afford an apartment in the winter. So the concept of sanctioned, seasonal homeless encampments is certainly a possibility that is worth looking at, but it really is going to have to be a group effort between municipalities and outside organizations willing to help.

What do you hear from homeless people, if anything, about the possibility of having a sanctioned homeless encampment?

The limited amount we’ve heard from homeless people that have come to the two meetings we’ve held was that they would love a place where they felt secure. They want somewhere that they don’t feel like is going to kick them out, and that provides basic services. They just want some sort of stability in where they are. If they have to be in a homeless encampment, at least it’s a place where they can feel safe.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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