Homelessness is often an invisible issue, with people living under bridges, in the woods or alongside railroad tracks.
But that’s not been the case in Manchester recently.
“We’re on the Superior Courthouse lawn, we are in the middle of everything,” says a woman named Kelly, who declined to give her last name. “The other encampments are at least behind Fisher Cat stadium. When you are driving down Elm Street, you can’t see their tent. You can see us.”
During the past few weeks, that visibility has helped turn this encampment into a flashpoint over how to deal with the city’s homeless population. The camp has attracted protestors, advocates, and no shortage of finger pointing from state and city officials.
On Monday of this week, the state said it would begin evicting people from the encampment. Social workers from various agencies have been on the ground since then, trying to find alternatives, including in-patient rehab facilities and sober housing options outside of the city. On Thursday, at least 20 people opted to go to a temporary housing site in Derry.
But Kelly, who has been in and out of temporary shelters in the past, says she’d prefer to stay in the camp.
“I need help. Mentally, physically, I need help, I know this,” she says. “I can’t do it on my own. But I’m not going to put myself in a situation that I’m going to be hurting myself.”
Kelly and the other people staying here have been joined not just by social workers this week, but also by a group of protestors who have been on the ground 24 hours a day since early Monday. They’re organizing donations of hand warmers, food and water.
“It’s really sad that it takes people who do have homes standing on the corner with signs to get attention,” says Linds Jakows, an organizer with the group New Hampshire Youth Movement.
The people staying here here have noticed, and appreciate the backing.
“I was especially struck by the outpouring of support from the community,” says Dennis, who declined to give his last name. “A lot of us homeless people, we figured the community hated us. We weren’t expecting that.”
Dennis is also declining to go to a shelter, saying that he’s tried that route, and always ends up back on the street.
“No one became homeless because they’re a fully functioning member of society, you know,” he says. “A lot of us have either substance abuse issues, or mental health issues, or just trauma in general.”
It isn’t clear exactly how many people remain at the camp, or if the state will take a more aggressive approach to clearing its inhabitants. Asked about the issue Thursday during a press conference, Gov. Chris Sununu reiterated that every person at the camp had been offered a warm place to stay.
“Every single individual has been offered services. Every single individual has been offered those things multiple times,” said Sununu.
But the governor also criticized the protestors, saying that they were telling homeless people not to go to shelters. He called that dangerous, given the plunging temperatures in recent days.
The protestors say that Sununu’s claims are false. They counter that they're on the ground advocating for the camp’s residents, and pushing for a long term solution to homelessness that goes beyond temporary shelters.
State officials say they’ll continue to work with the remaining individuals, but a permanent camp on the courthouse property isn’t an option.
For the folks left here, like Kelly, that solution seems far off.
“I’m going to stay right here until I can figure out where to go,” she says. “If someone can offer me something, great. If not, I’m going to stay right here. We’re New Hampshire. Live Free or Die.”