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N.H. Homeless Men Sue State Over Camps

Three homeless men from Concord have filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing they cannot be prohibited from camping on state-owned land, especially without a hearing.

Barbara Keshen, an attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, filed the lawsuit last week after state officials stepped up efforts to clear homeless camps from public land. The three plaintiffs are living in the woods off Hazen Drive, in tidy campsites that are beyond the view of neighboring residences.

But Keshen said she brought the case on behalf of the entire homeless community, estimated to be 150 people in Concord. Keshen hopes the lawsuit increases public awareness about the lack of emergency shelters and affordable housing opportunities in Concord.

There is a single year-round emergency shelter in Concord, and its 26 beds are usually full, Kehsen said in her lawsuit.
But more critical, Keshen said, is to stop the state from evicting homeless people who have had nowhere to go since March, when two church-run emergency shelters closed for the year.

“There are lots of people who have been displaced,” Keshen said. “And they need to live somewhere.”
Frank Sobol, 52, is one of the three plaintiffs. He had been living near the railroad tracks between the Holiday Inn on North Main Street and the Friendly Kitchen on South Commercial Street until the police cleared the area in March, at the request of private property owners there.

Sobol relocated his tent to the area off Hazen Drive.

He’s settled into his new location and appreciates its proximity to Loudon Road, where he can use restrooms at businesses that are open 24 hours a day. But the long walk to the Friendly Kitchen and the homeless resource center on North Main Street is difficult, he said, because he has a heart condition and bad knees.

Sobol joined the lawsuit, in part, because he’s frustrated that while some in the city are trying to help the homeless by running the Friendly Kitchen and the resource center, city and state officials are eliminating the places they can live.

“The powers that be do not want us walking around the sidewalks of Concord because we are nothing but a glaring symbol . . . of their failure,” Sobol said Friday. “And they keep pushing us further and further away from the services that the (other groups) are providing.”

The lawsuit, filed in Merrimack County Superior Court, is the latest development in what has been a difficult back-and-forth between the homeless and city and state officials.

This spring, after the two church shelters closed, the Concord police began asking homeless people to leave their camps on private property along the railroad tracks. At the same time, state officials posted several state-owned properties for trespassing, including land behind Everett Arena, Gully Hill behind Loudon Road, land along Stickney Avenue and land off Hazen Drive, where Keshen’s clients are now living.

Keshen first responded by asking the state Department of Administrative Services to hold a hearing, during which the homeless could argue for their right to use public land. In her April letter to Commissioner Linda Hodgdon, Keshen said the public land behind the Everett Arena, along the Merrimack River, had been used “for years” as a camping site for homeless people.

“The individuals . . . are involuntarily homeless,” Keshen wrote. “They do not have private homes or private property on which they can erect living quarters. They are required by circumstance to perform all of life’s activities, such as eating and sleeping on public land.”

Keshen said she has never received a response to her letter.

Earlier this month, the Concord police stepped up their efforts to move homeless people off private property. In early May, the police began charging individuals with trespassing if they remained on the property after receiving a warning.

The police issued 18 court summons for trespassing and alcohol violations on a single Sunday. At the same time, state officials reposted the state-owned properties for trespassing.

Keshen told the Monitor at the time she wasn’t sure what other action she could take. After doing some research, she found one: the lawsuit.

She argues that the law cited in the state’s no trespassing signs is problematic for the state. First, the law prohibiting camping on state land says camping is not allowed “unless permission is received from the governing board of the governmental agency” with jurisdiction over the property. Keshen said that implies her April request for a hearing should have been granted.

Second, Keshen said the law prohibiting camping on public land is within the authority of the transportation department. Yet, Keshen said, the transportation department has authority over roads but not the land being used by the homeless people.

No one at the state Attorney General’s Office, which will defend the state against the lawsuit, could be reached for comment late Friday afternoon. A hearing is set for May 20, and Keshen said the attorney general’s office has agreed to put off further action until after that hearing.

That’s good news for Andrew Thompson, who is 48, homeless and also living in a tent off Hazen Drive. He and Sobol said they didn’t see any no trespassing signs when they first arrived on the property months ago. They appeared since, some of them as recently as Friday, Thompson said.

His camp, which includes a lean-to he built using downed limbs, has a kitchen area, a small grill and table for eating meals. He stayed in his shelter all winter, he said. And, he said, he’s left every place he’s tented cleaner than when he found it.

Thompson said he bagged litter and trash around the Everett Arena when he was there. He did the same at his new spot, he said. The site was free of litter Friday, during a visit he had little time to prepare for. Thompson doesn’t understand why he can’t stay put, given that he’s not causing problems and has nowhere else to live.

CORRECTION

Three homeless men in Concord are suing the state of New Hampshire over access to state-owned land. A headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the defendant in the case.