ACLU: Proposed Lebanon Ordinance ‘Unconstitutional’

  • Thomas Moore, 75, interacts with dog Inky inside of his camper, which has been parked in the public lot adjacent to Hannaford in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 13, 2016. “This dog means everything to me,” said Moore, “If I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t want to be alive.” Lebanon will likely vote on a proposed city ordinance to curtail homeless camping on public lands on June 15, which could force roughly 12 homeless people to relocate from this lot, including Moore. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River Junction resident Jean Kennett, left, delivers a phone charger and other commodities to Thomas Moore, 75, who has been living in his camper in a public lot adjacent to Hannaford in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 13, 2016. Lebanon will likely vote on a proposed city ordinance to curtail homeless camping on public lands on June 15, which could force roughly 12 homeless people from this lot, including Moore. If the ordinance passes, Kennett offered to allow Moore to park his camper in her driveway, but Moore said he would prefer to continue living in the lot. “I like the independence I still have,” said Moore. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thomas Moore, 75, leans on his camper parked in the public lot adjacent to Hannaford in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 13, 2016. Moore has been living out of his camper on this lot since March, but may be forced to relocate as Lebanon will likely vote on a proposed city ordinance to curtail homeless camping on public lands on June 15, 2016. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2016 11:57:16 PM

Lebanon — The American Civil Liberties Union denounced a proposed city ordinance on Friday, calling the effort to curtail homeless camping unconstitutional and “bad policy.”

“Fining and evicting individuals who lack even the most basic means is a poor use of police resources and only serves to further burden and marginalize the most vulnerable citizens in our community,” Attorney Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU’s legal director, wrote in a letter to city officials.

The letter urging a “no” vote came just days before the City Council is scheduled to take up the proposal in a public hearing on Wednesday.

If passed, police could impose a $100 fine for parking or camping in city-owned lots for more than two hours between dusk and dawn. Bernie Waugh, the city’s attorney, has reviewed the ordinance and deemed it consistent with state laws.

The proposed ordinance comes partially in response to a group of people living in campers, tents and cars in a vacant lot near a West Lebanon supermarket.

Some have lived at the lot for a decade, while others arrived in recent months, attracted to the quiet setting.

“This encampment alone exceeds any available capacity at the Upper Valley Haven,” Bissonnette wrote in the letter. “Individuals at the camp have informed us they would rather stay at the shelter but are prevented from doing so because lack of capacity at the shelter has resulted in a waiting list.”

In his letter to City Council, Waugh said the proposal doesn’t preempt state law and is enforceable. State regulations on city towing are difficult to interpret, he wrote, but the ordinance would likely prevail in court.

Acting Lebanon City Manager Paula Maville said on Monday that Waugh is currently on vacation and hasn’t seen the ACLU’s letter.

Police Chief Richard Mello said he cannot speak to the ordinance’s constitutionality, but said the ACLU’s charge that police will only target homeless people is wrong.

“We would never selectively enforce a law against a class of people,” he said.

If City Council does pass the ordinance, he said, the police department will educate the homeless on available services and help connect them with area resources before evicting anyone.

Down at the property near Hannaford on Monday, Thomas Moore was worried about the thought of having to leave. Moore, 75, moved his camper to the vacant lot more than a month ago, after leaving the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Moore, who says he served in the Army in Korea in the late 1950s, said he has a heart condition that left him disabled and afraid to stray far from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where he receives care.

“I’m not lazy. If I could work now, I would,” he said. “But I’m lucky to even make it across this parking lot.”

He thinks the dozen people living at the lot would be better served if the city dropped its plans to evict them and instead brought in a dumpster and portable toilet.

“The people could all chip in together,” Moore said. “Everybody here has a little bit of income but nothing they can afford to rent. They’ll all agree to pay a share of (costs).”

Moore said he’s not sure where he would go if City Council adopts the ordinance. He’s applied for Section 8 housing, but that comes with a long wait list and he can’t afford an apartment on his own.

“Everybody thinks that because I’ve got a mobile home I have money,” he said. “I haven’t. I can’t even afford housing right now.”

Jean Kennett, of Hartford, was visiting the lot on Monday, dropping off toiletries, boxes of food and bananas for Moore. She was once homeless herself, and lived in a hay barn after getting laid off from a job with the telephone company.

“It can happen to anybody and it can happen at the drop of a hat,” she said.

Kennett now acts as a liaison between local nonprofits and the homeless. She also allows a few individuals to stay on her six-acre property.

One man who now lives with her camped near Miracle Mile this winter. He told Kennett stories of police getting called for no reason and people deliberately vandalizing his tent.

“Don’t you know who the lepers are these days? They’re the homeless,” Kennett said.

She said people sometimes drive around encampments to bother homeless people and some Upper Valley police departments arrive at odd hours to harass them.

“You look at some of them and they have a hopeless look in their eyes,” Kennett said.

She’s seen friends commit suicide or self medicate because of that hopelessness.

“That shouldn’t happen to people, but it does,” she said.

Finding people help isn’t an easy task. The Upper Valley Haven is almost always full, but staff work diligently to fill openings, said Renee Weeks, the Haven’s director of shelter and clinical services.

“If people stay connected and keep in touch with us, it can vary, but I would say (we can get someone a bed) within 30 days,” Weeks said.

If there isn’t room at the Haven, staff can help direct people to shelters in Vermont or Claremont, or even Plymouth, N.H., she said. But some people don’t want to live in a shelter because they don’t want the Haven’s structured approach. The shelter also doesn’t allow animals, but has a program where people foster animals until their owners obtain housing.

“It’s really a community issue,” Weeks said. “The Haven itself cannot solve homelessness.”

Twin Pines Housing Trust also works to get people into permanent housing, providing 390 multi-family units throughout the Upper Valley. The trust manages about two-thirds of those units itself, according to Executive Director Andrew Winter, and has a waiting list of 326 people.

“For some of our subsidized properties, the wait lists are even longer in terms of the number of folks looking for a particular unit,” he said.

At the Village at Crafts Hill in Lebanon, the trust has 12 one-bedroom units for subsidized housing and 66 households waiting for one of them to open up.

“We’re talking years and years (of waiting) for subsidized units,” Winter said. “Many of the people camping are on our wait list.”

There’s also a mismatch in Upper Valley housing, he said. The waiting list for two-bedroom units is much shorter, but regulations prevent them from moving smaller families into those units.

“We are always trying to work toward new projects,” Winter said, adding that more affordable housing is the only way to solve the shortage. But new buildings can be expensive and time consuming.

“It’s not a quick and easy solution where we can turn around and create new housing,” he said.

Mello, who helped draft the ordinance, heard Winter speak at a recent forum on the city’s proposal. He understands that resources to the homeless can be difficult to obtain, but said it’s a “problem that I don’t have an answer for.”

“We as a city, I don’t think, have a solution to that. And that’s concerning,” he said.

Mello said the city will try to find a solution.

The City Council will hold a hearing on the proposed ordinance at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Lebanon Opera House.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Correction

Thomas Moore says he served with the Army in Korea for nine months between 1958 and 1959. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described when he was in Korea. 




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