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City Drops Proposal on Homeless

  • Nicholas Warren, of Lebanon, N.H., helps to lead a protest opposing an ordinance on camping on city lands before Lebanon City Council meeting voting on the proposed ordinance at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on June 15, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rev. Rebecca Girrell of the Lebanon United Methodist Church speaks in opposition of a proposed ordinance to ban camping on city land during a Lebanon City Council meeting at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on June 15, 2016. The ordinance is being proposed to limit homeless people camping for elongated periods of time on Lebanon land. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2016 12:11:12 AM
Modified: 6/16/2016 4:28:54 PM

Lebanon — Facing overwhelming opposition, the City Council decided to take no action on a proposed ordinance some critics said would criminalize homelessness. Instead, councilors hope to create a task force charged with addressing the city’s homeless population.

“This is a situation we have looked the other way on for years,” Councilor Timothy McNamara said.

People have lived on the banks of the Connecticut River and behind retail stores in the past, he said, but it took a recent group encamped near the West Lebanon Hannaford supermarket to bring the issue to the forefront. The lot is owned by the city, which has some officials worried campers could pose a liability.

“We now own it. We all own it,” McNamara said, meaning the city no longer can turn a blind eye to homelessness.

About 100 people attended a Wednesday night public hearing on the ordinance. If passed, the proposal would have made it illegal to camp overnight in a city-owned lot for more than two hours between dusk and dawn. Those found in violation would have been fined $100 and could have had their vehicles towed.

Police Chief Richard Mello helped write the ordinance. In a May 25 memo to City Council, he said the camp near Hannaford constituted a problem.

“There are no restroom facilities, no trash containers or receptacles, and no oversight as to what is occurring on the property,” he wrote in the memo.

But state legislators, faith leaders, residents and even those living on the lot said the bill would criminalize homelessness and isn’t consistent with community values.

Before the meeting, about 15 people stood outside City Hall, holding signs that read “New Services, no new fines,” “Homeless, not criminal” and “Councilors: vote no.”

Eleven-year-old Arianna Clark was among the protesters. She said people need to learn to share resources to solve homelessness.

“We’re not looking at the problem,” she said. “We’re looking at who we want the problem to be.”

Inside, more than 40 members of the public spoke out against the proposal. Councilors also received about 25 letters prior to the meeting; of those, 20 were in opposition to the ordinance, two were in support of it and the rest were neutral.

Scott Anderson, who lives on the lot near Hannaford, asked the audience to stand.

“Could you pick out the homeless people in this crowd tonight?” he asked, before adding that he’s sick of being stereotyped.

The people who live around him don’t panhandle, keep the area clean and have even offered to mow lawns, Anderson said.

“I’m asking from the bottom of your hearts to please vote ‘no’ or table this matter,” he said.

“This is a serious social problem that’s best addressed by compassionate social workers and social welfare agencies, and not the police and the courts,” said Shawn Donovan, who’s worked on homeless issues in the Upper Valley and coordinated with the United Valley Interfaith Project to oppose the proposal.

He asked that the city provide water, toilets and a dumpster for people at the site to use, rather than evict anyone. Although the ordinance intends to protect people, “there is no evidence that there’s a threat to public peace and welfare,” Donovan said.

Upper Valley state Reps. George Sykes, Susan Almy and Richard Abel all spoke in opposition to the ordinance.

Sykes said he examined the municipal code and found unpaid fines could lead to misdemeanor charges and possible jail time.

Any time a person cannot pay a fine and declines to do community service, that person is sent to the Grafton County Jail, Sykes said. That fine is worked off at $50 a day, but it costs the county $137 per day to house someone at the facility.

Over the past 11 months, people spent a total of 92 days at the jail for unpaid fines, Sykes said, and that came at an overall cost of $12,604.

First Congregational Church of Lebanon Rev. Steve Silver said he came to the Upper Valley in search of community.

“We had a feeling that this was a place where people took care of their neighbors, helped one another,” he said. “This proposed ordinance, to me, strikes against the heart of our community and who we are. I believe we can do better than this.”

Silver compared the ordinance to 18th-century poor laws, and said it is not the best approach to tackle homelessness.

Resident Robert Carpenter worried about “escalation of rhetoric” from the crowd, however.

“When you get a speeding ticket, you don’t say ‘we’re criminalizing speeding,’ ” he said.

There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, Carpenter said, such as what the repercussions are of not passing the ordinance.

The ordinance wasn’t facing only local opposition: the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire wrote a letter to the city on Friday, calling it unconstitutional.

In the letter, ACLU Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette argued that courts have struck down similar municipal ordinances where homeless people are evicted and too few resources exist to house them.

Elliott Berry, managing attorney of the Manchester office for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, joined the ACLU’s objection on Wednesday, calling on the City Council to dismiss the proposed ordinance.

Although city officials agreed to drop the proposal for now, they noted the ordinance wasn’t crafted with malicious intent, but rather to address an insurance liability.

“We have to regulate the power and the use of our property through ordinances,” said Acting City Manager Paula Maville, who said she’s more than willing to brainstorm solutions with local advocacy groups.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill said the council doesn’t just have a responsibility to serve the least fortunate. They also have to take businesses under advisement, she said.

“We have to consider everyone. And sometimes there are competing interests that pit one against the other,” she said.

Liot Hill ultimately volunteered to launch the task force that will tackle homeless issues in the city.

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




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