Lebanon Council Passes Homeless Ordinance Barring Overnight Camping

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2016 12:06:28 AM
Modified: 12/9/2016 1:43:07 PM

Lebanon — Following a lengthy public hearing, the City Council on Wednesday night approved a controversial ordinance that prohibits camping or overnight parking on city-owned land.

The decision wasn’t unanimous, however. Councilors Sarah Welsch and Clifton Below voted against the motion, and Councilor Erling Heistad also expressed reservations before the 5-2 vote was cast.

“I’d rather see us find a way to be more inclusive and find a positive way for people to find more emergency resources than what we have,” Heistad said. “I will support it tonight with a heavy heart.”

Councilors Karen Liot Hill, Bill Finn, Tim McNamara and Bruce Bronner also voted in favor of the ordinance, a draft of which was met with vocal opposition in June, when the council took on the topic to address homelessness in Lebanon.

Several such opponents poured into City Hall on Wednesday night to again urge the council to rethink their way forward. Dozens more picketed outside with signs saying, “The homeless need services, not punishment,” and “homelessness is not a crime.”

The new ordinance, which was recommended by a citizens group tasked with exploring how best to address the situation, will permit Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello and his officers to issue fines up to $100 to those found to be in violation. On Wednesday night, though, Mello made it clear that his department isn’t out to just issue fines.

Mello drafted a policy to accompany the ordinance. Anyone in violation of the ordinance will be issued a warning and will have 48 hours to vacate the property before a fine is issued. The responding officers also will be instructed to provide information about social services to those who many need it.

Several councilors and the chief said the ordinance was a “more humane” way to confront individuals parked or camped on city-owned land.

The alternative to the ordinance is enforcing the state’s criminal trespass law, which is a misdemeanor-level offense or a state-level violation, both of which go on a person’s criminal record. They also carry hefty fines.

A city ordinance violation is akin to a parking ticket, and doesn’t go on a person’s rap sheet. The fine also is more manageable, Mello said.

“The proposed ordinance is trying to take some of the teeth out of the state statute,” Finn said. “Nobody here is trying to do anything to hurt anybody. Without this ordinance, we are bound to abide by the state statute.”

Finn’s comment wasn’t met with a warm welcome from the audience. Most people in attendance were opposed to the council passing the ordinance as drafted.

Before the vote, councilors heard from several of those people, some of whom work as clergy and social service leaders.

“The ordinance disproportionately effects the homeless population,” said resident Danielle Bonadona, who recently moved to Lebanon from California.

She brought up the fact the ordinance has a provision in it that allows for “emergency” exceptions to the rule. With winter coming, she said, lack of housing for homeless individuals should be categorized as an emergency situation and a permit for temporary parking or camping should be issued.

Interim Town Manager Paula Maville said she liked that idea.

“If there is nowhere for these people to go, people are going to get sick and there is a potential loss of life,” Bonadona said.

The Rev. Rebecca Girrell read aloud a letter she wrote to the City Council and told councilors she had 112 people sign a petition urging the council to reject or redraft the ordinance.

“Often the largest barriers to sustainable housing are mental health, substance abuse and the need for accessibility due to physical or medical disability,” said Girrell, pastor at the United Methodist Church. “If our city ... is not able to provide its residents with accessible housing and with adequate services for individuals, we cannot then turn around and punish people for the conditions under which they are surviving.”

She also noted the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union objects to passing the ordinance, contending it might be unconstitutional.

At least one homeless person was in the audience on Wednesday night, and asked councilors to approach the situation in an entirely different fashion.

Christopher Hunter, who has been homeless for about seven months, said he hoped the council would proceed in a way that doesn’t involve “the law.”

“You don’t understand what we have to go through just to survive,” Hunter said. “We just have to find an easier solution.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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