Lebanon Homeless Law Up for Hearing

  • The Lebanon City Council will discuss its ordinance on the homeless camping on city owned land during its meeting Wednesday, November 16, 2016. As the weather has cooled this fall, many of the camps near the Connecticut River and the city's strip malls have been abandoned. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/16/2016 11:45:28 PM
Modified: 11/17/2016 1:11:45 PM

Lebanon — A controversial law that would ban unauthorized camping on city-owned property will be back before a public hearing in December, the City Council has decided.

After months of discussion about the proposed law’s wording and penalties, council members on Wednesday agreed to a final draft, one they believe is both enforceable and affords the police leeway.

“This is not the end of the story but it is infinitely better than what we have on the books,” said City Councilor Karen Liot Hill.

Under the proposal, camping overnight on city property without permission would be illegal and punishable by a fine up to $100.

Meanwhile, the Lebanon Police Department has also drafted a policy directing officers to provide violators with a warning before issuing a fine, along with helping connect them with social services.

Police Chief Richard Mello said the proposed measure is much better than the police department’s current options to address homeless encampments, such as the one near the municipal water treatment plant that drew attention earlier this year. Currently, police can ask people to leave city-owned property, but can only follow up on the request by charging that person with a violation or misdemeanor for trespassing.

“That’s not really palatable for anybody, including the police department,” he said.

By adopting a new ordinance, officers will be able to treat illegal camping akin to city parking violations, Mello said. The proposed law would also eliminate the need to arrest anyone, a tactic of last resort that Mello fears could eventually end up occurring in some situations if the proposal isn’t adopted.

“(The proposal) doesn’t change the way we do business. It doesn’t change what we’ve been probably doing for the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s codifying what we already do.”

The ordinance is similar to one widely criticized as criminalizing homelessness earlier this summer. At the time, outcry from the public resulted in the creation of a homelessness task force, which spent several months working to house people living in an empty lot off of Market Street near the treament plant.

Members of that group — which included area social service organizations — told the City Council in October that great strides were made in finding housing for several people, but the ordinance was needed to provide a greater incentive for people to either work with the task force or move on. Councilors in October were receptive to the proposal but disagreed on penalties and said they would rather work on final wording before presenting a new law to the public.

Some people at Wednesday’s meeting still hoped the City Council would withdraw the ordinance. State Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, reminded the council of public outrage over the law this summer, and said he wished the city would continue searching for solutions, like the task force did.

“I wonder if in achieving that short-term solution we sort of placed on the back burner moving forward to a long-term solutions,” he said.

Sykes said he’s part of a group discussing housing in the Upper Valley, and thinks the shortage of affordable homes in the area should be better addressed. He proposed creating a “master plan” for housing, just like the one that directs city planning.

“I think there are a lot of folks who are still very concerned about this and want to move in that direction first,” Sykes said.

The Rev. Becca Girrell, of the Lebanon United Methodist Church, echoed Sykes sentiment. She also worried about the stress the ordinance causes area homeless people, who could feel targeted.

“We want to relieve the housing insecurity and the housing deficit more sustainably,” she said.

The majority of City Council, however, said they were comfortable with the proposal moving forward to a hearing. That included both councilors Clifton Below and Timothy McNamara, who voiced concern at an earlier meeting over the ordinance’s language.

In a legal opinion to the council, Attorney Bernie Waugh cautioned against staggered fines for illegal camping because a court would require the city to prove someone was issued past warnings, a task that could be hard when dealing with a population that’s often transient and might not carry an ID.

Waugh also said the city should leave out mention of officials providing help to the homeless.

“Please understand I am not criticizing the intent,” he said. “I am merely considering it from the standpoint of a potential prosecution in court, at which point the city will be required to prove — as an element of the offense — that this provision has been complied with.”

The police department should set its own policies, Waugh suggested, to prevent the city from facing difficult court battles.

That policy, also provided to the council on Wednesday, would allow anyone found camping on city property 48 hours to leave. It also calls for officers to work with the homeless to find area resources.

Councilors voted 7-1 to hold a public hearing, with Councilor Sarah Welsch voting against the measure. A hearing will likely be held at the council’s Dec. 7 meeting in City Hall.

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


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