Homeless Upper Valley couple faces ‘a very tough situation’

Nichole Rogers, left, pets her Rottweiler, Diesel, while Ben Harper fashions a handle for a rake in front of their camper, parked on a pull-out on Route 14 in Sharon, Vt., on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. The couple was served a no trespass notice by the Windsor County Sheriff’s Office the next day, and after an unsuccessful attempt to find a friend to help them move the camper it was towed away by authorities on Monday, April 22. Rogers and Harper have been unable to find stable housing since the loss of their camper. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nichole Rogers, left, pets her Rottweiler, Diesel, while Ben Harper fashions a handle for a rake in front of their camper, parked on a pull-out on Route 14 in Sharon, Vt., on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. The couple was served a no trespass notice by the Windsor County Sheriff’s Office the next day, and after an unsuccessful attempt to find a friend to help them move the camper it was towed away by authorities on Monday, April 22. Rogers and Harper have been unable to find stable housing since the loss of their camper. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

Traffic is limited to one lane near a camper parked in a pull-off on Route 14 while a crew cuts down hazardous trees along the road in Sharon, Vt., on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. The camper was parked on the state-owned plot in March, and shortly after the town began receiving complaints from residents and rumors started swirling on social media, stoking concerns among community members. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Traffic is limited to one lane near a camper parked in a pull-off on Route 14 while a crew cuts down hazardous trees along the road in Sharon, Vt., on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. The camper was parked on the state-owned plot in March, and shortly after the town began receiving complaints from residents and rumors started swirling on social media, stoking concerns among community members. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nichole Rogers, left, and Ben Harper talk at Frost Park in Wilder, Vt., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. After being served a no trespass notice at the Route 14 pull-off where they were camping in Sharon, Vt., the pair have been splitting their time between sleeping in a tent and at a friend’s house nearby. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nichole Rogers, left, and Ben Harper talk at Frost Park in Wilder, Vt., on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. After being served a no trespass notice at the Route 14 pull-off where they were camping in Sharon, Vt., the pair have been splitting their time between sleeping in a tent and at a friend’s house nearby. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Nichole Rogers, left, and Ben Harper scroll through their phones in the parking lot outside of West Lebanon Comprehensive Treatment Center in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Roger’s mother brings the pair to the clinic six days a week to receive medication assisted treatment for their addictions. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nichole Rogers, left, and Ben Harper scroll through their phones in the parking lot outside of West Lebanon Comprehensive Treatment Center in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Roger’s mother brings the pair to the clinic six days a week to receive medication assisted treatment for their addictions. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Nichole Rogers orders breakfast at McDonald’s in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Rogers, who supported her family by working at a grocery store for several years, is now unemployed and she and her partner live off of his limited income from Social Security. Rogers’ mother buys the pair breakfast most mornings, and it is often their only consistent meal. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nichole Rogers orders breakfast at McDonald’s in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Rogers, who supported her family by working at a grocery store for several years, is now unemployed and she and her partner live off of his limited income from Social Security. Rogers’ mother buys the pair breakfast most mornings, and it is often their only consistent meal. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Kay Tolbert, left, of Lebanon, N.H., looks for her credit card to buy breakfast for her daughter Nichole Rogers at McDonald’s in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Tolbert drives Rogers to the clinic to get addiction treatment at 6 a.m. Sunday through Friday, despite pushback she occasionally receives from loved ones. “At the end of the day, I’m her mom,” Tolbert said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Kay Tolbert, left, of Lebanon, N.H., looks for her credit card to buy breakfast for her daughter Nichole Rogers at McDonald’s in West Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, May 9, 2024. Tolbert drives Rogers to the clinic to get addiction treatment at 6 a.m. Sunday through Friday, despite pushback she occasionally receives from loved ones. “At the end of the day, I’m her mom,” Tolbert said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2024 8:01 PM

Modified: 05-14-2024 5:43 PM


SHARON — With homelessness at record levels in Vermont, an Upper Valley couple’s precarious living situation toppled last month following a trespassing order from the state and complaints from nearby residents.

In late March, the couple hired a tow truck company to deliver their aging red and white Shasta camper to a Route 14 pull-off in Sharon that sits on the bank of the White River.

Its occupants — Nichole Rogers, 40, and Ben Harper, 38 — both grew up in the Upper Valley. Rogers is from Lebanon and Harper from Hartford.

Harper has been homeless on and off since he was a teenager, which was when the two first met. They reconnected years later when Harper got a job at Price Chopper in West Lebanon, where Rogers, a mother of three daughters, had worked for years.

The pair’s arrival at a Vermont Agency of Transportation right-of-way in rural Sharon set off a fiery response from town residents.

“It’s not like we’re trying to be a pain in the ass,” Rogers said. “We’re just trying to live.”

On April 18, the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department served them a no trespassing letter at the order of the Vermont Agency of Transportation. They were given 96 hours to leave, said Sheriff Ryan Palmer. 

When the deadline passed, Rogers and Harper were still scrambling — and failing — to find an alternative spot for their camper.

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Their home was then impounded and hauled off to the state police barracks in Bethel.

“We’ve seen people talking on Facebook,” Rogers said before they were told to leave by law enforcement. “They’re trying to run us out of here.”

‘Third hand information’ 

The day before they were served the trespassing order, Harper was hammering nails into the back of the camper so he and Rogers could hang up some of their belongings out of public view, tidying up the front of the camper. 

Much of the digital criticism was focused on the mess that they were allegedly making at the pull-off. Harper used duct tape to affix a rake head to a downed tree limb, which he used to sweep the area around their living quarters. 

The couple wrote “dogs inside” in marker on the outside of the camper. But it wasn’t meant as a threat, Rogers said. 

Her biggest fear, she said, is that someone would harm or abscond with Bobo, a pit bull, and Diesel, a rottweiler. “If someone were to mess with these dogs, I couldn’t live,” she said.

In the month they lived at the pull-off, state highway workers were cutting down unstable trees on the side of Route 14. For weeks, slow, single-lane traffic was being directed right in front of the camper. Slow-moving motorists craned their necks to look at the trailer — an unusual sight on the shoulder of a busy, public roadway.

It was nothing like the April 8 eclipse though, Rogers said, when the celestial phenomenon choked the Upper Valley’s roadways, including Route 14, with out-of-towners. “Traffic was standstill at midnight,” she said. “I just sat on the front step and watched.”

Living so out in the open, the couple said sometimes people drove by and took pictures of them, or shouted insults as they flew down the road.

“We had a drunk guy show up at our camper, rattling the door,” Rogers said. Harper described someone turning up at night and shining bright headlights through their windows.

Earlier in the month, the Sharon Selectboard placed a warning on social media to not “put yourself at risk by engaging with the inhabitants or with the camper.”

The message of caution was at the advice of the sheriff’s department, said Selectboard Chairman Kevin Gish.

“I don’t really know what we could have done,” Gish said. “We tried to put information out and ask people to be patient. We asked people to give it time to work out because it’s not so easy.”

When rumors about the couple allegedly stealing from residents started to circulate, the board emphasized that “if you see something happening report it immediately, don’t just talk about it on Facebook,” Gish said. Wrapped up in the whole ordeal was “lots of third hand information,” he said. 

‘Nowhere to go’

The day before they were served the trespassing order, Rogers’ mother, Kay Tolbert of Lebanon, had picked them up to take them to a methadone clinic in West Lebanon, where they go almost every morning around 6 a.m., except on Saturdays. 

She typically buys the couple breakfast after the clinic visit — their only sure meal of the day. 

“At the end of the day, I’m her mom” Tolbert said.

On Mondays, Rogers and Harper also attend a virtual couples therapy session hosted by the clinic.

In an interview, both talked about their histories of addiction and a lengthy child custody case between Rogers and an ex-husband, whom she has described as physically and emotionally abusive. “We’ve been to hell and back,” Rogers said.

Longtime Lebanon attorney Peter Decato, now retired, has been representing Rogers in the custody case. Decato is a friend of Tolbert’s and took it on pro bono.

“It’s a tough situation for a homeless person, someone in Nichole’s situation, to persuade a court,” Decato said. “I’ll just raise one thing: Has anyone ever said she’s anything but a fit parent? There’s never been an abuse or neglect action brought against her...I know from my observations that she loves her children.”

(There are two “Ben Harpers” from Hartford. In 2005, Benjamin G. Harper was found guilty of having sex with a minor. In 2022, Benjamin J. Harper, the subject of this article, was charged with aggravated sexual assault in a case that is still pending in Grafton County Superior Court). 

For years, Harper — and Rogers, on and off — lived in an encampment at the bottom of Christian Street in Hartford. About a year ago, town officials, at the request of the Agency of Transportation, served the couple with a trespassing violation, said Hartford Police Sgt. Karl Ebbighausen. 

“That was our home,” Rogers said. “We had kind of built our own house. They watched us struggle with our stuff when we were taking it away, and one guy in charge, he barely would speak to Ben.”

Ebbighausen interacted with the couple many times before they were kicked off the property. “I don’t want to start speaking for everyone, but I do know the state had liability concerns, along with the safety concerns that were down there not only with surrounding residents but for Ben and Nichole themselves,” Ebbighausen said. “It was an elaborate set-up they had down there, obviously something they built over time.”

Clearing away the encampment that was once home to Rogers and Harper, and which contained multiple, free-standing structures, cost more than $15,000, according to the Agency of Transportation.

After that, the couple lived briefly on a piece of private land a bit further north on Route 14, and then at a residence on Christian Street in Hartford. 

A few months later, the couple had the camper, given to them by a friend, towed up to the pull-off in Sharon. They heated it with a small wood stove.

“They don’t ask to be put in these situations,” Ebbighausen said. “They may not always do everything perfectly. But my impression of Ben and Nichole is they just want to be left alone, and there’s nowhere to go.”

‘We’re not trying to hide’

To get by, they collect cans off the side of the road. They can get $20 out of four to five 55-gallon trash bags filled with cans from the side of the road in Sharon. They also dumpster dive. “It’s free game if the dumpster isn’t locked,” Harper said. 

But they maintain, emphatically, that they don’t steal.

They carry flashlights when they walk around at night, and sometimes wear glow sticks. “We like to go out at night,” Harper said.

“We’re not trying to hide,” Rogers said.

They draw intense suspicion, however.

John Duprey is owner of Duprey’s Towing and Auto Repair, which is about a quarter of a mile from the pull-off where the camper was parked. “I steered clear of them so they’d steer clear of me,” Duprey said. “I saw them all the time. Early mornings, late nights, walking up and down 14. They’d leave the camper empty handed and go back to the camper with their hands full of stuff.”

Walter Radicioni, owner of Twin State Standing Seam Roofing Company, said that in late April a video camera captured them walking around his business, close to the Maplefields on Route 14.

“But it didn’t look like they took anything,” Radicioni said.

One doesn’t actually have to commit a crime to draw the attention of law enforcement, Palmer, the county sheriff, said.

“We were never able to prove any criminal behavior, but there was certainly the thought in the community that these folks were up to no good,” Palmer said. “There was a big concern about theft and burglary and those sorts of things.

“I tend to believe the entire community versus two people that say they weren’t up to no good but there were some signs they might be. They’re not wholly innocent in this scenario at all.”

Their presence in Sharon motivated the Agency of Transportation to circle its wagons. 

The state had to “establish a policy through their legal department to figure out how they wanted to handle this case,” Palmer said.

On April 3, “the agency adopted a policy ‘for consistent approach to addressing encampments on state high rights-of-way and other properties,” it controls, wrote Shauna Clifford, a district administrator for the agency, in an email to the Valley News.

“The purpose of this policy is to be able to systematically address encampments” in the state transportation rights-of-way, she added. It is the responsibility of the agency to “address encampments…that do not align with the intended, transportation-related purposes of these lands.”

Palmer pointed to trash left behind at the previous encampment where the couple lived in Hartford.

But of the seven or eight bags of trash the department took from the pull-off in Sharon after Harper and Rogers were sent away, he doesn’t recall any hazardous material.

Still, reflecting on the impoundment of the camper, “I don’t know if seizing someone’s home is what I would call a win,” Palmer said. “Because, ‘now what’ for these folks? I don’t think they’re any better off. I certainly think the people of Sharon are. We didn’t fix a larger problem, but for the people of Sharon that had to drive that area every day, it was a really big problem for them.”

The disorder that came in the days after their eviction made it difficult for Rogers and Harper to continue their treatment at the methadone clinic. 

“Let me tell you,” she wrote in a text, missing a methadone dose “that many days in a row is not good for a person … trying to stay clean.”  

“So we're not allowed to live, but nobody will help us either,” she wrote.

Inhumane system

As a tow truck hauled off the couples’ dwelling, Palmer said that his deputies put Rogers and Harper in touch with the Economic Services Division of the Vermont Agency of Human Services Department for Children and Families.

But two weeks ago, Rogers and Harper were informed in a voice message left by an employee of the division that their situation was considered “creating your own homelessness,” and that Rogers couldn’t request services for 30 days and Harper was ineligible until October.

An email to the Valley News from a department spokesperson defined “voluntary homelessness,” as its referred to, as the determination that an “applicant has voluntarily left a previous residence without extenuating circumstances, such as eviction or unsafe living conditions,” continuing that their “their eligibility for emergency housing assistance may be impacted.” The spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the couples’ situation.

“There’s so much that’s inhumane about the system, but this is one of the more inhumane aspects,” said Brenda Siegel about the department’s use of the phrase. Siegel, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2022, is the executive director of End Homelessness VT.

“That is nothing,” Siegel said of the sheriff’s department connecting them with economic services.

Previously, deeming someone’s situation as “voluntary homelessness” happened “hardly ever,” Siegel said. Now, she said, it’s being assigned more frequently by the department.

“Ourselves, we’ve seen it used five or six times within the past month.”

Since March, after a state budget adjustment,“the barriers to accessing emergency shelter have been getting higher,” Siegel said. She chalks it up to an attempt to “whittle down the program.”

As Rogers sees it, the couple’s dogs make it hard for them to get assistance from 2-1-1, the state’s housing crisis hotline, and an altercation with management at one motel on the Upper Valley landed them on the “do not rent” list for the entire area, virtually barring them from the state-funded motel and hotel housing in the region.

“When I call 2-1-1, I’ll sit on the phone for hours,” she said. “I waste hours just to have them say no.”

Two weeks ago, the night after they were forced out of Sharon, Hartford Police told the couple to leave Kilowatt Park in Wilder where they set up a tent along a path. With no other options, they had returned to the town that they were pushed out of originally.

By town ordinance, overnight camping is prohibited in town parks or on municipal property, Ebbighausen said. Between town, state and private land, there are very few places that one can legally sleep outdoors in Hartford. 

“Oftentimes, if people have vehicles, they’ll do the Walmart parking lot thing in Lebanon,” Ebbighausen said. The services mentioned by Hartford police when they encounter an unhoused person are often virtually inaccessible due to long waitlists, he said. “I’ll be the first one to admit to you, this is a very tough situation.”

On April 30, the couple was “charged with larceny of some sort,” Ebbighausen said. Rogers and Harper both say they didn’t do it.

For now, they’re are moving between sleeping at a friend’s house in Wilder, and in the woods in a tent they got from Rogers’ case worker from the TLC Family Resource Center.

The camper remains impounded. On Friday, Rogers planned to go collect their things from it. 

 “I’m missing basically all of my clothes,” Harper said. 

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.