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Editorial: Lebanon’s Task Force on Homelessness

Published: 6/20/2016 10:00:14 PM
Modified: 6/20/2016 10:00:08 PM

The Lebanon City Council did the right, and humane, thing last week in declining to adopt an ordinance that critics argued would have criminalized homelessness. The question now is how the energy unleashed by the wave of public opposition to the proposed ordinance can be harnessed to address the underlying issues that lead to homelessness.

As staff writer Tim Camerato reported, more than 100 people attended the council’s public hearing on the ordinance, which would have prohibited camping on city land between dusk and dawn and imposed a $100 fine for violation. More than 40 members of the public spoke against the ordinance, and the council also received a score of letters in opposition. Advocates for the homeless were joined by clergy and state legislators in urging the council to drop the idea and take a different approach, which it ultimately did.

The community reaction was notable; it is possible to sense a sea change in public attitudes toward homelessness in the city from a couple of decades ago. The reasons are not obvious, but the attention being paid to income inequality at the national level may have had some bearing. It also seems possible that the Great Recession sensitized many people to just how quickly all the settled arrangements of life can collapse in an economic calamity and just how close to being homeless they might find themselves in such circumstances. And then there was the sense that the ordinance was a draconian response to a social problem and inconsistent with community values. As the Rev. Steve Silver of the First Congregational Church put it, “This proposed ordinance, to me, strikes against the heart of our community and who we are. I believe we can do better than this.”

It is also the case that homelessness in rural areas is all too often an invisible problem — when the homeless are out of sight, they are out of mind to many. What sparked the proposed ordinance, and attracted public attention, was the use by about a dozen homeless people of a small parcel of city-owned land near the Hannaford supermarket on Route 12A, where they were visible and hard to ignore. City administrators expressed concern that their presence might pose a liability problem, but critics suspected the real point of the ordinance was just to move the homeless along to other communities. Whatever the motivation, that would have been the likely effect of enacting the ordinance.

Ultimately, the council decided that addressing homelessness in the city would be best left to a task force, and Councilor Karen Liot Hill volunteered to lead the effort. “This is a situation we have looked the other way on for years,” summed up Councilor Tim McNamara. “We now own it. We all own it.”

Presumably the “we” includes not only councilors and city officials, but the community at large, with all the resources, expertise and good will it has to offer, as manifested by the outpouring of concern over the proposed ordinance. A good place to start, it seems to us, would be to systematically compile information about the scope of the problem: How big is the city’s homeless population at any one time? Who are they? Where do they stay? How did they become homeless in the first place? What problems do they have in common besides not having a roof over their head? Are they familiar with what services are available to them? What services are needed that are not readily available? 

It may well be that advocates already possess much of that information, but collecting it in one place and making it available to the public might put in place the frame for effective action.




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