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Hartford considers designated campsite for homeless people

  • Michael Fleming, 37, has been living at his camp in Hartford, Vt., for about 10 years. “It’s peaceful out here,” he said. Fleming grew up in White River Junction, and at age 10 he went into state custody. “I don’t belong in this town, never have,” he said. “I’ve always been an outsider.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Michael Fleming said his dad originally built the hut where he has lived now for about 10 years. His dad has since moved out of town. “The police don’t bother me, they know I’m out here,” said Fleming. “They used to check on me once a year, then when the domes moved in they were out here all the time.” The small geodesic domes he refers to were an effort by Hartford Selectboard Member Simon Dennis, through his Center for Transformational Practice, to provide durable shelter for people with no housing. Fleming said he would not move into a permitted camp because he’s concerned about drug use and theft among residents. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Michael Fleming said geodesic dome shelters were built in sites like this, not far from his Hartford, Vt., camp. After conflicts arose among the residents at this site, he said the structures were taken down and their occupants moved away. Selectboard Member and director of the Center for Transformational Practice Simon Dennis said he now has the structures in storage. (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: 7/17/2020 9:40:49 PM
Modified: 7/17/2020 9:40:36 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Hartford officials are considering designating space for a permanent, outdoor campsite, which they say could provide homeless people in Hartford with basic necessities like running water, storage and electricity.

The site, which would likely be on town-owned land, could also provide an alternative for homeless people who currently camp outdoors, often illegally on private land, and are constantly at risk of being displaced, according to Selectboard member Simon Dennis.

“We don’t, as a region, have enough housing. Therefore, it’s not (fair) to make it illegal for people to exist,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “Existence can’t be criminalized.”

Dennis introduced the idea at a Selectboard meeting earlier this month, saying that the proposed site should be on town-owned land, be accessible to emergency personnel and be “roughly out of eyeshot,” because many in the homeless community like to keep their privacy.

It would also need to be within walking distance — or about three-quarters of a mile — of an Advance Transit stop, so that people living at the camp can easily get into town, Dennis said.

“It’s hard to find the perfect property that meets all those requirements but I’m sure it’s out there,” Dennis said of the proposed campsite at the July 2 meeting.

Board members discussed three spots that might fit the bill: Maanawaka Conservation Area on Route 5 in Wilder; Hurricane Forest, which sits in the town forest just off Wright Reservoir Road; and the woods behind the Upper Valley Aquatic Center.

The latter two sites are near Route 5 south of downtown White River Junction, not far from the VA Medical Center.

Town Manager Brannon Godfrey agreed to have town staff assess the feasibility of using different sites and to bring their findings back to the Selectboard within the month.

He said in an interview this week that researchers are considering potential zoning issues, how accessible the sites are for emergency responders, and what kind of effect a campsite could have on neighboring properties.

If the town goes forward with the plan, it could help address some of the problems people who are living outdoors experience now, according to Upper Valley Haven Director Michael Redmond.

He said many of the current camps are trespassing on private land, have no running water and no way to clean waste, and are often inaccessible to emergency personnel.

“If there was such a camp that had better sanitation, clean water, bathrooms, a shower, garbage pickup, that’s better than what occurs now,” Redmond said.

Some people who are homeless say the idea is a good one, because it could afford basic necessities that have long been difficult to access.

“I think it would benefit a lot of people,” said Scott Alexander, who is originally from the Barre, Vt., area but is staying at a motel near Hartford. He added that having a shower and a locker to store belongings “would be less stress” for the community.

David Valley, who is also living homeless in Hartford, said he especially likes the idea of being able to regularly find a shower and running water, since there are few places to take a shower now.

But he said he hopes it will be easy to travel between the camp and the town.

“Distance is the biggest issue,” Valley said, explaining that many homeless people choose to live far from downtown White River Junction and have to leave their camps early each morning in order to access food and resources. “If you don’t start at 5 a.m., you aren’t getting out.”

John Laniefsky, who has been homeless in White River Junction for a year, raised questions of safety and how involved town officials and police would be in the site.

“I think it’s a great idea, but the only question is who would patrol it and would we be getting raided every time we turn around?” he said. Laniefsky said he and some other homeless people are wary of police after having been “hassled” for sleeping in his car in a municipal parking lot last year. (Police have said a Hartford ordinance prohibits overnight camping, including sleeping in a car, in non-camping site areas in town.)

Interaction with police is a concern local activists have raised, as well. Recently, activists pushed for the Upper Valley Haven to stop going out to campsites with police officers, saying that some homeless people are reluctant to ask for services or help if they have to interact with police, according to Hartford resident Asma Elhuni, a co-founder of Rise! Upper Valley.

Laniefsky said another concern he has about a potential site is that some members of the homeless community don’t get along with others, and that could create issues if they are all living in one place.

“I felt safer in the woods than I ever felt being around anybody,” Laniefsky said.

However, he stressed that he ultimately supports the idea because it could give homeless people a place to eat, sleep and shower.

“What do homeless people need? A shower — running water — would be the best thing in the entire world,” he said.

The idea for the site first came up in a report from a town Committee on Homelessness released in late February.

The seven-person advisory committee was tasked with analyzing homelessness in the town and exploring possible short- and long-term solutions to the housing crisis in Hartford.

Included in their solutions were suggestions for a municipal camping area with “sanitary resources” and storage facilities where homeless people can keep belongings.

Though the report was released in February, Dennis said the outbreak of the new coronavirus has made it especially timely.

Earlier this year, Dennis was focused on another project to provide better living conditions for homeless people when his organization, the Center for Transformational Practice, along with about 20 volunteers, created four heated wood domes to provide shelter in the winter.

The domes, which are transportable, were put up around Hartford in January and February, and two have since been moved to storage.

A state voucher program has helped many homeless people stay in motels throughout the outbreak, but the program’s shelf life is ending and many of those people will find themselves living outside again soon, Dennis said.

He added that he doesn’t know when the voucher program is going to end.

When it does, the town may see a spike in its homeless population, according to Godfrey, the town manager.

Before the virus there were around 40 people in the area, but with the voucher program, many more people came to Hartford and surrounding towns because of the available motels in the area, bringing that population up to around 100.

The increase adds a new complication to the campsite plan: Many people in need of housing may decide to remain in the area and stay at the campsite, while others may travel to Hartford from surrounding towns just to use the site.

“It would be a Hartford solution for the region,” Godfrey said, adding that a population increase could put a strain on town resources like emergency services.

Godfrey said he also hopes the site doesn’t detract from long-term goals surrounding affordable housing.

“My issue with (the plan) is that it allows to continue the absolute lowest form of housing: living outside.

“By allowing it to continue we’re not making any effort to find permanent, secure housing for people,” Godfrey said.

That’s a consideration Redmond raised as well.

As a member of the advisory committee, Redmond said he is supportive of the plan to create a campsite for the community, but he agrees that it’s imperative for the town to keep pushing for more affordable housing.

“The most important thing is not to lose sight of the long-term goal: that everybody should have a place to live,” he said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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