Lebanon Homeless Concerns On Rise

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2016 12:06:55 AM

Lebanon — Members of the city’s newly formed homeless task force last week were given a grim picture of an encampment on city-owned land off Route 12A.

Lebanon officials told the nine-member committee that many of the original homeless people who were staying at the vacant lot near Hannaford supermarket and the Connecticut River now are gone, but they are quickly being replaced by others, which is creating an unsafe environment.

“I don’t know how you expect me to manage that space right now,” Police Chief Richard Mello said, according to an audio recording of the task force’s first meeting on Friday. “It’s the Wild West down there. Every time we walk down there, there’s drug use.”

In June, the City Council took up a camping ordinance that would have prohibited people from camping at the vacant lot near Hannaford supermarket and other city-owned properties and imposed fines for those who refused to leave. The proposal was dropped by councilors, who faced intense opposition to the law during a public meeting in the Lebanon Opera House. They instead agreed to create the task force.

Before much attention was placed on the lot, those residing there became familiar with the property and each other, Mello said. But the number of homeless campers has since increased, he said, and the environment has changed for the worse.

City officials believe about 12 people were camping out on the lot in June. The latest count from Tri-County CAP shows no change, but police and social service agencies believe much of that original group now is gone, and more people come to the property at night.

“We had all these people that were living down there before, but they were by and large law-abiding people. They were just living there,” he said. “Now we have people who are starting to flock there who are not law-abiding people. We have a lot of drugs that are going on there. We have some violence going on there.”

Mello said the lot has become a problem not only for police, but for the fire department, as well. Both agencies have seen a “significant” increase in calls because of the homeless population there, he said.

“There is something bad that’s going to happen down there,” Mello warned, adding that avoiding problems caused by the presence of a homeless encampment itself is the most pressing issue.

Regardless of the camping ordinance, Interim City Manager Paula Maville said at the meeting that camping is not legal in the city’s general commercial zone, where the lot is located. There’s also a state law prohibiting unauthorized camping on government property.

“While we do, I believe, have the rights under state law to probably remove the people that are there ... it’s not the route that we decided we’re going to take,” Maville said.

She informed the task force that the city’s insurance company also considers the situation a liability. It recommends that property owners maintain safe premises and perform regular inspections, a task Mello said is almost impossible without sanctioning the encampment or violating civil liberties.

Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, said she recently attended a conference on homelessness in Washington. One of the recommended ways to reduce encampment populations is in a piecemeal manner, she said, addressing the needs of one person at a time.

Kobylenski said Tri-County CAP and other organizations already have begun that effort, but housing also needs to be a part of the solution.

“It’s going to take time and creativity, and it may not all be in White River Junction or Lebanon,” she said.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill proposed exploring the creation of a permanent and sanctioned place for the homeless to camp in the city, but that was met by a quick “no” from Bev McKinley of Silent Warriors, an organization that helps homeless people in the Upper Valley.

“In the spring, I preached and preached about how wonderful this group of people were, and they got along and they were working all together,” McKinley said. “Since the council meeting, it has just exploded. I know of several incidents that you’ve dealt with and the type of people that are down there. Their personalities are just volatile.”

Kobylenski said it might be possible to open a short-term shelter at the Haven’s Byrne House Family Shelter in White River Junction, which is permitted for 46 beds, but rarely fills all of them with families.

Not everyone at the Hannaford lot wants to find housing, though, and the task force agreed that there needs to be a way to move them off of the property. Mello, the police chief, suggested the ordinance discussed in June would allow city officials to do just that, but that the City Council could insert language delaying a fine if someone is working with social services.

“I have to say I am feeling more than ever that in fact this ordinance is necessary,” Liot Hill said. “Probably, the sooner we enact it, the better.”

Task force members agreed to compile profiles and a list of needs for those at the lot and begin planning for alternative emergency housing before their next meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. on Aug. 12 in City Hall.

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




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