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Hartford’s homeless community shares concerns with Selectboard as temperatures fall

  • John Laniefsky, 53, a former taxi driver who has been homeless and living in a tent in White River Junction , Vt., since June, spoke to the Hartford Selectboard at their meeting Tuesday about the high numbers of people living outside in tents or cars. Laniefsky, who was able to secure a motel room for a week to avoid sleeping outside in cold temperatures, checked on his camp in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday evening, Nov. 21, 2019. Laniefsky panhandles to supplement his income from Social Security Disability and says he is grateful for all that has been given to him, including a warm, high visibility jacket that a paving worker handed him out of a truck window. "I don't want anyone to suffer and if I can help, I will," he said about his occassional practice of buying Kentucky Fried Chicken for others struggling to eat. "I don't feel anybody has the right to judge me but God." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • John Laniefsky, right, eats at the Listen Community Dinner as Dwayne Morse, left, shares a cigarette with Cheryl Fleming in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 22, 2019. Laniefsky said that after more than a decade of drug use he has been clean for five years, but since divorced and has struggled with depression. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cheryl Fleming, left, and Andrew Daniels, stood talking in the parking lot after a Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 22, 2019. Fleming is staying in tent and Daniels has been finding shelter where he can while waiting for the seasonal overnight shelter at the Upper Valley Haven to open on November 25. Daniels said he has been homeless since his release from prison last February. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mike Chamness, of White River Junction, the organizer behind UV Gear prepares a delivery of cold weather camping gear, hand warmers and propane bottles to take to a homeless encampment in downtown White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 22, 2019. Chamness said he has stretched a budget of $10,000, donated by the Byrne Foundation, to provide toiletries, camping supplies and emergency shelter to about 90 people over the last year. (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: 11/22/2019 9:25:48 PM
Modified: 11/22/2019 9:30:30 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Charles Russo was trying to find some rest and shelter from the cold when he parked his car in a Hartford parking lot earlier this month and settled down to sleep. But before the night was over, police had asked him to move, Russo said.

“I’m not trying to cause a problem, I’m just trying to live to see the next day,” Russo said this week.

Originally from New Jersey, Russo is one of an estimated 40 people experiencing homelessness in Hartford. Many are sleeping in their cars, some are able to find the rare warmth in the area’s few crowded homeless shelters and plenty more are sleeping in tents outside. But as temperatures continue to drop and shelters fill up, homeless people wonder how they’ll survive.

“There’s really no place for you to go. … It’s not your decision for this to happen,” Russo said, adding that he wishes police wouldn’t make him and other homeless people move out of public areas so frequently. “Being out there is hard enough as it is. If you’re not trashing the place or causing a disturbance, why are people pushing you out?”

Police said there are several reasons to ask people to leave, including safety concerns or cases where someone camps on private property without permission. But in Russo’s case, police would have been following a Hartford ordinance, which prohibits overnight camping (including sleeping in a car) in non-camping site areas in Hartford, according to Hartford Police Deputy Chief Brad Vail. He said the rule has “always been on the books” but police usually enforce it when they get complaints.

Russo was one of a group of a half-dozen people from the homeless community who aired their concerns and three who shared their stories during a Selectboard meeting Tuesday evening. They were joined by Mike Chamness, co-director of UVGEAR, which helps provide supplies, including clothes, tents, and sleeping bags to homeless people. Chamness said he encouraged folks to speak at the meeting because it’s important for the town to understand how serious the problem of homelessness is in Hartford, especially as temperatures plummet.

“I wanted clients to know that they can come to the Selectboard and address the powers that be, the folks that are pulling the purse strings for social services in the area,” Chamness told Selectboard members.

Much of the discussion Tuesday focused on the need for more available shelter in the winter months. Upper Valley Haven, which is based in White River Junction, offers beds in its Hixon and Byrne houses as well as a 15-bed seasonal shelter that opens Nov. 25 this year and closes in April, but they all fill up quickly, especially in the winter months. There is existing empty space throughout the town that could be used as shelter, Chamness said, adding that some businesses in Hartford have offered their buildings for homeless people to sleep in during winter nights. However, the town and the Hartford Committee on Homelessness would need to work out the logistics of that proposal before they go forward.

“The winters here are long,” Russo told the Selectboard Tuesday. He said that his car with all of his belongings was towed a few days ago because his license was revoked. He and other homeless people just need “a warm place to put their heads.”

Russo also told the board that having accessible shelter space could help keep public, open spaces in the town from turning into an area like Skid Row, a neighborhood in Los Angeles known for its high homeless population. More shelter options could cut down on drug use and littering that can be common in outdoor homeless communities, Russo said.

“You can control that if there’s an environment (homeless people) can go to,” he said.

For Belinda Perigny, who said that’s she’s considered “chronically homeless,” the coming winter is a big concern. Perigny said she’s been fortunate to not be homeless during the winter before, and that she and her dog, a Shih Tzu named Annie, sleep in her car or rely on family and friends for a place to rest. But she’s worried about other homeless people in Hartford as the weather gets colder. She recalled a homeless couple she recently met going to sleep in their tents in the early afternoon so they wouldn’t need to face the cold awake.

Hartford has been trying to address the issue for a couple of years. Two years ago, for instance, Hartford police started working in partnership with the Haven to check regularly on the welfare of people who were homeless, including helping to get vulnerable people out of the cold.

Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis said in an interview after the meeting that he feels an increasing sense of urgency to provide support for the homeless community, especially since it’s grown in recent years. He recalled a moment just a few weeks ago, when he came out of a meeting to find a man sitting in the Hartford Town Hall lobby, refusing to sleep out in the cold. Dennis and others who attended the meeting called shelters and hotels in the area until they found a place for the man to stay that night, he said.

Dennis said neighboring municipalities — including Lebanon, Hanover, Norwich and other Upper Valley towns — are addressing the issue together. The regional approach ensures that individual towns don’t get overwhelmed by the responsibility of finding shelter and resources for homeless people in the entire region.

Dennis said there also needs to be what he called a “broad coalition and support” with local churches and businesses.

This summer the town was faced with a boom in the number of homeless people, according to Chamness, who said UVGEAR gave away three times the supplies they had budgeted for. At one point in the summer the organization was experiencing two to three requests per day for tents, sleeping bags or other supplies.

Chamness blamed the increase on evictions and the rising cost of rent in the Upper Valley, and he said he expects it to grow as the housing crisis gets worse.

In an attempt to tackle the problem head-on, community members and town officials formed the Hartford Committee on Homelessness this summer, which works with service providers in the area to learn about the homeless population in Hartford and research ways to support homeless people and help them find shelter.

Chamness said the committee is currently drafting a report, which will include information on the state of homelessness today, resources that are available and ways to support and provide more supplies and shelter to the homeless population.

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

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