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Jim Kenyon: No Room for the Homeless in Lebanon

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Published: 12/17/2016 11:59:49 PM
Modified: 12/18/2016 12:48:40 AM

Who does the Lebanon City Council think it’s kidding? The ban on overnight camping on public land that recently passed by a 6-2 vote is nothing more than a not-so-subtle ploy to push the city’s homeless to neighboring communities.

Or, better yet, out of the Upper Valley entirely.

Councilors are trying to sell the new ordinance as a “more humane” way to deal with squatters (i.e. the homeless) who don’t heed police warnings to leave city-owned property in a timely fashion. It addresses the problem “without charging an individual with a crime,” said Mayor Georgia Tuttle.

Now, when Lebanon police stumble across a homeless encampment, such as the one that popped up earlier this year in a vacant city lot off Route 12A in West Lebanon, they won’t have to enforce a state law against trespassing on public property, supporters argue.

Instead of making an arrest, police can hand an offender a ticket, as they do for traffic violations. The offender could still end up going to court and paying a $100 fine, but they’ll be spared a criminal record.

How considerate.

In fact, police already have the freedom to use discretion in these kind of cases — it’s just a matter of whether they want to use it, said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

“The ordinance is unnecessary,” Bissonnette told me. “We think it’s bad policy.”

Despite what a majority of Lebanon councilors would like the public to believe, the ordinance isn’t about going easy on people who have fallen upon hard times, often due to their struggles with mental illness or substance abuse.

It’s about ridding the city of undesirables.

“It evicts people who are poor and homeless from public lands,” said Bissonnette, who urged the rejection of the proposal in a letter to the council before the Dec. 7 vote. “This is a municipal passing of the buck. It forces these folks to move to the next community.”

Lebanon’s public officials and business leaders probably could have lived with homeless folks continuing to camp on the banks of the Connecticut, where they remained mostly out of sight, out of mind.

But some drifters had taken to panhandling along 12A. That didn’t sit well with chamber-of-commerce types who consider guys with tattered clothes looking for handouts bad for business. And since state laws don’t prevent panhandlers from setting up shop at intersections and highway ramps, city officials had to dream up another way to discourage the homeless from, well, making Lebanon their home.

With the down-and-out now prohibited from “tenting” on city land, Lebanon is betting that they’ll move along to another community to beg for motorists’ change.

The potential for the ordinance’s ability to cut down on both squatters and panhandlers was too much for councilors to resist. A classic two-for-one.

Councilors Clifton Below and Sarah Welsch voted against the ordinance, with Below arguing that the proposal should be tabled to give more time to come up with more long-term solutions to homelessness in the Upper Valley.

The Rev. Rebecca Girrell, pastor at the United Methodist Church in Lebanon, echoed their sentiments. If the city is not “able to provide its residents with accessible housing and with adequate services for individuals, we cannot then turn around and punish people for the conditions under which they are surviving,” she told the council.

This isn’t the first time that the city has given the homeless a cold shoulder. In 2006, the Upper Valley Haven was interested in building a shelter on Mechanic Street, but the Lebanon Zoning Board declined to grant several zoning exceptions. The Haven ended up building its 20-bed shelter for single adults in Hartford.

In the decade since turning away the Haven, Lebanon has become a bit more progressive. This year, city officials worked with nonprofit social service organizations to find housing for some squatters.

“Agencies are working better together to serve more people, more quickly and more comprehensively,” said Councilor Karen Liot Hill, one of the ban’s most vocal supporters. Councilors Bruce Bonner, Bill Finn, Erling Heistad and Tim McNamara, along with Tuttle, the city’s mayor, voted for the ban as well.

“This is not a Draconian law,” Hill said. “It will allow police to be more compassionate. No one is going to be arrested for homelessness this winter.”

Lynne Goodwin, the city’s director of human services, assured the public that “we’re not trying to drive homeless residents out of Lebanon.”

Similar bans in other states have been “deemed constitutionally problematic,” said Bissonnette, who indicated the ACLU hasn’t decided whether it will initiate a court challenge to the ordinance.

One of people who spoke against the ordinance at the public hearing was Christopher Hunter, a young homeless man from Massachusetts.

Hunter, who has been homeless for seven months and spent time panhandling on 12A, leaned on his cane as he addressed councilors. After conducting the city’s business, “all of you go home to your houses,” he said. “You don’t understand what we have to do just to survive.”

Particularly in Lebanon, a community that goes out of its way to make sure the homeless don’t feel at home.

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