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Public Hearing Date for Proposed Homeless Ordinance Set in Lebanon

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2016 12:48:41 AM
Modified: 6/3/2016 11:32:31 AM

Lebanon — A public hearing date has been set for a proposed city ordinance intended to curtail homeless camping on public property.

The ordinance will go before the City Council on June 15. If passed, it would make it illegal to park or camp on city-owned property “for the purposes of occupancy” for more than two hours between dusk and dawn. The law would apply to tents, motor homes, vans, mini vans, campers, recreational trailers and tent trailers.

Lebanon’s conservation land, including Boston Lot Lake off Route 10, and special events with a permit would be exempt from the law.

Violating the ordinance could result in a $100 fine, and the ordinance would allow the city to tow vehicles away.

The proposed ordinance is a response to homeless people camping in a vacant lot near the Hannaford supermarket on Route 12A, Police Chief Richard Mello said in a memo to the City Council. The lot near Market Street is one of several city locations where homeless people are known to stay.

With no restrooms, trash cans or oversight of the lot, Mello said, the property poses a “potential liability” to the city.

“Further, the lack of services and facilities, such as is seen at the Hannaford location, creates an additional impact to the surrounding area businesses,” he said in the memo.

People who use the lot say it provides a safe and secure place to sleep away from the bustle and lights of Route 12A. Speaking to the Valley News in May, Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, said the law likely would force homeless people to relocate to other Upper Valley communities.

“I think the folks that are camping there, if told they can’t be there, will move elsewhere,” she said in May.

Mello’s memo also cited a February incident where police asked a homeless man to leave Storrs Hill as an example of the need for such an ordinance.

He and other officials have said they cannot remove people from the city lot near Hannaford without the ordinance, but officers told John Caswell, 60, he had to leave his tarp shelter near the ski area.

“I’m not sure there is a difference” between the Hannaford and Storrs Hill situations, Mello said in an interview on Wednesday. But the ordinance should help police determine appropriate actions in the future, he said.

Acting City Manager Paula Maville said the city intends to work with local organizations to find help for people camping near Hannaford.

“We wouldn’t be down there on June 16 towing vehicles and removing people,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

Instead, the city Welfare Office and police department intend to begin a public outreach campaign once the ordinance is passed. A deadline will be set for people to leave city property, but not before they can be offered help, Maville said.

“We don’t want to further somebody’s misfortune, but at the same point in time, the social services that some of these people need are outside the bounds of what the city is capable of providing,” she said.

It’s not certain the proposed ordinance could withstand a legal challenge, however.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has “serious concerns” with the proposed ordinance, legal director Gilles Bissonnette said in an email on Wednesday.

“We hope Lebanon gives serious consideration as to how this ordinance impacts the least fortunate within its borders,” he said.

The ACLU took the state to court in 2013, requesting a temporary injunction against the removal of homeless people from state-owned land near the Everett Arena in Concord. A Merrimack Superior Court judge granted the temporary injunction, but declined to issue a permanent one.

“As the United States Department of Justice has explained as recently as last year, municipalities cannot make it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places when there is insufficient shelter space in the municipality, as doing so unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless,” Bissonnette said.

Homeless people told to leave state land in 2013 were directed to Concord’s McKenna House, though those affected noted they were told by city officials that the house rarely had openings. They then were directed to seek shelter in another city.

Since that time, there hasn’t been any other suit concerning whether a New Hampshire community has space for the homeless in its shelters.

At the time, the McKenna House had 26 shelter beds. The Upper Valley Haven currently has 20 beds in the Hixon House Adult Shelter, room for eight families in its Byrne House Family Shelter and additional space when its seasonal shelter is open in the winter, according to the nonprofit’s website. That seasonal space has 10 cots.

 

A hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for 7 p.m. on June 15 at City Hall.

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




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