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Lebanon City Council Delays Hearing on Homeless

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/6/2016 12:30:48 AM
Modified: 10/6/2016 10:53:02 AM

Lebanon — The City Council voted on Wednesday to postpone a public hearing on an ordinance to regulate camping in order to rework the proposal to give police more discretion when dealing with the homeless.

The ordinance, which would make it illegal to camp or park overnight on city property, was recommended by the city’s Task Force on Homelessness.

Although the wording of the ordinance is similar to a version that was tabled by the City Council in June, the task force’s proposal sought to ease penalties for first-time offenders.

“I’ve done a 360 on where I was this spring,” said Bev McKinley, a task force member who founded Silent Warriors, a group that helps homeless people in the Upper Valley.

When an ordinance initially was proposed last spring in response to a homeless encampment off Route 12A near the city’s sewer treatment plant in West Lebanon, McKinley opposed it because she thought it was a thinly veiled effort to harass the homeless.

Now, McKinley supports the ordinance.

“I see how the dynamics of everyone involved started falling apart,” she said.

People moved into the encampment who were less than welcoming compared to the initial crowd.

The task force itself was formed to find solutions for those living at the lot after public outrage at the previous proposal.

Members of the task force argued on Wednesday that the ordinance is needed to move people off the West Lebanon lot.

Ultimately, the council decided to further review the ordinance before setting a hearing, and intends to do so at a future meeting.

Many of the task force members are from area social service agencies and, like McKinley, were themselves critical of the June ordinance. After spending months working to find people homes, they’ve now hit roadblocks finding people help.

“With all the success that was found in the collaborative effort of the (social services organizations), we sadly acknowledge that we could not meet all of the needs of the homeless individuals at the Market Street location,” the task force said in a report to the council.

Physical handicaps, mental illness and addiction all posed barriers to finding people homes, the task force said. Other challenges, characterized as “barriers of choice,” also made finding placement difficult, including an unwillingness by individuals to work with the group, live in a shelter or without pets.

Housing also became a challenge, said Lynne Goodwin, the city’s human services director. She said the shortest waiting list for housing hovers around two years, and short-term shelters are becoming places where people can wait for a year before finding a placement.

Although some people still are without housing, the task force was able to find placement for many living at the encampment. When the group began meeting in late July, it identified 15 people living in the lot and began working to find them housing.

Using programs that provide rental assistance and temporary housing, they found some individuals placement in the Upper Valley. In its report, the task force acknowledged some people now are camping in other areas of the city or in White River Junction, in addition to the three people still living off Market Street in West Lebanon.

City councilors were supportive of the task force’s work on Wednesday, and many congratulated the group on its success moving people from the lot.

“It was very clear to me early on that the value the council added to this was just essentially inviting everyone to the table,” said Councilor Karen Liot Hill, who also was a task force member.

“I’m thrilled at the success you all found,” added Mayor Georgia Tuttle.

Not everyone was pleased with how the task force conducted its work or its findings, however.

Councilor Sarah Welsch said the group seemed to play “close to the chest” and released very little information about its progress. If she didn’t actively read news reports or search out information, she said, she wouldn’t have known what was going on.

Service organizations in the task force have agreed to continue meeting outside of city government in the future, and Welsch encouraged them to open those meetings to the public. By inviting people in, they could hear new ideas and gain valuable new resources, she said.

Both Liot Hill and Councilor Bruce Bronner pushed back at Welsch’s assertion that the task force didn’t provide regular updates.

“All of the task force meetings were open to the public. Nobody came,” Bronner said.

State Rep. Sue Almy, D-Lebanon, worried that the service organizations would drift apart once talk of homelessness died down. She said there was a similar crisis 20 years ago that brought groups together, but they didn’t continue on.

“I think that one thing that has to be done is some kind of annual report to the council or something so that the group doesn’t drift apart again,” she said.

Almy also took aim at the proposed ordinance. She said the task force only housed about 25 percent of those at the Market Street lot, and the remaining left to camp elsewhere. With winter coming, she said, enforcing the ordinance could put an undue burden on those people.

“We need long-term solutions and we need the City Council to be behind those long-term solutions,” Almy said.

The task force has argued the ordinance would be more humane than enforcing an existing state law prohibiting camping on municipal property. The possible punishment for trespassing, they say, could be greater than the ordinance’s initial warning.

Liot Hill defended that position on Wednesday, and said the law would give discretion to police over state statutes. But Almy said many state laws no longer are enforced or enforceable.

“When you put in an ordinance, you own it,” she said.

City councilors also worried about the penalties set forth in the ordinance, and some said they would rather discuss easing them further before holding a public hearing.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com.


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