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Editorial: Live Free or Move On in Lebanon

Published: 12/17/2016 9:00:04 PM
Modified: 12/17/2016 9:00:05 PM

Now that the Lebanon City Council has outlawed being homeless on city property at night, the targets of the ordinance it passed earlier this month are presumably taking urgent steps to comply by securing affordable apartments downtown or checking out the homeless shelters run by the city. Indeed, we are fairly confident that the $100 fine that can now be levied by police will provide sufficient motivation for the homeless to finally turn their lives around and get under a warm roof with the depths of winter fast approaching. Either that, or find a cozy cardboard box out in the woods somewhere where the cops don’t routinely patrol.

Yes, those affordable apartments and city-run shelters are a fantasy, but, then again, so is the council’s idea that fining homeless people for camping on city property at night addresses whatever problem it perceives to exist. Unless, of course, the real motivation is simply to move them along to the next community, which the ordinance might actually accomplish. But it also could be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The ordinance makes it unlawful “for any person to camp, or to park, for the purposes of occupancy, any vehicle or recreational vehicle, either overnight or for any two-hour period between dawn and dusk, on any City-owned lands within the City of Lebanon.” Camping is defined as “pitching a tent, or placing or erecting any other camping device, or sleeping on the ground.” (Whoever thought it would ever become illegal to sleep on the ground in the Live Free or Die State?) Anyway, violators may be fined up to $100. Under a separate policy adopted by the police department, before fines are imposed officers will issue a warning to vacate within 48 hours and offer information about services available to the homeless.

This strikes us as an enforcement nightmare. What if the homeless individual has no identification: To whom would the fine be issued? In any case, what are the chances that he or she has $100 to pay a fine, and what happens if the fine isn’t paid? What if the homeless insist on contesting the fine in court, tying up costly prosecutorial and police department resources? That might not be so far-fetched, since the courts are generally clean, warm and have running water in the bathrooms. It might not be a bad way to spend a cold day if you are homeless.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has raised more fundamental objections to the ordinance in a letter to the City Council. One is that it is unnecessary and overly broad in criminalizing homelessness throughout the city when the impetus for it was a few people camping on city land near the Hannaford supermarket, which elicited no great public outcry.

But the chief problem, says the ACLU, is that the U.S. Department of Justice “has correctly concluded that efforts by municipalities to make it a crime for homeless people to sleep in public places unconstitutionally punish these individuals for being homeless when there is insufficient shelter space within the municipality.”

So, perhaps the solution is for the council to authorize construction and staffing of a city-run shelter large enough to meet the needs of the homeless population. That would be a welcome outcome and a much better one than having a homeless person freeze to death in a snowbank somewhere after being rousted off city land. 







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