Homelessness Ordinance Gets Revision

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2016 12:26:14 AM

Lebanon — Months after city officials dropped plans to enact a ban on overnight camping on most municipal property, Lebanon’s new task force on homelessness is preparing to ask City Council to reconsider the matter.

This summer, a coalition of city employees and representatives from social service agencies is working to find housing for individuals living in a homeless encampment on a vacant lot near the Route 12A commercial strip.

Those involved contend that an ordinance would help with the removal of hold-outs who refuse aid or to leave the city-owned lot near the municipal water treatment plant.

The proposed ordinance is similar to one tabled by councilors in June, according to Interim City Manager Paula Maville, but with a softened enforcement mechanism.

Instead of the $100 fine that accompanied the initial proposal, first-time violators would be given a warning, and a second offense would warrant a fine, Maville said last week.

She said City Council likely would receive a recommendation for the ordinance on Oct. 5, and a public hearing would be scheduled for later that month.

It was public opposition at a hearing in June that led councilors to scuttle the previous proposal.

“We know that the enforcement aspect was what made people so adverse to (the ordinance),” Maville told the task force during an Aug. 26 meeting.

More than 100 people attended a June hearing on the original ordinance, and many argued the proposal effectively criminalized homelessness since it’s unlikely those fined would be able to pay. Facing fierce opposition, the City Council instead elected to create a task force to find solutions for those at the Market Street lot.

Since then, city officials and aid organizations have held regular meetings and established a procedure to assess each homeless person’s needs in an effort to provide targeted services.

“We’re doing what we need to do to assist the homeless that are there now... and I believe that’s what the main concern when we first brought this forward,” Maville said in an audio recording of the August meeting.

Of the 15 people initially identified at the city-owned lot on Market Street, eight moved out by the end of August and another seven were still there, said Lynn Goodwin, the city’s human services director. The task force was unable to meet a goal of finding a solution for all those individuals by Sept. 1.

“Some of the significant barriers that we keep running up against are mental health issues, physical health issues and substance abuse issues,” she said during the August task force meeting. “Severe alcoholism is a roadblock to working with two individuals down there.”

At the lot itself, the property’s circular dirt driveway is almost abandoned now.

Only a few of the dozen or so original tents are still on the property, and most of the vehicles that remain are abandoned.

Thomas Moore has lived at the lot since moving from the nearby Walmart parking lot this spring. He said last week that there are only three people still living there, but they’re all optimistic about being placed in housing.

Moore said an official with the nonprofit Tri-County CAP was able to help him track down his military service records and had him scheduled to begin living near Mascoma Lake last week until the arrangement fell through because of Moore’s pet dog Inky.

“I will not give my dog up,” he said. “I will live under a tree some place before I give him up.”

Moore said he was troubled the task force was planning to recommend an ordinance.

He said any fine, regardless of the size, would be unfair, though he was optimistic he and the others remaining would be in stable housing before it took effect.

“We’re all trying to get a place,” he said. “Who wants to be here in the middle of winter?”

State law already prohibits camping on municipal property without permission, but the statute leaves little leeway for police in dealing with offenders.

Officers responding to a homeless camp had to choose between charging people with criminal trespassing or leaving them alone.

The city’s proposed ordinance would allow for more flexibility, said City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, who also sits on the homelessness task force.

“I think a lot of people probably assumed that maybe (camping) was legal and the proposed ordinance was making it more serious for people,” Liot Hill said.

She told other councilors during a recent council meeting that the ordinance could be coming back as soon as October.

Liot Hill said other cities have addressed the problem in a similar manner — a partnership of social services and law enforcement.

That’s a point Police Chief Richard Mello brought up in the late August task force meeting.

“We’ve often been accused of doing something that other cities aren’t doing or we aren’t being as innovative as other cities,” he said in an audio recording. “I can tell you that every single city that I looked at that has a homelessness problem that has addressed it by any means has an ordinance in place to prevent it. Every single one.”

In an interview last week, Mello said the ordinance wouldn’t eliminate homelessness, but it offers a tool to prevent future encampments on city land.

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


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