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Editorial: Helping Lebanon’s Homeless

Published: 9/16/2016 9:59:56 PM
Modified: 9/16/2016 10:00:06 PM

The question of what to do about the homeless camp in West Lebanon has tested the city’s ability to respond with effectiveness and compassion. From what we hear from the task force that has been dealing with the issue, it appears the city has taken steps in the right direction by making a concentrated effort to help people living there. There reportedly are fewer people living at the city lot near Hanaford’s supermarket, and those who are there are confident about finding housing before harsh weather sets in. Patience and perseverance could be paying off.

It didn’t appear those qualities would rule the day before June, when advocates, churches, social service agencies and others argued against a proposed ban on overnight camping on most municipal property. The ban carried a $100 fine for a first offense. Opponents argued it would virtually criminalize homelessness, since people who could not pay the fine could wind up in the county jail.

Faced with passionate public opposition, the City Council instead formed a task force to see what could be done. Not all early reports were upbeat: “It’s the Wild West down there,’’ Police Chief Richard Mello told the nine members of the task force in late July. “Every time we walk down there, there’s drug use.’’ City officials said that many of the homeless people originally staying on the lot had moved, and newcomers were creating an unsafe environment.

When the task force met in August, Lynn Goodwin, the city’s human services director, said seven of the original occupants of the site were still there. Officials were working hard to find them housing, but were running up against barriers such as mental health issues, medical problems and substance abuse. Nevertheless, a resident at the site told staff writer Tim Camerato that he was optimistic that all would find housing before winter.

From the beginning, it was obvious that homelessness was not an issue that a single community could solve on its own. But the City Council, no doubt moved by the public response, invited action that would not only protect the public safety, but respect the dignity of people who are homeless.

The task force is likely to recommend a revised ordinance that would restrict camping, but allow police to give an initial warning before handing out fines. We see that as a modest improvement over the proposal the City Council rejected, but still think the emphasis should be on delivering services rather than citations. Real progress will happen over time when police, city officials, outside agencies and, yes, do-gooders, continue to seek solutions beyond penalizing the homeless. Offering services is the right thing to do — a worthy public policy even when failures will surely be mixed in with successes.

Around the country, communities such as Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., are experimenting with providing inexpensive “tiny homes” for homeless veterans and others so they can have stability in their lives. Are any Upper Valley organizations daring enough to follow their lead?




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