Editorial: Homeless in Lebanon

Published: 6/7/2016 10:00:10 PM
Modified: 6/13/2016 11:09:22 AM

The Upper Valley considers itself a region with a big heart. The support for nonprofits that deliver help to people in need is strong, which has allowed the Upper Valley Haven family and adult shelters in White River Junction to grow to a size that its founders could not have imagined when it opened in 1980. And yet, with the lack of affordable housing in the region, homelessness remains a problem.

Lebanon and the region will face another test of their commitment to helping people who lack permanent housing when the City Council holds a June 15 public hearing on a proposed ordinance banning camping on most city-owned land. This follows an increase in the number of people living in tents and vehicles on a small piece of city land off Market Street in West Lebanon, near the Hannaford Supermarket. Acting City Manager Paula Maville said last month that there had been no complaints about the camp, but that there was a lot of “talk’’ in the city about it.

Action often follows such talk, but Sara Kobylenski, Haven executive director, said last month that outlawing camping would not solve much, only that “the folks that are camping there, if told they can’t be there, will move somewhere else.” The problem would be kicked down the road.

TheNew York Times recently reported on major initiatives to move homeless people out of Waikiki and the Chinatown sections of Honolulu, Hawaii, to protect tourism in the former and encourage redevelopment in the latter. Authorities have reported successes of a kind, but the homeless have migrated into other neighborhoods, or have adjusted their patterns to avoid police. This experience mirrors what has happened in mainland cities as well.

There are questions about the constitutionality of laws that target the homeless. The U.S. Justice Department filed a brief last year in a case asking a judge to throw out a Boise, Idaho, ordinance, arguing that prohibiting camping in a community where there is insufficient shelter violates constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. The New Hampshire ACLU has expressed doubts about Lebanon’s possible course of action; the City Council should release any legal opinion it has that supports the legality of the proposed ordinance. The effectiveness of a new law is also open to question. Tickets and fines are ineffectual if campers cannot pay — as many almost certainly will be unable to. The New Hampshire ACLU contends that it’s unconstitutional to put people in jail when they are unable to pay fines. It is also heartless to overlook the fact that they are people, and not the labels such as scofflaws or vagrants that others might attach to them.

The city could first gauge the willingness of social services, churches, nonprofits and others to explore what can be done about this continuing and complex problem, which involves not only economic forces but complicating factors such as addiction and mental health. It is likely that some of those agencies would be eager to partner with the city to see what can be accomplished, and, in the long run, to seek a new approach. The City Council should take them up on it, and reject the lure of an alleged solution that is no solution at all.

 

 




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