Editorial: Follow words with deeds in Lebanon

Published: 03-13-2023 10:07 AM

At a City Council meeting earlier this winter, Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland asked, “Isn’t government supposed to solve problems?” This rhetorical question constituted a welcome reaffirmation of the power of democratic institutions to promote the public good. It also seems emblematic of city leadership that seems intent on energetically addressing the community’s current and future needs.

The context of Mulholland’s remark was a discussion of the need for a homeless shelter, but the city is pressing ahead on a number of other fronts as well.

Last month, it announced a plan to design and build a child care center on city-owned land in the Lebanon Airport-Tech Park in partnership with a nonprofit provider that would operate it. The 200 slots projected to be available when the project is completed in 2025 will at least make a dent in a pressing problem that is widely believed to be holding back economic growth and vitality in the region.

Also, the City Council is asking voters to approve zoning changes when they go to the polls Tuesday that are intended to spur the development of affordable housing in Lebanon, the lack of which is another drag on the economy and workforce diversity. As our colleague Patrick Adrian has reported, the proposed changes are intended to promote a greater variety of smaller types of housing within single-family residential neighborhoods.

And later this week, the council will hold a public hearing on a proposal to acquire three adjoining commercial properties on Main Street in West Lebanon for $1.8 million, which Mayor Tim McNamara has described as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to provide a range of options in pursuit of an ambitious revitalization plan for that part of the city.

Experience tells us that not all of these initiatives will be looked on with favor by some long-time city residents, who see their hometown developing in ways that depart from the traditional patterns they revere. But reality dictates that the city address problems and seize opportunities as it tries to shape that growth for the benefit of the whole community.

The homeless shelter, of course, will likely be the most controversial. Lebanon, with 14,000 residents, is among the largest communities in New Hampshire without one. The two closest homeless shelters are in White River Junction and Claremont. When they do not have beds available, Lebanon places those needing emergency housing in motels. Even so, in December at least 13 individuals were living in tents or vehicles. At least four people who had experienced homelessness in Lebanon died during 2022.

Councilors Devin Wilkie and George Sykes appear to have been prime movers in pushing to get the city to address what might reasonably be termed a humanitarian crisis. Wilkie’s original motion “to examine possible properties, funding and development options for a low-barrier shelter” was toned down by other councilors wary of a public backlash. In the end, Mulholland was directed only to provide by the end of May data about the size of the homeless population and information about shelter options.

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To their credit, Wilkie, Sykes and Mulholland seem determined to ensure that the information-gathering leads to action. Ideally, the entire Upper Valley would contribute to a solution, but Mulholland isn’t holding his breath. “We can’t wait around for everyone else to get on board, because they probably won’t,” he told the council. “We can’t wait. We’re not going to solve this in a couple of months, but next winter is going to come around, and it’s going to be just as cold.”

This attitude represents a remarkable turnabout from 2016, before Mulholland arrived, when the council passed an ordinance that basically criminalizes being homeless within the city. It subjects to a $100 fine anyone who camps, or parks a vehicle for purposes of occupancy, on city-owned property overnight, or for any two-hour period between dawn and dusk. Camping is defined as pitching a tent or sleeping on the ground. As we noted at the time in this space, building and running a shelter would be far more humane and effective.

Anyone who doubts that homelessness is in many ways intractable need only read Tracy Kidder’s new book, “Rough Sleepers,” to appreciate the full human complexity of the problem. But people of good will working with a compassionate government can make a difference. We urge Lebanon to make a commitment and then make it a reality.