Activists surround homeless camp on courthouse lawn: ‘We are the perimeter for our unhoused neighbors’

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Activists, allies and unhoused people form a perimeter around the Hillsborough County homeless encampment to prevent evictions. Photo/Kathy Staub

MANCHESTER, NH – A hundred or more activists, allies, and members of the homeless community converged at the Hillsborough County Courthouse to stop the eviction of unhoused people living in tents on the courthouse grounds.

Residents of the encampment were told that they had until 9 a.m. on Monday morning to vacate the area. Those who had not gone would be removed and the site cleared of all their belongings. 

Forrest Rapier, who helped organize the action, said the goal was to show support for the homeless community and to surround the camp to protect it from being removed. “We are the perimeter for our unhoused neighbors,” he said.

Matt Lawrence has been helping people relocate since Sunday night. Most people don’t have a place to go and are just moving to other campsites. He is most concerned about the belongings of people who might not be there when the State Police come. “Some of these people work. Some have two jobs. They have very little to begin with and losing it would set them back even more.”

Calvin Atwood, second from left, addresses the crowd in the homeless encampment at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Photo/Kathy Staub

Calvin Atwood has been living at the camp since March. He returned to the city for a job that didn’t materialize and ended up in jail. He was released in March at the height of the COVID pandemic. It has been a struggle for him. He has been doing side jobs and getting work at a day labor agency.

Atwood addressed the crowd at one point. He thanked people for their support and asked, “Help us find somewhere to go.  Where can my people go?”

Rapier and Lawrence are part of a mutual aid group that runs a free store at the park on Sundays. They provide food, clothing, and help secure whatever the people who come to them need. Members of their group have built relationships with the homeless population and are concerned about what will happen to them during the winter. 

Sign on the courthouse lawn. Photo/Kathy Staub

Homelessness takes a toll on people, even during fair weather. “Every week someone we know isn’t there because they died in the night,” Rapier said.

Ideally, they would like to see the homeless provided with shelter for the winter. Lawrence gestured at the surrounding buildings and pointed out that there were vacant apartments and hotel rooms all around the courthouse. He suggested that the vacant former police station might offer a potential solution. “It is located near the homeless shelter and a food bank. We do the free store in the park and there is a group doing a needle exchange,” he said.

“We might end up paying some money to the building owner and for social workers, but in the long run it will cost us less,” he added.

State Representative Christy Bartlett of Concord came to show her support and to oppose the eviction as unlawful. According to her, in order for the State to evict the residents of the camp, there would have to be a place for them to go and there does not seem to be a plan for that. 

A woman stands across the street from the Hillsborough County Courthouse with a sign advocating a homeless bill of rights. Photo/Kathy Staub

Representative Nicole Klein Knight of Manchester was also at the courthouse to show her opposition to the evictions. She is not hopeful that the state will increase support for addressing the root causes of the homelessness situation. 

Governor Sununu has signaled that he plans to reduce revenues by cutting the business tax. This would leave the state with less revenue and fewer resources to direct toward people suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse. Those issues, along with a shortage of affordable housing are significant root causes homelessness. 

According to Knight, “We have these insurmountable issues. The State provides no resources to deal with it. There is no plan. Eventually they throw up their hands and leave the cities to deal with it.”

As the morning wore on more people arrived and some left. Some residents of the encampment buttoned up their tents and left for the day. The appointed hour of 9 a.m. came and went with no sign of the State Police.

Organizers speculate that the eviction may come tonight. They have made plans to continue their presence throughout the day and into the night.

A supporter of the residents of the homeless encampment holds a sign outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Photo/Kathy Staub