Alderman calls 911 after 2 collapse on sidewalk, ensuing video fuels momentum to address vagrancy

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MANCHESTER, NH – A video posted by Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines depicts the aftermath of a situation that began with two people passed out on the sidewalk on Elm Street.

“It was the weirdest thing. I was in Bridge Cafe getting a coffee and Dave, the owner who I know well, asked me if had a few minutes to talk,” Baines said.

Bridge Cafe owner Dave Perry told Baines that earlier in the day he had to remove three or four individuals who had been coming in and taking free coffee, even after he asked them to stop.

“They were screaming at him and using profanity. He’s been dealing with that for the past couple of days,” Baines said.

Baines left the cafe feeling discouraged.

“It was the fourth or fifth conversation I’d had today, and all of a sudden I see two people literally laying on the middle of the sidewalk. One was passed out and not moving at all. I called 911,” Baines said.

Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines.

At the same time, Baines said several people came over to the two people who were on the sidewalk and carried them away toward the side street, beyond Republic Cafe.

“They were trying to get them out of the way, I guess to keep them out of trouble, and basically that’s where the video begins. Firefighters and AMR showed up,” Baines said.

The two people who passed out appeared to Baines to have possibly been under the influence of spice, something he’s seen increasing evidence of downtown in the past few days.

“I’ve noticed it myself, but I’ve also heard it from other people, that these folks are more aggressive than normal lately. Usually they don’s say anything when you pass by, but it happened to me the other day, one of them said something to the effect of, ‘Nice clothes – you could probably afford to help us out.” It’s really heated up in this past week or two,” Baines said. “It’s at the worst level I’ve seen.”

Although Baines’ phone died while he was filming the action outside 1087 Elm St., he said the police arrived and told those huddled in an alcove of the former Karma hookah bar that they couldn’t be there.

“They were standing up for what they believe their rights to be, telling the police that they can’t tell them what to do, and that they know their rights. They scattered at first, but they’re congregating again,” Baines said.

Homeless camp on Elm Street, strategically located in front of a vacant storefront which means, legally, they can stay indefinitely. Photo/Robert Tanguay

The situation Saturday involved city personnel from the fire department and AMR, but he knows this type of defiance and negative interactions are happening daily with private citizens and business owners.

“I hesitated to post the video, but I feel I’m in a position to bring exposure around this issue. People are fed up, just fed up. I’m not sure there’s a business downtown that hasn’t reached out to me personally, asking what can we do,” Baines says.

“This was a big issue for me earlier this year, and although I’ve been in on conversations and I know things are in the works, I’m running out of patience. It’s bubbling up and businesses are leaving because of it. My fear is they will continue to do so,” said Baines.

Earlier this week Baines brought forward the concerns he’s been fielding from his downtown business constituents to the Board of Aldermen. Two business owners also addressed the board during public comment about their personal experience – Greg Cullen, who co-owns WBC Office Suites at 1087 Elm St. (which is where the video captured by Baines took place) and Peter Macone, who operates Republic and El Campo Enoteca, two Elm Street restaurants.  

During the Dec. 18 meeting Baines described the issues to his fellow aldermen as “complex,” noting that while he understands the city has been working with Families in Transition/New Horizons and other agencies to address what appears to be an expanding number of vagrants camping out on city sidewalks and loitering outside of city businesses, he would like to see immediate action. He recommended three initiatives, which would include short- and long-term solutions, including:

  1. collaborative outreach group that might include public health, mental health, welfare, FIT, and any other group involved with the homeless population to go where they are and try to determine how they can be immediately helped.
  2. Get a panel discussion on the calendar in early 2019 for a large-scale community meeting to inform the public and downtown business owners about what the city is doing, and how they can help. “It would serve as an opportunity for all city residents to ask questions and get answers,” Baines said.
  3. Explore a change in city ordinance to extend existing encumbrance permits to be active year round. Currently such permits are issued to businesses between April 1 and Oct. 15 to use their sidewalk space as needed. Baines said allowing businesses to retain control of the immediate area outside their businesses might provide some relief from what is currently happening – groups of people setting up makeshift encampments, littering, defecating and urinating in doorways, etc. 

In response to Baines’ recommendations, Mayor Joyce Craig said that there is a collaborative group that has been assembled and which plans to meet the first week of January, including Maureen Beauregard, Executive Director of Families in Transition/New Horizons, health and welfare department staff, and others to discern how “best to engage the community from a larger perspective.”

Craig also said that there is outreach happening through the city’s mental health department, along with FIT and Waypoint, who actively do outreach to the city’s homeless teen population.

“We need to make sure that they’re addressing the downtown area,” Craig said. “But I can tell you with confidence they are actively working on outreach and getting out into the community… to address the needs of the homeless and working with Healthcare for the Homeless, located in the basement of New Horizons.”

Craig also said that Patrick Tufts from Granite United Way, who put together a previous 10-year plan for ending homelessness, acknowledges the need for a refresh – a more short-term plan to address homelessness, which will also include bringing in partners from the Chamber and business community.

“We have folks suffering from substance abuse, chronic homelessness and mental health disorders,  and all of it combined, as well as a  housing market not affordable for so many, is causing an increase in homelessness – which, incidentally, we’re seeing this across the U.S.,” Craig said, citing a recent UNH study that notes communities that are thriving and seeing increases in rent are also seeing a rise in homelessness.

She also agreed with Baines that a panel discussion was in order to get a dialogue going, adding that it must begin with experts around the table before bringing the public into the discussion.

Craig invited Beauregard to come to the microphone to go deeper with the board on initiatives her organization has in the works in the year since the merger.

Beauregard reported that while New Horizons has a capacity of 76, they are seeing about 131 people staying regularly, relegating the overflow to mats in the dining room. She noted there are also about 60 families on a wait list for family shelter.

Since taking over operations in January of 2018 there have been some changes at the shelter, including serving breakfast and remaining open during the day.

They are operating on the law of attraction in trying to get more people to stay at the shelter.

FIT/New Horizons President Maureen Beauregard.

“At one point New Horizons had a reputation for being stern,” Beauregard said, adding that they have been working on building trust with the unsheltered population “so that they know we’re here when they’re ready.”

She also reinforced that there are street teams that go out regularly, to people camping along the river and those camping in the downtown.

“They say they don’t feel safe, and that they don’t like the rules at the shelter, so we’re working on that, and we’ve looked at the food situation, which is why we’re now serving breakfast, trying to pull them in,” Beauregard said.

She also said that the shelter has received a five-year state grant to provide substance use disorder outreach to the homeless in the state’s four geographic areas, which is something that was not previously done.

Other plans on the drawing board include a 14-unit supportive housing complex that would move people from temporary to permanent housing  and a redesign of the shelter’s second floor, to add 25 beds, while creating “safe spaces” for men and women.

“We’re hopeful more people will come in, and we have other strategies to get more staff and boots on the ground,” Beauregard said, adding that it’s hard to have 130 people sleeping at the shelter with only two staff on night shift.

She also said she has verbalized to the city that they would like to be involved with an “anti-panhandling campaign” to raise public awareness, something she says is needed to educate the public that giving money and food to people on the street does not help – if people have no recourse but to go to the shelter for food and necessities, then that is a step in the right direction. Once there, shelter staff can work on getting them to sleep at the shelter.

“We can only try so hard. People have a right to choose where they go,” Beauregard said.

“In the long run, when we look at the issue of homelessness, there’s enough research to fill this chamber a thousand times over. What’s really required is that the community – and it does need to be a community – that comes together and says we aren’t going to allow it, whether it’s hurting my businesses, or hurting my heart, we need to come together as a community,” Beauregard said.

She said FIT/New Horizons is also entertaining future plans to create “safe spaces” for folks with mental illness and substance use disorders, “a bullpen,” of sorts so that “if someone is polluted when they come in they can go in and be safe. We don’t have to say to them, ‘leave,'” she said. Congregate housing would go a long way to pulling people off the streets and into safe housing.

She noted that New Horizons is a wet shelter that operates under the idea of harm reduction, which also means that it attracts people from communities where there are “dry shelters” – meaning those actively using alcohol or drugs are prohibited.

That makes New Horizons a dumping ground for other communities.

“I communicated to the governor and commissioner of health and human services that there are dry shelters in the state, and if you receive state money you’re supposed to allow anybody in,” Beauregard said. “If we’re abiding by the rules and we have the lion’s share of folks here we should get more money – or people should start addressing people from their own communities.”

She said more strategy is needed to correct that.

Alderman Dan O’Neil said he also is hearing from people across the city about the growing problems.

“We spend zero dollars on prevention, and you talk about [outreach] teams – I’m downtown quite a bit and I think I’d have a feel for that – I’ve never seen these teams on the streets of Manchester working with the homeless,” O’Neil said.

Beauregard said the “teams” as such are not wearing uniforms, but look like any other person.

O’Neil said his “pet peeve” is that there are silos of efforts to address substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness, but nothing seems to make a dent in the problems.

“They are absolutely related to each other. We have different organizations with their special interests, their special silo… it’s not enough, Maureen. We have to get rid of the silos,” O’Neil said.

Aldermen Joe Levasseur and Chris Herbert also weighed in – Levasseur asked what the waiting list is for public housing (he was told there is a 2 percent vacancy rate, with 1,000 on the waiting list) and Herbert wanted to know why something more isn’t being done to enforce laws.

“We’re dealing with a group of people who are broken in some important way here,” Herbert said.

“Sounds to me like it’s a real costly issue in terms of the downtown, and I don’t hear anything that sounds to me like a solution, not even close to it,” Herbert said. “The immediate solution is to get these folks help, which we apparently don’t have enough of, but we need to get them off the streets and to someplace, and they need to stay there at least overnight, and if they repeat it, do it again, keep bringing it in front of a judge. If they see nineteen, twenty – forty people walk in with charges, see what he or she does. We have to push back. This is out of control.”

City Solicitor Emily Rice.

He said it’s unacceptable to have groups of people who are drunk or high loitering in front of businesses, especially at night, making people fearful and causing businesses to lose customers.

City Solicitor Emily Rice noted that there are already many existing ordinances on the books.

“Prosecuting individuals can be expensive, and it is not going to  have the result that everyone here tonight is talking about,” Rice said.

She supported the idea floated by Baines and Craig, to have a citywide discussion on the issues to address the social and legal aspects. “All people have constitutional rights and those rights will be upheld.”

In the end the board voted unanimously to send Baines’ request, to expand the existing encumbrance ordinance to be in effect year-round, to the Committee on Administration. Craig cautioned that it would require city staff being involved to make sure any such changes are legal.

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