MANCHESTER, N.H. – Is there a way that homeless people camping on public property can be legally removed by police and put into a potentially life-saving shelter? That will be the question before the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Tuesday night.
On Monday night, the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Committee on Alcohol, Other Drugs and Youth Services took up discussion on amending a pair of ordinance amendments recommended Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Committee on Administration and Information Systems. (see below in meeting agenda).
The requested amendments to Section 96 of the city’s Code of Ordinances regarding trespassing in public parks was described as “unwieldy” by City Solicitor Emily Rice and were unanimously tabled. That left other set of proposed amendments, relating to Section 130 of the Code of Ordinances, as the committee’s primary action item.
That part of the code of ordinances prohibits camping on public property without permission, although the amendment adds language allowing police to issue a fine of up to $1,000 to anyone camping on public property when an “available overnight shelter” is available.
While Chairman Bill Barry (Ward 10) felt that the amendment to Section 130 was a step in the right direction, giving police an extra tool to address the issue of homeless vagrancy in the city, there was a strong consensus on the committee that the enforcement mechanism did not go far enough.
City Solicitor Emily Rice reminded the committee that under New Hampshire law, municipalities cannot enact criminal penalties in their ordinances, but repeated citations like the ones that police officers could issue if the amendment is passed could result in eventual court action after several months.
Rice added that the process could also allow officers to press criminal charges in the process of issuing the citation if those receiving the citation engaged in criminal acts during their interaction with the police officer.
Aldermen Jim Roy (Ward 4) and Pat Long (Ward 3) believed greater homeless outreach rather than increased enforcement would be a better approach as most homeless individuals do not have the funds to pay fines. Barry noted that the goal of these amendments was not to fine individuals, but to let them know that camping on public property was unacceptable while alternatives are available, allowing police more ability to move homeless individuals into shelters.
Alderman Dan O’Neil (At-Large) felt the measure did not go far enough in enforcement, fearing that tragedy could occur in the near future at the homeless encampment on River Road if action isn’t taken quickly to move the homeless population there to shelters, citing unsafe conditions at the site.
“I don’t want to pick up the newspaper or hear from the mayor’s office that four or five people passed away on River Road,” he said. “I’d rather be aggressive now, and if we have to fight it later in court, we fight it later.”
O’Neil also pressed for an answer as to why the state was able to remove homeless individuals camping on the lawn of Hillsborough Superior Court, a state-owned property, while Manchester police are limited their ability to move homeless individuals unless a shelter bed is available.
Rice said that there was not a complete answer, but noted only three people were arrested during the eviction and state agencies attempted to help those evicted find shelters.
Mayor Joyce Craig said that the state did not have a bed for everyone that left the site, with the city having to mobilize facilities, many of those forced to leave against their will.
Craig also added that the issue of homeless individuals living on city streets needed to be addressed immediately given the winter temperatures and the current availability of homeless shelter beds in the city.
Another issue from the courthouse eviction was indiscretion toward the personal property of homeless individuals, something several members of the committee felt prevented many homeless people from trusting anyone offering a shelter bed.
Here, the committee recommended that city departments, particularly the Department of Public Works and Parks and Recreation, develop a plan to store items owned by those heading to shelters.
Department of Public Works Director Kevin Sheppard said that an inventory plan would need to be developed as homeless individuals could accuse the city of stealing their items otherwise, and safety precautions would need to be taken for potentially dangerous items.
Long recommended outside professionals be charged with handling the potentially dangerous items and Craig noted that the city has empty buildings to store the items. O’Neil noted that some items, such as propane tanks and shopping carts, should not be stored, a notion meeting the agreement of the committee.
The Section 130 amendment will head to the full Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Tuesday while the inventory plan will face another hearing later in January.