MANCHESTER, NH – The subject of homelessness has been a hot button issue in the city of Manchester long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Now, with the pandemic, the issue of camps at the Hillsborough County North Superior Courthouse and upcoming winter months potentially exacerbating homelessness in the city, things boiled over regarding the subject at what was a heated Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting on Tuesday night.
The discussion began with a memorandum read by Mayor Joyce Craig with an update on the situation at the courthouse (see below), with Michael Porter (Ward 8) responding in frustration against Craig’s comments regarding New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.
For Porter, and other members of the board such as Joseph Kelly Levasseur (At-Large) and Keith Hirschmann (Ward 12), Craig’s comments sounded like an attempt to pass blame regarding homelessness, specifically at the courthouse, on the shoulders of Sununu. Porter also noted $2.9 million given to non-profits on the issue of homelessness since April 2019, stating only $300,000 of those funds had been used as of Oct. 2020.
Manchester Department of Planning and Community Development Director Leon LaFreniere referred to the conclusion that non-profit groups are not utilizing provided funds as inaccurate and Craig also provided reasoning on why work by some non-profit groups has been delayed due to lack of facilities for housing and safety issues.
Craig repeatedly said that she was not trying to attack Sununu, but rather expressed frustration with a lack of communication from the state over an overarching plan for addressing homelessness at a statewide level as well as a lack of communication on plans addressing the situation at the courthouse.
Dan O’Neil (At-Large) later went further, saying that the state government “hates” Manchester and has largely abandoned Manchester to its own devices on the topic of homelessness.
Levasseur read most of a joint statement from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the New Hampshire Department of Justice on the topic of the courthouse before being interrupted by Anthony Sapienza (Ward 5) and then accusing Craig of not taking responsibility on the issue.
Craig responded that the courthouse is a state-owned property and thus beyond her purview, with Manchester Fire Department Chief Dan Goonan stating that the letter included a lot of “crap” and “spin.”
Craig later said that one of the primary reasons homeless people have gravitated toward the courthouse is due to a state-funded needle exchange program at Veterans’ Park that the city has held concerns about for an extended period, but cannot legally stop.
Members of the board also disagreed over direct discussion with the city’s homeless population was useful, with several members of the board supporting city staff directly related with the issue such as Goonan and Manchester Health Department Director Anna Thomas
“Without the people leading those departments and all the efforts of those departments, people would literally be dying, we’d be picking people up off the streets every morning. And I hope that doesn’t become the case this winter,” said Sapienza.
Craig also noted that she would not support any initiatives that move homeless people from one unsheltered area into another unsheltered area.