Behind the scenes in Manchester: Clearing homeless camps like a frustrating game of ‘whack-a-mole’

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A row of tents along the railroad tracks next to Firestone Auto. Police and fire officials, far left, were making the rounds, giving notice that the site must be evacuated by April 15. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Each time a homeless camp in the Queen City is cleared by police, the deck is simply reshuffled and individuals from those camps scramble to find other places in the city to settle, according to Manchester officials. 

“They’re gonna look for areas, and unfortunately what’s gonna happen is they’re gonna be scattered throughout the city,” said Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry. 

He said addressing the camps, which often trespass on private property, is not unlike playing a frustrating game of whack-a-mole.

Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long says the city is spreading the homeless people around whenever a large camp is cleared. 

Police Chief Allen Aldenberg said the calls for service about homeless encampments have been consistent from this year to last, but they expect a handful of complaint calls in the days following the initial dispersal of a large camp, mostly from private landowners.

“My community policing officers have essentially been turned into this homeless task force and it’s taking away from their real mission,” Aldenberg said Tuesday. 

It takes a lot of work, often meeting with landowners or state and federal law enforcement depending on the location of a homeless camp.

“It’s just very time-consuming,” Aldenberg said.

He said the camps that crop up now are smaller in nature and tend to appear in the outskirts of the city. Compared to recent years, Aldenberg said he is confident in saying the city parks and downtown sidewalks are looking better now thanks in part to the efforts of Manchester officers enforcing curfew and camping ordinances.

Long said he has to check about four different locations in his ward on a regular basis after a large camp is cleared, in order to ensure nobody has pitched their tent there.

“It creates more encampments,” Long said of the clearings.

But Long, who experienced poverty and homelessnesss in his youth, defends the clearings, saying they are done for the safety and health of all involved, and often to ensure the quality of life of nearby residents who deal with the stench of urine and feces in their backyard.

Between November 1, 2020, and June 8, 2021, the Manchester Police Department fielded dozens of concerns and complaints about homeless camps from Mayor Joyce Craig and aldermen, usually forwarding messages they received from concerned residents, according to emails obtained through a Right-to-Know request. 

Craig emailed her own concerns to department heads on Dec. 28, when she shared a photo of homeless people gathered on the sidewalk downtown, in front of 1001 Elm St., on Christmas morning.

A photo depicting several people and their belongings encamped outside 1001 Elm St. on Dec. 28 shared with city department heads by Mayor Craig.

“Now that we have emergency shelter beds available, these people need to be moved off the sidewalk,” Craig wrote. “They are negatively affecting business, residents and the environment downtown. There is trash everywhere, it is intimidating to walk by and it is not healthily (sic) for human beings to be living on a sidewalk.” 

Aldenberg responded regarding that particular group, saying officers would talk to some of the individuals there, including one named “David.” Meanwhile, they were also exploring getting David’s mother to assist with the “IEA” process (involuntary emergency admission), which is for cases when a person’s mental illness presents an immediate risk of harm to themselves and others. Aldenberg acknowledged that if they were successful with the IEA it would “probably be short lived.” 

Aldenberg also noted the police would inquire why the property owner of 1001 Elm St. had not applied for an encumbrance permit, as other downtown property owners had done. A few minutes later, he said the owner had such a permit.

In her December email, Craig said her office receives daily complaints about “people acting irrationally, doing drugs, having sex, etc.” and demanded city officials come up with a plan for moving the people off of the sidewalks and transitioning them into shelter beds.

A draft plan for various city departments and nonprofits with “no pride of authorship” was submitted on Dec. 31. It included things like regular foot patrols by police, streamlining the citizen complaints process and regular surveys and cleanups by public works.

Aldermen Bill Barry, Barbara Shaw, Joe Kelly Levasseur and Dan O’Neil each sent emails to Chief Aldenberg and other department heads, forwarding messages they received from residents. Long said when he gets a complaint about a particular homeless camp, he prefers to call the department, rather than email.

“I usually talk to the chief. I give him a call and ask him what initiative he’s doing,” Long said.

Barry said he plans on forwarding citizen’s concerns to Homeless Services Director Schonna Green from now on.

Long said he used to get calls daily from residents about the former homeless camp on Canal Street, sometimes describing people publicly showering with hoses, or relieving themselves in plain view. That camp was cleared by the city in February, immediately following a tent fire.

Bags of unclaimed items left behind at the Amoskeag Bridge encampment on Feb. 21 2021, which was disposed of by the city the day after the camps were dismantled. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Bryan Bouchard, a resident of the townhomes on Riverwalk Way near the baseball stadium wrote to Long and Levasseur on March 20 about a tent that some people set up in the area just behind their home, just 100 feet from their back deck. Levasseur forwarded the email to Aldenberg, and community police officers were sent to speak with the tent owners about moving.

Barry sent at least seven emails to Aldenberg and other department heads between March 9 and May 29 about various homeless camps located on Douglas St. (known colloquially as “The Bucket”), by the Exit 4 ramp on I293, the West Side Ice Arena, Blucher St., and the dog park. 

Barry said the problem may seem bad now, but he said the situation was worse about two years ago, before they had enough capacity in the local shelters to serve the homeless population. Now that the city has enough shelter beds, they can not only serve more homeless people but they now have the legal pretext to remove them from a camp on public property.

“I think we’ve come a long way. We still have some work to do, but we have,” Barry told Manchester Ink Link.

In a May 29 email from resident Stephen Ward to Barry, Ward describes walking along the rail trail by the West Side Ice Arena with his nieces, ages 8 and 13. 

“We encounter four used syringes and needles on the trail, as well as one of these people going to the bathroom on the side of the trail in direct view of everyone walking,” Ward wrote.

In an email exchange between Barry and resident Karen Holden, Barry forwarded Holden’s concerns about a camp on Douglas St. to the police and shared updates with Holden when he learned what progress the city was making in clearing camps. 

“They will be posting that area (Douglas St.) to have it cleared,” Barry told Holden in a May 4 email. “It is my understanding that they will be working on clearing the homeless camp down by the Fisher Cats Stadium. They may also look for a private company to clear the Douglas Street encampment. They are very far into the woods and the city isn’t equipped for it, but it will get done.”

Police cleared the homeless camp by the Northeast Delta Dental Stadium on May 10. They cleared The Bucket camp on Douglas St. on June 7.

Manchester Police and city workers at a homeless encampment on city-owned property off Douglas Street known as The Bucket which was cleared on June 7. File Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Some residents are ostensibly concerned about the impact homeless individuals are having on the environment. Judy Bass, a resident who lives on Riverfront Drive in Manchester, emailed the state Department of Environmental Services about what she claims were violations of the federal Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act by residents of a nearby homeless camp on the side of the river.

Her email exchange with a DES official between Nov. 29 and April 20 was forwarded to Mayor Craig and Aldermen Levasseur and Keith Hirschmann. Craig, in turn, forwarded it to Aldenberg and other department heads.

“Got it from JKL and we are working on it,” Aldenberg responded.

On May 18, Aldenberg corresponded with Alderman Shaw about a homeless camp on federal property near the U.S. Post Office on Goffs Falls Road. Shaw relayed anecdotes about people in the camp littering, burning things and cutting down trees.

According to a synopsis written by Officer Brian Karoul, he and another officer from the Community Policing unit assisted the Postal Inspectors with notifying the occupants of six tents in the wooded area that they were trespassing on federal property.

Karoul noted that the wooded area that abuts the property to the north is privately owned by Ryder. 

“We can try to also get a trespass letter from Ryder in case they attempt to migrate a little further north onto their property,” Karoul wrote.

Capt. Peter Marr said the department is usually reacting to landowners concerns and not proactively reaching out about potential trespassing, but they know from experience that most businesses and private property owners do not want a homeless camp on their land.

“The officers simply knew from past experience that the campers will sometimes just move across property lines that abut the property they were trespassed from,” Marr said. “The interaction with Ryder was to inform them of the potential and to let them know that if that happened and they didn’t want people camping on their property then we would need a trespass letter.”

A similar situation happened with the Firestone camp, which was on private property behind the Firestone Complete Auto Care business on Elm St., owned by Firestone and Pan Am Railways. But that camp has been around for a while.

“The original management did not care that there was a homeless camp on their property which is why (it) got established there,” Marr said. “The business came under new management and they wanted the camp removed. In order for us to do that from private property, we have to have the property owners permission. We asked them to draft a trespass letter so that their request was in writing.”

Part of the Right-to-Know request was to obtain any written correspondence between the Firestone owners and the police regarding the camp, but the department said none existed and it could only provide the police reports subsequent to the clearing that occurred there on April 15.

A list of names of those evicted from the former campsite reveal one of the residents police notified of the impending clearing was Kevin Gamache, 44, who lost his battle with drug addiction about six weeks later on May 31, according to his obituary.

Firestone management notified police on April 20 they hired a company to cut the trees down in the area of the former camp.

Homeless Outreach teams have been meeting with homeless individuals where they’re living since last year, getting to know them and their needs and trying to connect them with services. But outreach workers say some folks have stopped trusting the outreach teams because they suspect they are complicit in the clearings. Outreach workers deny this.

Calvin Atwood, left, talks with Manchester Fire Lt. Mike Rheault and Firefighter John Russo in November of 2020 at the county courthouse encampment. They were there as part of the city’s daily outreach team. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Only one email from an outreach worker was forwarded by elected officials to police in the previous eight months, which only contained a monthly progress report by Megan Spencer. The reports do not contain personal information, nor do they contain a list of encampment locations.

Barry said he hopes more homeless people will avail themselves of the shelters and housing resources, but he said those that avoid the shelters usually don’t want to follow the rules. 

“I’m hoping that eventually they’re gonna get sick of moving and moving and moving,” Barry said.

So far one of the only proposals that’s been put forth to combat the constant camp shuffling has come from Long, for a pilot program that would create a centralized location and small living pods for the homeless. His plan has not been endorsed by most of his fellow aldermen.

He said creating a single permissible location for homeless encampments within the city that isn’t on private property or near a residential area could work. 

“Having them in one spot, in my opinion, would not be disruptive to neighborhoods,” Long said.

Long says his proposal for a single location would make it easier to provide services, keep them away from people’s backyards, reduce litter in public areas and start building trust with outreach workers again.

Unfortunately, he said the problem with that plan is the concern that creating such a zone could potentially invite more homeless people to the city from out of town, which he said is happening anyways. So, he thinks it would take a statewide plan to create it.

“It would be good if there were sectors, let’s say six sectors in the state that had this same thing. Because then Manchester wouldn’t be receiving everybody,” Long said.

Long previously proposed something similar with modular cabins for transitional housing in early 2020, but Aldenberg said having a camp zone for outdoor living is a “horrible idea” because he said it would become a haven for drug use and criminal activity, putting a strain on the police department, while the area would fill up with trash and unhealthy behavior.

“You can’t sustain that over a long period of time,” Aldenberg said.

While the department was busy dealing with homeless camps for the first half of the year, Aldenberg said it feels like the calls he’s aware of have gone down in the past month, though he said not every case is brought to his attention.

In June, the city allocated $4.7 million for the development of affordable housing. A number of local nonprofit organizations applied for those funds. And Green launched a Housing Initiatives Website earlier this month, which is a one-stop-shop for homeless resources as well as a channel for residents to complain about encampment issues.

On Monday Green said she is finalizing her proposal, which will be presented “very soon” to the mayor and aldermen at an upcoming meeting.