Concord officials consider cutting down on homeless encampments in city

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A tent lies collapsed (right) at a camp where homeless people live between Stickney Ave. and Storrs Street. Photo/Geoff Forester

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City officials are considering cutting down trees to expose and eliminate some homeless encampments near the Merrimack River.

The idea was brought up during Concord’s Public Safety Board meeting on Monday, which was held over Zoom. 

Deputy Chief Steven Smagula has led an initiative within the Concord Police Department to better oversee homeless encampments within the city during the coronavirus pandemic. Smagula said the department’s main focus is currently an area behind the Capitol Plaza shopping center on Storrs Street, which is home to both abandoned and active campsites.

City councilor Fred Keach suggested clear-cutting the area behind the plaza in order to reduce the number of encampments and increase visibility. The city similarly cleared an area behind the Holiday Inn on Storrs Street to prevent individuals from camping there.

Smagula said the department is exploring similar action behind the shopping center.

A homeless camp is seen across the fence-line from the Kimball Jenkins Estate. Photo/Concord Monitor

“It’s an effective strategy, from a policing standpoint,” Smagula said. “Once it gets flush with foliage, you don’t see [the encampment] as much, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It’s still down there and it’s a real problem. I have concerns about the health and welfare of the individuals living down there.”

Councilor Candace Bouchard agreed the situation with the encampments may be an immediate public safety issue, but said the problem could get worse before it gets better. The economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on housing availability and affordability may present a long-term problem for the city’s social services, she said.

“I think with COVID, we’re going to see an increase in homelessness with people being evicted. They’re expecting nationally huge numbers,” she said. “We really need to start honing in on some sort of temporary housing and moving towards some sort of livable shelters other than the outdoors and try to get ahead of this curve and be prepared.”

Also as part of the discussion on homelessness, councilor Zandra Rice Hawkins shared a report from the city’s director of human services, Karen Emis-Williams, which estimated that approximately 150 to 170 individuals are currently experiencing homelessness in Concord.

One of the report’s main findings was that 95 percent of the city’s homeless population are from Concord or Penacook, despite the popular belief that many individuals travel from other parts of the state and the region to obtain services here.

Board member Carol Hargrove expressed her concern about an unfair burden on Concord residents if tax dollars were being used to provide homeless services to individuals from other communities.

“I think it’s unfair to our people for people who are coming in from out of town just to take advantage of Concord,” Hargrove said.

A shopping cart full of clothes and blankets in front of homeless campsite off of Fort Eddy road near the Merrimack River. Monitor File Photo

In response, Rice Hawkins mentioned that if an individual seeking services is from outside the Concord area, the city is occasionally able to get in touch with the welfare department in the home community to reimburse the cost of services for that person.

“Over 95 percent of those who are homeless in Concord that have been tracked or spoken with do actually come from this community,” Rice Hawkins said. “In terms of trying to recoup some of those costs when somebody is identified outside their region, their home area is contacted to try to do that, but it sounds like many of these individuals live here.”

Aside from addressing the city’s homeless population, the board continued to discuss potential reforms to the Concord Police Department following a nationwide focus on police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn.

Chief Bradley Osgood said the police department is looking to obtain accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), an organization that establishes standards for and certifies law enforcement agencies across the country.

Osgood estimated that of the approximately 200 police departments in the state, fewer than 15 were nationally accredited, and nationwide, only around 900 departments have obtained CALEA certification. He said the Concord Police Department has made efforts twice before, in the early 1990s and again in 2010, to start the accreditation process, but budget and time constraints prevented the department from following through.

“Having an accredited commission that’s been around since 1979 holds you accountable for not only your policies, but proves that you’re doing this stuff on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis. They also find that accredited law enforcement agencies tend to get sued for liability reasons far less than non accredited [agencies],” he said. 

Osgood acknowledged both the scope and cost of obtaining accreditation could be difficult, given the size of his department. The accreditation process typically involves the hiring of additional personnel and facility updates, both costly budget items. Despite the difficulties, Osgood said he plans to explore the first stage of the process, a self-assessment conducted by the department.

The board also reviewed parts of a 2015 report issued by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which offers recommendations to increase mutual trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they work in. Osgood and Deputy Chief John Thomas highlighted work the department has done to engage the community, including outreach to New American families. Osgood also said he would like to involve community members more in the department’s policy-making process. 

Recently, the department decided to revise its policies for addressing mental health issues, given that many Concord residents were sheltering at home due to the COVID-19 crisis and could be experiencing mental health challenges. After drafting an updated policy, Osgood asked Sarah Gagnon, vice president of clinical operations at Riverbend Community Mental Health, to review the policy.

“A lot of the wording that we use as police officers is like ‘police speak,’” he said. “Sometimes if you get ‘police speak’ in a policy and a citizen reads it, they’ll change the words around.”

Osgood said the department will continue to consult with experts and community leaders on policy matters as needed.

The next meeting of the Public Safety Board will be held on August 31st at 3 p.m. over Zoom. 

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