Demonstration followed by contentious meeting at City Hall over public parks ordinance

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Individuals with shopping carts at Veterans’ Park. Photo/Jeff Hastings

MANCHESTER, NH – Activists organized in Veterans Park ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled Board of Aldermen meeting in protest of an ordinance aimed at the homeless pertaining to camping, shopping carts and bicycles in public parks. 

The protestors gathered starting around 3 p.m. and an effort was made to include homeless people in the conversation, to get anyone to come out to the planned event who was able and willing to do so. Cardboard signs were made, candy and fliers were handed out.

And while many people came, only a few offered public comment about the situation.

Following the protest, several people including some homeless individuals and advocates walked overt to the meeting at City Hall to discuss their feelings and opinions on the amendment. The ordinance in question, 96.06, was an overt way to address Manchester’s ongoing homelessness crisis, which eventually passed by an 11-2 vote. [READ related story with detailed meeting coverage: Aldermen ban shopping carts, multiple bicycles in city parks, Oct. 18, 2022].

The amendments are as follows: Section E, camping- included in a definition of a camp is now tarps, market umbrella, beach umbrella, or any structure, at any hour of the day or night; section K (newly added)- prohibits bringing in, using, or otherwise possessing any shopping cart in any city park; section L (new added) prohibits bringing in, using, or otherwise possessing more than one bicycle at a time in any city park.

Thus far, the city and state’s approach to homelessness has tried to balance both compassion and respect for current laws and ordinances. At times, encampments, where homeless people have set up temporary shelters, have been forcibly vacated, sometimes with a clean-up crew. Fences have been erected around these locations, such as the state courthouse on Merrimack Street, the camp near the Econo Lodge and highway bridge, as well as one on River Road. Denying homeless people places out of public view has only resulted in them entering public view more often.

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A fence erected outside the county courthouse in 2019 after a homeless encampment was swept from the property by NH State Police remains in place. Photo/Winter Trabex.

At the same time, the city has been generous with its funding and efforts to address the issue. While the problem of homelessness may appear to be as acute as ever, services are there for those who need them. There has been some success in this: Alderman Pat Long stated 71 people have been brought out of the parks and into more stable situations. 

The ordinance came about as a result of residents of Manchester feeling unsafe in public parks. Alderman Long spoke at the meeting about fielding phone calls from elderly residents living in apartments without green space of their own who are afraid to visit public parks due to boisterous, loud arguments and incidents of violence. He expressed concern that he wanted everyone in Manchester to be able to use the parks, whether homeless or not.

Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur spoke at length about how services have been provided to homeless individuals, but that the city has been taken advantage of. He cited Public Works being unable to manage their parks, portable restrooms being misused, toilet paper stolen, among other things.

He said, “This community continues to give, but we have had enough.”

Levasseur also cited two city businesses that have been negatively affected by homeless activity in the form of clean-up costs. One such business, he said, was being sued by the city to clean the property.

Alderman Erin George-Kelly said the amendment criminalizes homelessness, while Alderman Will Stewart stated while he would support making the parks safer, a better strategy was needed. The city government has thus far encountered difficulty partnering with the state government in Concord to help alleviate homelessness. Requests have been made repeatedly, yet little has come of it, he said.

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A cardboard sign referencing an amendment to the City Charter as seen at a protest at Veterans Park before Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. Photo/Winter Trabex

Paradoxically, concerns over private property violations among the homeless community were expressed. Yet, if homeless people are deterred from using public parks, as the bill would seem to intend, private land is the next place they would likely go. One homeless person spoke at the meeting about how residing in the middle of the city was safer than residing at the outskirts, partly due to police passing by regularly, and partly due to other people watching nearby.

Everyone, both advocates and aldermen, agreed that people staying in parks, littering there, and leaving used needles behind is not in anyone’s best interest. Some advocates offered to work with the city on these issues, if indeed a better solution can be found.

Mayor Joyce Craig affirmed her commitment to a housing-first model, stating that $11 million had already been invested in affordable housing. She had recently spoken with developers regarding converting hotels into affordable housing units.

Craig cited point-in-time statistics saying there were 513 homeless people, 397 of which were sheltered, 116 of which were unsheltered (sleeping outdoors). Despite outreach efforts taking place on a daily basis, such as those from Manchester Mental Health, Manchester Fire Department Unit 1, Hope for NH, and others, non-profits in the city are maxed out.

She also suggested to any homeless individual dissatisfied with any shelter conditions or practices to speak with officials at the state level, since the state funds services such as the New Horizons shelter at 199 Manchester Street.

Brandon Lemay, candidate for State Representative, and activist working with Rights and Democracy, said in a prepared statement, “I want to help my hometown address houselessness. I want to work on meaningful change with all of you. I need you to stop hurting my houseless friends and neighbors.”

Whether the measure proves legally enforceable or legally efficacious remains to be seen.

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A sign hangs from a tarp covering someone’s belongings at the park. Photo/Winter Trabex


About this Author

Winter Trabex

Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester and regular contributor to Community Voices.