Firestone encampment: ‘I want something better for them … but this is not better’

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A camp site still intact along the railroad tracks behind the Firestone automotive building. Campers have been told to be gone by April 15. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

MANCHESTER, NH – A muted sunset settled in above the Merrimack River Wednesday night, a serene contrast to the turmoil brewing just beyond the river’s banks.

A week ago city police were asked to notify those living in tents along the railroad tracks and behind Firestone Auto Service just off Elm Street that they had a week to relocate from the private property. Last night most of those tents were still in place, some of them vacated, but for the most part, people just don’t know where to go, said Rita Mann.

“It seems like people are just going to end up scattered everywhere again,” Mann said. She and Robert Hedberg have been sleeping in – and living out of – their Bronco, parked at the site. Mann said she spent most of the day Wednesday driving around with her 86-year-old dad, who was trying to help her find another place to park.

When asked if there were any way they could stay with him, she shook her head. “No. He has a caretaker and there’s no room,” she said. When asked about the shelter, she said heard there were four male beds open Wednesday morning, which means no place for her even if Robert wanted to go without her.

A sign hung on a fence erected around the Hillsborough County Courthouse to prevent people from trespassing. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Families in Transition has been running at 90-95 percent capacity at the New Horizons shelter, said Kyle Chumas of the 110-bed shelter on Manchester Street. On March 31 the city officially closed down two winter emergency shelters, which provided an additional 80 beds.

Mann says she understands the problem with tenting on private property – tents pitched along the tracks are on Pan Am Railroad property, and the woodsy patch next to Firestone that stretches back behind Dunkin Donuts and Thrive Outdoors is also privately owned. But if there are people who have no place to sleep, why close the “emergency” shelters just because of the date on the calendar, she asks.

“I get it. They’re only open for winter when people can die sleeping outside, but people have no place to go, and they have all their stuff here,” she said. There’s been a lot of tension in the camp this week, she says. Tempers running high. “There’s a lot of anxiety. It’s exhausting.”

There are those who don’t feel safe moving away from this area to someplace else. There’s danger in the darkness of night, and at least behind Firestone there is ambient light from the businesses overhead. With so many of the population struggling with addiction and mental illness, there is always the fear of violence or theft.

Over the past week several people from the community have been coming by the camp to help those who are willing to move to pack and transport their stuff.

“I’m just here because they’re part of our community and we’re supposed to take care of this community and build community,” said one man who was loading his car with items. He did not want to use his name for this story.

“They’re the most vulnerable part of our community. They have mental health issues and addiction problems. We are trying to help them find someplace else to go, but we just heard that police were over by the Elliot telling people they couldn’t go there, either. So where should they be? It’s like, in the city’s eyes, they’re not even human,” he said.

With all the federal money coming through the state for homelessness, he believes something should be done that has “big impact” to actually address the need for services and housing.

Good fences make good neighbors: A fence has been placed around the former Amoskeag Bridge campsite on city-owned land. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“Instead of giving it all out to programs that have slow turnover rate, like FIT housing, why don’t they do something that will actually make a difference?” he said.

Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan, who also serves as the city’s Director of Emergency Management, visited the Firestone site on Wednesday as he has done so many times before. He said city fire and police were asked by the railroad police to assist with messaging and outreach support to those encamped.

“None of this is city property, so this is a request by Firestone and Pan Am railroad to have people trespassed and assist with their exit from the property,” Goonan said. “I hope this goes much the same as Canal Street, where people just leave the area. Unfortunately, there are not many beds available even if they wanted to come in.”

And that’s another layer of the problem.

“I don’t think many of these people would go to the shelter even if there was space, to tell you the truth,” Goonan said. He cited the lack of adequate mental health, supported housing and coordination with state agencies. “I assume people are just going to move to other places. We’re already seeing increased activity at ‘the bucket’ and MOMS and the West Side Arena. Police can discourage them, but there’s not much else they can do with no space at the shelter and few other options for housing.”

Robert Hedberg
Robert Hedberg holds an ID badge from when he worked as a government contractor in 2018. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Those who sleep outside do so for reasons that can’t be quickly solved with a key to an efficiency apartment or a one-way ticket to someplace else. Some are deep in the throes of drug or alcohol addiction; many others have mental and physical health issues that require medication, therapy or both. Mann has a cancer diagnosis, and Hedberg says he was working a year ago at a local furniture store and got injured on the job right before the pandemic. That led to a dispute with his employer over safety reporting, and he was fired. He says what he really needs is legal help to fight for back pay he’s never received. He should have been eligible for unemployment but he hasn’t had the wherewithal to pursue it.

He crawls into the back of his Bronco looking for something to prove his story and returns with an ID badge from when he worked as a government contractor for Pease in 2018. He’d like to get back to work, but without a permanent address, all the other steps toward solvency and security are just a cloud hanging over his head.

“My life is like a bad movie. It feels tragic most of the time,” he says, the emotion of it all welling up in his eyes. He mentions his oldest brother died earlier in the week from heart failure. He details the generational hard luck that has been his legacy, going back to his mother who was orphaned as a child, and the sense of poverty and struggle he’s always carried with him. He wants something more but isn’t sure how to achieve it, or if it’s really even possible at this point.

“I need to find a lawyer who can help me get the money they owe me. I need help,” he says.

Mann asked why people couldn’t at least relocate tents to the sprawling property off River Road that houses the Sununu Youth Services Center. The building there has for decades housed troubled youth and, most recently, drug-addicted teens. It has a recent history of being underutilized and is now under legal scrutiny for alleged past crimes against children by staffers when it was the YDC. State-owned, it sits on a 156-acre parcel of land in the north end of Manchester. Several weeks ago the state Judicial Legislative Committee discussed a proposal to stop funding the center and close it next year.

“The land is in Manchester. Why can’t the city have a say in what happens to it?” Mann asks.

Jake King stands nearby. He operates Thrive Outdoors, a business located just above the encampment. He’s ready to see the camp go.

“I hate to say it, but it’s on the people. We vote for freedoms. We don’t want anyone messing with our civil rights. But then you can’t move someone who is troubled and not in a position to make good decisions for themselves,” King said. “What’s the balance?”

He’s gotten an earful about “heartless neighbors” of the encampment who are pushing to have people moved.

“My response is why aren’t you willing to be their neighbors, then?” says King. “I know they’re human beings and, believe me, I have compassion. I’m part of an outreach team through Hope for NH Recovery, so I get that part. But these are bad neighbors.”

He points to a big pile of belongings neatly packed with no place to go.

“That’s my card table, in that pile. I’m obviously not going to take it. I mean, if it were my drill or other expensive equipment that’s been stolen from my place over the past 18 months, I’d take it back. But everyone needs a table,” King says. “It’s just that it’s gotten worse and worse here. They broke into my bus that I use to transport kids to the center because they ‘didn’t feel like sleeping in their tents.’ At first, it wasn’t bad and nobody really minded that they were living here. But then things got bad. Last year the city even put Port-a-Potties here but it didn’t last.”

Someone’s belongings, packed up with no place to go – including Jake King’s card table – on the Firestone property April 14, 2021. Photo/Carol Robidoux

He describes himself as not “a big government guy,” but says there’s a conversation no one seems to want to have about the important stuff, about what we can do to fix this. There are so many other places they could go, he says – places where people go to get help with addiction, or with mental illness. “Instead we think letting them decide to live in the woods, basically like animals, is somehow better than getting them help,” he says.

King has a military and police background, specializes in wilderness training with youth, and is a former director of the city’s Day Center on Central Street, which served the homeless population.

Some of those living behind his business have been there for years. Others are refugees from the state-owned Hillsborough County courthouse evacuation in November of last year, or the Amoskeag Bridge sweep in February, following a propane tank fire. It was only a matter of time before this encampment was put on notice. He says he doesn’t really know what’s right or what’s wrong, or what the city can do or what the new Director of Homeless Initiatives, Schonna Greene can do, when she arrives next week. 

“It’s about us. It’s about how we live and how we vote. Some people are so narrow-minded when it comes to the big picture. Why don’t we have the conversations every day about things like sex-trafficking or kids going hungry – or this,” he says.

It’s because people really don’t seem to want to face reality, or take responsibility for what’s wrong, he says.

“But that’s the human condition, isn’t it? We talk about how mental health and addiction is an issue with this population, and how people don’t have control over that – and I agree with that. But that also means they don’t have the capacity to make the best decisions for themselves. So then, when do we as a community step in and intervene? I mean really do something to help them. I want something better for them but this –” King doesn’t finish his sentence right away. He pauses while he sweeps his arm like a broad brush stroke across the landscape of people moving between makeshift tents, smoking cigarettes and arguing, packing bags among the piles of discarded items, trash, and garbage.

“This is not better.”


About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!