Homeless rights activists and members of the community gathered in Veteran’s Park on a dark Saturday evening to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the sweep of the courthouse encampment at the corner of Chestnut and Merrimack Streets. For several weeks in 2020, outreach teams of various kinds assisted homeless people with clothing, food, and other services while they camped out on state property outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Manchester.
The state’s initial deadline of when the encampment would be swept came and went when a 24-hour vigil at the camp coincided with media coverage from across New England.
Mayor Joyce Craig went on record to say the state’s sweep process was “inhumane,” shortly before overseeing several other sweeps this year – among them, the Amoskeag Bridge camp, the Bucket camp at 450 Douglas Street, the encampment near Firestone Complete Auto on Elm Street, and the camp situated on the east side near Econo Lodge and the highway. All of these camps are now gone, while many of the homeless people who resided in them have been shuffled around in what Alderman Bill Barry described as a game of “whack-a-mole.”
Fences have gone up around the sites where the courthouse and Amoskeag camps used to be. At the highway camp, large patches of rough ground remain where once people slept in tents. Bits of trash can be found here and there as evidence that people once slept there – a broken pair of sunglasses, a patch of a blue tarp, a bicycle tire, bags of chips, a soda bottle.
In the middle of November, the trees look like skeletal caricatures of their former selves, wooden hands grasping silently at the air as if to ensnare someone in a deadly embrace. The Merrimack River next to the camp looks the same as ever, with the same log protruding out from the camp into the river, daring anyone to step upon it.
The former Amoskeag Bridge camp, once called Camp Live Free, is encircled entirely by chain link fencing. Signs of various kinds advising against camping, parking, and creating graffiti can be found about the site. Meanwhile, cars whisk by overhead and pass by on River Road, headed toward Canal Street. Silence settles over the area; people are nowhere to be seen.
The Courthouse property has since been blocked off by a thick black fence facing both Central and Merrimack streets. Benches once accessible to the public have since been cordoned off; a sign on the fencing declares access to the property is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; however, I have not observed the fences being opened at any point on any day of the week for some time.
Alderman Pat Long said the fence around the Amoskeag Bridge encampment is a rental and was paid for by COVID Cares stimulus funding.
Even after the sweeps, point-in-time surveys suggest homelessness in the city is not going down. Instead, reports of car break-ins and violent stabbings are on the rise. Unreported incidents of theft among homeless people have increased as well. One homeless individual said all of their belongings were taken when all they had was a tent and a sleeping bag to keep warm at night.
Activists who have supported Manchester’s homeless community have seen patterns of harm and neglect from the city, state, and from within the community itself. Some have experienced negative mental health symptoms as a result. Others feel pessimistic about the future. One person is looking into starting a commune in northern Maine.
During the service, which also coincided with Transgender Day of Remembrance, a moment of silence was held for the people who have died in the past year. Brandon LeMay, who has been active among the homeless community for some time, has seen it all too often.
“Every death from the houseless community this past year was a preventable death,” Lemay said. “Looking back on how the state has handled housing in the last year, I’d had a lot of time to reflect on its failures. “
At 1269 Cafe, at the corner of Union and Merrimack streets, sheets of paper posted on the doors have names scrawled upon in various kinds of handwriting. Listed there are the names of all the people who have died, remembered there for anyone who wants to look.
Toward the end of the event, attendees were invited to write messages upon signs indicating their support for the homeless community. These signs were then hung up with zip ties on the fence surrounding the courthouse. Within a matter of hours, police tore the signs down, leaving only zip ties and electric candles behind.
Police were described by activists at the event as having “ripped through” the camps, “mercilessly.” No one at the event expressed any trust in police officers; not activists, community members, or homeless individuals. From their perspective, police hinder rather than help people attempting to get back on their feet.
In spite of all the many obstacles people face, there was a consensus at the event that no one wanted to give up. While individuals expressed pessimism and sadness, they were also determined to keep trying, to keep going. No matter how trying it may be, no matter how difficult, no one who attended the event to give up.
“Housing Action NH states that we need to build 20,000 housing units to meet current demand,” Lemay said. “The Governor’s Council on housing stability promised to only build 13,500 housing units by 2024. The state evicted the Chestnut Street encampments, and they’re still failing on housing a year later.”