MANCHESTER, N.H. – The topic of homelessness took center stage at Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting, spanning viewpoints and facts on the crisis to perspectives on how it can be solved.
Manchester Police Department Chief Carlo Capano and Manchester City Solicitor Emily Gray Rice came before the board with an informational presentation on the topic, focusing in particular on the Elm Street area between Bridge and Merrimack Streets.
While the appearance of homeless residents has become commonplace on Elm Street and throughout other parts of Manchester, Capano said that there were only 13 homeless people among the 73 people arrested in that area during 2018 , with a total of 1,466 documented events requiring police intervention of some kind in that area last year.
Capano earned praise for recent efforts on the issue. He told the board that the ability of his department to address incidents involving the homeless population, as well as a wide variety of other issues, came in large part from shifting resources toward the area during key times of the day. Capano also added temporary staffing increases when available, such as the use of school resource officers during the summer.
While he told the board that in an ideal situation, there would be two officers on foot in the area during all duty shifts, Capano indicated the city would have to either provide $91,000 per month in overtime pay or hire nine new officers beyond filling the currently ten vacated positions in the department due to retirement.
Even that would be well below the recommended 30 extra officers on top of the 10 replacements Capano told the board the FBI recommended as an average for a city the size of Manchester.
Alderman Keith Hirschmann spoke in favor of seeking additional funding for the nine extra officers from the downtown businesses they would serve. In the meantime, Capano told the board that the current levels of coverage in the area were unsustainable without those additional officers, as the downtown coverage came at the expense of coverage in other areas of the city.
However, Capano noted that police still frequently dealt with issues relating to the homeless population outside of the downtown area, particularly regarding the removal of personal property from abandoned buildings and camping tents in public parks.
Capano and Rice also noted that city officials try to engage in these situations with the utmost care and respect to avoid potential civil rights litigation against the city.
“I am thankful that I live in this country. Sometimes it can be frustrating dealing with laws like this protecting people’s rights,” said Manchester alderman John Cataldo. “But it’s amazing that we have those laws that protect even the most vulnerable.”
Still, there was a general sense of frustration toward the inability to craft ordinances that resolved the issue, most notably the panhandling ban that was struck down by the New Hampshire District Court in 2017.
Rice told the board that the New Hampshire Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on a comparable ordinance banning sleeping in a tent or vehicle overnight on city-owned property.
Until then, Capano voiced his frustration with the limits of current laws in certain situations, citing a recent incident
Ultimately, Mayor Joyce Craig indicated that the best solution for the issue of homeless in the area would come through agencies that helped the homeless address their own personal issues and become productive members of society.
She particularly noted the Families in Transition/New Horizons Shelter, which obtained $200,000 in community improvement program funds during the meeting.
With those funds, New Horizons can provide daytime operations as well as needed structural repairs.
Craig also voiced tentative hope for the state’s new “hub and spoke system” which aims to take some of the burden off Manchester by creating new centers across New Hampshire geared toward helping local homeless populations.
But like the ordinance issue, a perceived overburden on Manchester’s role in dealing with New Hampshire’s homelessness issue was also a focal point.
Alderman Dan O’Neil praised a non-profit group from earlier in the meeting that looks to provide showers to the homeless, but he asked that group and others to focus on Manchester’s homeless population
“Please don’t bring people here and then if it doesn’t work, they’re still here for (the city) to address,” he said.