My take on Victoria Sullivan’s comments to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Sept. 6

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I’ve written to Manchester InkLink about homelessness before and today will be no different. As I write this on September 7th, I’m still reflecting on the public testimony from last night’s Manchester Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting. Several testimonies came from a place of frustration toward the city from the perspective of homeless allies. Others were neutral, and a few were downright malicious to the homeless. One of such was Victoria Sullivan’s speech

I don’t mean to be overly critical of one person, but I feel that Victoria Sullivan is a publicly-visible conservative who represents the sentiment of conservatives in seeking office right now. 

What I agree with Victoria Sullivan on 

Mrs. Sullivan indicated that she and other people of the Southside are worried about their safety. Everybody should be safe in the public spaces that we all get to enjoy. The existence of houseless populations in these spaces is a policy failure – a continued policy failure enacted by both Republicans and Democrats. One of Sullivan’s solutions is a sound one: if you are from a different city or town, that municipality should be the one to provide you services. 

What happens when every surrounding town fails to do this though? We are left with a choice: Do we do the right thing to aid a human being in need, or do we refuse them out of a sense of moral hazard? 

Another piece of praise I have for her is on a social media post in which she said: “Look at the money people are making from housing. The fact is most of it is luxury units and they will throw poor people into slums.“ 

That is 100 percent true. She also calls for easing local government restrictions on housing, which I agree with, too. 

Where I want to push back 

Mrs. Sullivan then veers off into language that I find unhelpful and that unnecessarily stigmatizes the houseless. She asks, “How many more dangerous people are still lurking in those encampments?” and then accused the Board of, “…a danger that you created by encouraging dangerous encampments where dangerous people can hide”

The only camp that the city possibly ever “encouraged” was the encampment under the Amoskeag Bridge by order of the CDC not to break up encampments during the height of a pandemic in 2020. As soon as the city was legally allowed to do so in June of 2021, they stopped providing dumpsters and porta potties to that camp. From that moment onward, the houseless residents had no way of disposing of their trash or human waste. We took away the only way to keep their camp clean and then blame them for being “dirty slobs”. 

This speech pushes an already dominant narrative that homeless people are dangerous and worthy of our contempt. The fact is like with most people, a few bad actors make an oversized impact. An encampment can have 10 people in it for years, but one day a new person moves in (often after their last camp was swept by police) and then petty crime spikes in that neighborhood, drawing attention to that camp and getting it swept by the police. The solution is to have a place that’s not a dirty shelter to live or even exist legally. 

Why Mrs. Sullivan’s and Mayor Craig’s Solutions are fundamentally the same: 

Mayor Craig has a pro-police approach to homelessness that many liberal mayors have around the country. Despite what conservatives say about Democrats being about “defunding the police ” and “letting criminals run loose,” liberal mayors actually love using “law and order” to approach homelessness as opposed to a Housing-First Approach. The city claims it has a housing first model, but it’s limited in scope. I call it “Housing First Lite” 

Here is the city’s current policies toward the houseless 

  • Mayor Craig and the Board of Aldermen increased anti-camping measures in the city, which was targeted at the homeless as an attempt to make it impossible for them to legally exist anywhere other than a poorly run shelter. 
  • Two years ago, under her initiative, Mayor Craig applied for and received the COPS Grant to add 10 more police officers to the MPD 
  • Use those cops to bring people on public and private land into shelters, even if the police chief and mayor deny that’s the role police play in homelessness. 

Mrs. Sullivan’s solutions are often vague and rally around a conservative narrative that “crime is out of control and that we release criminals too often.” She and other conservatives want less compassion and more jailing. This leads to an interesting contradiction: Those same conservatives complain that Housing First programs will cost taxpayer dollars to people unworthy of it. Yet the “throw them in jail” approach is even worse for the taxpayer. 

In the debate over PR bail reform and the failed attempt to rescind it with legislation, the abstract of that bill claims that it costs $1,800 per night to house somebody in jail in New Hampshire. What is a better use of taxpayer dollars? For a fraction of that cost, we could house somebody for a month with a fraction of those funds. Not to mention increased costs of policing, medical care, and other 911 calls to homeless encampments.

When talking to my friend about the unwillingness to truly invest in a Housing First Model due to cost concerns, but more than willingness to throw somebody in jail for much more money, they said, “It’s not about the taxpayer money. It’s about punishing people who we don’t feel are productive” 

So here we are, spending a lot more money to not solve a problem.

Solutions 

We need a true statewide plan that includes a Housing First Model. For those not ready for four walls and a roof, we should have regional encampments for those who are houseless, or prefer living outdoors while they work odd jobs saving up for an apartment. I tried to propose a designated camp in Keene, but I got the same answer as when I proposed it in Manchester: “If we build a camp here, every homeless person in NH will come here!” But what if everybody has proper homelessness services? Issue solved. 

In their 2020 Report, the NH Coalition to End Homelessness stated that we only need about 600 housing units to end chronic housing in NH. To this day, I cannot find from any agency local, state, or federal how many, if any, of those 600 units were built. That feels like a huge oversight and a lack of coordination between municipalities and the state. I think the state would do well to hire a Director of Homelessness, much like how the city did. 

There is a direct relationship between housing costs and homelessness. Homelessness is made worse by other things like addiction and mental illness, but those issues are easier to address when a person has secure housing. We need to ease zoning restrictions, allow more duplexes/multiplexes, greater tenant protections (especially on renovation evictions) to keep people in their homes, and a greater public investment in housing, whether it’s public housing, land trusts, or some other model.


Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Submit your thoughtful prose on topics of general interest for consideration to publisher@manchesterinklink.com.


 

About this Author

brandon-lemay

Brandon Lemay

Brandon Lemay is a Manchester native and housing organizer working to build tenant associations across the state. He's running for state representative in Manchester's Ward 8 in the 2022 election.