OPINION: Can we just stop the sweeps of homeless encampments until we have someplace for them to go?

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O P I N I O N

THE SOAPBOX

Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.


Some people think that the only victims of evicting and sweeping local encampments of homeless people from public lands are those who live in those camps. Some people are fine with that. Some even think they deserve it. So yeah. I’d happily have that argument with them at some other time.

Instead, I want to talk about why everyone in this city is victimized and harmed by these encampment sweeps. It doesn’t matter whether you feel sympathy for your homeless neighbors or not. Either way, this is bad policy used by politicians who are at best, uninformed, and far too often, are knowingly harming us all just to boost their own public image.

So yeah. Whoever you are, please listen to how this actually harms you too.

Just think about what happens when our city officials sweep an encampment off of public lands. Where do they go? What do they do? And how does that impact you and your own neighborhood? I’ve lived through this. I have been involved with helping campers to move or even defend their camps on several occasions. Last summer when they came for “the bucket” on Douglas Street, I spent a week patrolling that camp overnight for any intrusions or assaults. When the eviction process finally began, I was asked to be the lead negotiator with the police on behalf of the residents and defenders of that encampment. I’ve seen how this all goes down.

So yeah. I can tell you exactly what happens.

In a nutshell: You are taking the most desperate of all people in this city, rendering them way more desperate, and then scattering them into everyone else’s neighborhoods. Can’t you see that? Do you really have to watch firsthand, like I’ve done way too many times, just to realize what you’re doing here? Do I have to explain how that’s bad for everyone, whether you live in a camp or merely live in any home in this city?

So yeah, it seems like maybe I do.

Our city officials have been bragging about a couple of things lately. They say they have promises for lots of housing for these folks, which will be “coming soon.” They like to talk about how they have convinced a few dozen campers to go to rehab, rather than facing the consequences of having literally nowhere else to go. That’s maybe one camper for every other camp or so, including the camps with 20-30 people.

So yeah. Don’t be too impressed by those numbers.

I tried working with them on this. But I kept asking them the same question, over and over: “What about all of those many, many more people who get evicted from their camp and aren’t going to rehab? Where do they go?” Until they have an answer for that, or until they can at least postpone all sweeps on public land to after they truly have places to house these people, I can’t work with them.

So yeah. No matter how you feel about your homeless neighbors, I think you should be against this too, for your own sake at least.

When you sweep a camp it isn’t cheap, at all. There is the cost of the initial police enforcement. There is the cost of then having to protect that area from returning campers. On that, I encourage you all to look into the costs of your own tax dollars just for the fence “rentals” at the old Amoskeag camp under the bridge. There is the cost of cleanup. This not only includes high prices for the removal of biohazard waste but can easily triple or more if the camp is located near a river, wetland, etc.

So yeah. Is that what you pay taxes for?

All just to drive 99 percent of them to some other camping spot? Where the cycle starts all over again? Where you have to spend that exact same money all over again? Not long ago at a meeting for Ward 9, our own Chief of Police described this in the same words that I’ve used so many times: “… it’s a game of whack-a-mole.”

So yeah. Why are we spending your tax dollars on that silly little “game”?

And then there’s the crime rate. As I watched people being evicted from makeshift camps which were the closest thing they could call “home,” I saw so many of them lose everything. Or sometimes almost everything. Their daily supplies. Their critical documents. Their priceless and irreplaceable heirlooms, or sentimental items, including one woman’s ashes of her dead child.

So yeah.

Take those things from someone, along with the only place they feel comfortable laying their head. All while scattering them elsewhere into the city. And then just watch what happens. If you wonder why your garage got broken into, or your bike got stolen, or you were mugged or assaulted or worse, just check on the last time there was a recent homeless encampment sweep in your city.

So yeah. Do you all really think that’s just a random coincidence?

If you actually do have some real sympathy for those who are struggling with homelessness then think about what it does to them. There is the loss of belongings which I already mentioned, and which is well documented in the “Swept Away” report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. That was a study that used examples of sweeps from a variety of cities to demonstrate the conclusion that sweeping homeless encampments is a huge net loss for absolutely everyone in those cities.

Not to mention the fact that it severely increases the risk of injury, illness, and death for the campers. This includes all three categories of relatively common fatalities for people in their situation (accident, suicide, and murder). Almost every single person who died homeless last year in our city, and there were oh so many, had recently been staying at a camp that was swept out by our city officials.

So yeah. Take it from someone who has mourned them, alongside their other friends and family, as we beg for an end to this senseless madness.

Again, so yeah. What are these sweeps really about then?

If in reality, those who support them are merely driving up tax rates and crime while literally torturing and killing homeless people, then what’s the point of it? Why is it happening? Well, that’s simple: Politicians need to politic. This works for them. Sweeping camps means they get to pretend that they’re doing something even when they’re not. It allows them to grant favors for their constituents who call to complain about a local camp, and then do the same thing for more constituents once the new camps pop up in another neighborhood instead. This never-ending game of “whack-a-mole” is how they pretend to be dealing with a problem that is never really being dealt with. All while it costs endless dollars of wasted taxpayer money, just to ultimately drive up crime and cause even more problems for everyone in our city.

Yes, some camps have to go if they’re on someone’s private land. Yes, some need to go if they are an unstoppable source of neighborhood crime and disorder. I get that. But supporting sweeps on public lands, as a matter of policy, for people who are just trying to survive, only to cause more problems elsewhere at a very high and needless pricetag, is frankly absurd. If you support this it doesn’t just mean that you’re fine with the needless torture or even death of your homeless neighbors. It means you’re fine with wasting your own money to pretend to fix a problem that’s only being moved around. And it means you’re fine with higher crime in your own neighborhood, along with everyone else’s.

So yeah. Can we maybe all agree just to not do that? Please?

We don’t have to sweep any harmless encampments off of public lands. It doesn’t matter how big they are or how long they’ve been there, even though city officials might tell you otherwise. It does matter that there are some safety risks for the campers. Not when kicking them out is a much bigger risk to them and to us all. Again, even though city officials might tell you otherwise we really could just leave them alone. Actually, we could just give them a dumpster and a regularly serviced port-o-potty for far less than the actual cost of sweeping then holding the area they were camping in, just to make sure that there are no issues with garbage or other waste in that neighborhood.

The last time I spoke at a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen I said that my partners and I were willing to try to cooperate with city officials in addressing the problem of homeless in Manchester. And we did that. I met regularly with the Homeless Initiatives Coordinator for the city. I had a variety of discussions with various aldermen. When it became clear that they wanted me and my fellow “street outreach” volunteers to use our own reputations to defend their sweeps, we said no thanks. When they can offer these people a place to go, other than into your neighborhood while being more desperate than ever, we can maybe try again.

So yeah.

Otherwise, we’ll continue to defend the campers, and defend you all, from the horrible consequences of these sweeps, in any way that we can.

Please join us in opposing these sweeps. Please ask, or even beg, for your elected officials to listen to the real experts on this about why it’s bad for everyone. This needs to stop. For me, it’s simply because I can’t stand to lose any more loved ones to the harm of this senseless political grandstanding. That’s me. But if you won’t step up and demand a stop to this for your homeless neighbors then please, just do it for yourself. I don’t even care.

There are times when I struggle with issues where what’s best for my homeless friends may not be what’s best for everyone else. This is definitely not one of those times. Sweeps just make everything worse for everyone, whether you care about what happens to the campers or not. And any politician telling you it’s a “good idea” is at best misinformed. At worst, they already know this will harm you, and they want to fool you into supporting it anyway.

So yeah. Do NOT be fooled, and do NOT let this keep happening, to you or to anyone else.


Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Civic discourse is important to us here at the Ink Link. Take the time to put your thoughts into writing and send it along to us for consideration, publisher@manchesterinklink.com, subject line: The Soapbox.



About this Author

damwright

Dam Wright

"Dam Wright" is a former employee at the local homeless shelters. Since then he has participated in a variety of protests and defenses of homeless encampment sweeps while working with a wide assortment of mutual aid and harm reduction groups. He presently engages in volunteer 'street outreach', as well as aid and advocacy for the homeless, working primarily with the Katie Mitchell Memorial Foundation. He is also working with city officials and other aid or non-profit groups to address the problems of homelessness in the city of Manchester, focusing on 'harm reduction', 'housing first', and other proven concepts for dealing with homelessness, as well as its common causes (economic disenfranchisement, mental health, substance use disorders, etc.).