Parks become campsites with homeless influx: What’s the city to do?

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Dan, far right, a homeless city resident, has moved on now that Bronstein Park is off-limits due to school resuming. But he appreciated his time ‘sleeping under the stars” at the corner of Hanover and Union streets, even though it’s a violation of city parks ordinance. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – A large collection of bedding, overloaded black trash bags and other personal items that had been splayed under the trees in Bronstein Park on the corner of Hanover and Union were gone Thursday.

By city ordinance, Bronstein Park is off-limits to the general public during school hours. The ordinance originally went into effect Aug. 22, 2014, after an unprecedented uptick of medical calls for people strung out on spice in the park. The restrictions kicked in again yesterday to make way for Central High School students, who use the park for band practice and other activities.

The items on that corner belong to Dan, a lifelong city resident, who said he was aware that his temporary sleeping under the stars was about to come to an end. He said he’d likely relocate himself and his stuff under the bridge along the Merrimack River.

Why not go to the shelter?

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been incarcerated for many years, and living in a confined space with so many people is a safety issue for me,” Dan said. “The shelter is great and the people who run it are awesome, but it’s overcrowded, and we’re too mean to each other — homeless people steal from each other. This is much better.”

Everyone has a story, and Dan’s goes something like this. He grew up on Blodgett Street and graduated from Central High School. He’s 53, and says he’s been drug-addicted for 41 of those years.

Dan’s stuff included a lawn chair, a cooler, several bedrolls and trash bags, and his girlfriend’s new bike. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“I’ve gotten high on every street corner in the city,” says Dan. That’s why he’d like to find a way out of the city. He knows a guy who has a place up north, they call it Slumberland Cabins, says Dan, where someone like him can go to get clean and clear their heads.

For now, he’s stuck in the city. He’s waiting for his Social Security disability to come through and has some unfinished legal business.

His right arm is wrapped in a bandage, an injury he says he suffered in July when he was the victim of a hit-and-run outside the SNHU Arena.

“Honestly, I would like to do the SATCO Program at Valley Street Jail,” Dan says, an acronym for the Substance Abuse Treatment Community for Offenders program, offering medically-assisted treatment (MAT) for inmates during short-term incarceration. But he’s currently on the outside, where the weather is good and life is livable. He has a girlfriend, also homeless, and a small circle of friends who look out for one another.

‘I can’t say we all know love, but we all know pain’

According to Dan, his life has been a series of unfortunate events — his most recent bout of homelessness resulted after an arrest last year on drug possession charges. Before that he says he was living a better life, one of the infrequent stable periods. He’s had his own apartment, a steady job, owned some vehicles. But the fragility of his sobriety and the pull of his addiction is what ends up being his undoing. He knows that, but he can’t find the exit door.

“I got out of jail homeless, penniless, jobless, vehicle-less — someone stole my car while I was locked up,” he says. That led to some couch-surfing and, while he was trying to re-establish himself, he relapsed. He has made some money working jobs through Complete Labor and Staffing, at the ballpark and some roofing work, but nothing steady. He’s had run-ins with other workers on job sites, which leaves him always looking for something better.

When asked, Dan says he’s not currently on drugs “… well, I smoke a little weed,” and he visits the HOPE for NH community recovery center sometimes, which helps to scratch his itch to live clean. But old habits have been impossible for him to break, thus far.

“I haven’t been in a situation with a structured life to learn how to live clean and sober, ever. The shelter is great, it’s just that the people who go there have nothing and I guess they get jealous or envious of those who do, and they take it. They took my bike,” he says.”

Living at Bronstein has been like being part of a nomadic tribe.

“We look out for each other, and we all have Narcan in our pockets. This won’t last much longer with school starting,” Dan said on Wednesday.

A missing piece of the city’s homeless population-puzzle, says Dan, is that those on the outside don’t see their humanity.

“We’re no different from you. We’re real people, we just want to be heard and respected. Me, I chose to be homeless. Last year I was in a different situation, and I was volunteering to feed the homeless and that’s when I realized I wanted to be a part of it,” he says. He recognized himself in those coming through the food line. Basic needs were being met, and they were part of a group that, for the most part, accept one another as they are.

“A lot of these people have pain. I can’t say we all know love, but we all know pain. That’s why we’re out there, I guess; we’ve all lost so much to addiction. The drugs numb us,” Dan says. Estranged from whatever family might still be around, Dan says both his parents are gone. “Those who do have family don’t want to cause  them any more pain, so they choose to stay away.”

So the homeless become ad hoc street families, living in proximity to those they trust but keeping to their own circles within the homeless community, to avoid being victims of homeless-on-homeless crime.

“When someone goes to rehab we are excited for them. When someone dies, we mourn, just like a family would,” Dan says. “We thought it was awesome that they were allowing us to sleep out in the open air, under the stars. We’re grateful that we’ve had this opportunity. I’ll be moving on, maybe to the bridge, or by the lake.”

City ordinances and enforcement challenges

According to City Charter, Chapter 96 – 96.04 through 96.08 parks are closed to the public from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. If there’s a playground, they are off-limits at 9 p.m.  Camping is prohibited under 96.06 (E).

In April of 2014 New Hampshire’s top law enforcement officials and city department heads gathered at the Manchester Police station along with then U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, for a frank discussion of the growing opioid epidemic, and the fallout from the grip of addiction on New Hampshire citizens [Read that exclusive story and video coverage here.]

All those around the table agreed that “we can’t arrest our way out” of the drug crisis.

Five years and two Manchester Police Chiefs later, that statement could not be truer.

Back then, the statement was meant to highlight the need for outreach and rehabilitation, services and solutions to the deeper wounds driving the epidemic. Today, the problem is compounded by a growing tribe of homeless and drug-addicted people, many of whom aren’t accessing services, but blatantly violating city ordinances and living comfortably between the loopholes that allow it to go on, says Manchester Police Chief Carlo Capano.

Manchester Police Department Chief Carlo Capano. File photo/Andrew Sylvia

On Thursday he spoke openly about the growing issue of makeshift campsites popping up around the city. He said his officers are doing all that they. are sworn to do, and all that is within the legal limits of their badge under current city statutes when it comes to addressing the issues.

Since Jan. 1 his officers have issued 371 city ordinance violations ranging from lewdness, public intoxication from alcohol or drugs, conduct in a public place, public urination or defecation, lounging in doorways and, most recently, for sleeping in public parks. These are not jailable offenses.

“We’ve exhausted our legal ability to act,” Capano said. “The biggest problem is there is zero accountability for the actions my officers are taking. What I mean by that is we did a study into ordinances issued a month ago, and 95 percent are defaulting at court – either they aren’t showing up or not paying fines. The court isn’t doing anything about that.”

Capano points to last year’s bail reform legislation which basically gives low-income offenders a pass.

“It’s just a fact. My officers are doing their jobs, but [offenders are] returned to the streets before officers have a chance to fill out the paperwork,” Capano said.

The understood intent of bail reform is to avoid a debtor’s prison scenario – those with a job and some money can make bail and get out of jail. Those who can’t languish there. Bail reform allows a judge to exercise judgment  – and, says Capano, leniency. Although it has been heralded as a success by the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped craft the legislation, it has not improved the quality of life for the majority of city residents.

“We understand its intent, but it’s the unintended consequence for a city like Manchester that is frustrating,” Capano said. He says any change in city statutes and enforcement power would have to come legislatively.

“Basically, the word on the street is ‘come to Manchester where illegal behavior has no consequences’ – and let me stress that it’s not that we’re not doing our jobs, but the courts are not holding anyone accountable for their behavior. I can tell you this is not only a problem here, but also, across the state, police departments are dealing with similar issues.”

Parks become campgrounds

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On Aug. 21 there were no less than two dozen bedrolls visible between Victory and Bronstein parks. Capano said in his 25 years as a police officer, he’s never seen such an influx of homeless people, many of them taking up residence in city parks, despite existing ordinances prohibiting people from being in parks after certain hours.

“I can assure you my police department is doing its job. The problem is, the influx is becoming difficult to manage. I don’t have a team of 30 or 40 officers to manage it day to day,” Capano said. “Law enforcement is part of the solution, for sure. But this is a societal issue, and society has to work together to solve it.”

Capano says his officers work closely with Manchester Fire Department and the Safe Station as well as Families in Transition/New Horizons shelter, but the complexity of the problem has made it seemingly impossible to solve.

“Right now there is such a problem with mental health and drug addiction, and it all ties in with homelessness and choosing to sleep in parks. That’s what makes it difficult. My officers are out there daily and we’re reaching out to FIT/New Horizons, but virtually our hands are tied,” Capano says.

Michele Talwani of FIT/New Horizons on Wednesday acknowledged the issue.

“We, too, are trying to dig deeper to see what the influx is. We do have an outreach team trying to do assessments and encourage people to come to our shelter for services. We are equally surprised at the increase,” she said. Mayor Joyce Craig’s office also mentioned the intention to deploy outreach teams, although there were no specifics from FIT/New Horizons as to whether outreach teams were already out there, or how often.

As determined by the Board of Aldermen, a city homeless services coordinator position has been approved and the hiring process is almost complete. How that position might aid in addressing the current issues remains to be seen, or defined.

City leaders address the issue

During the Aug. 6 Board of Aldermen meeting, the topic of camps popping up around the city was raised by Ward 4 Alderman Chris Herbert based on constituent complaints. Several other aldermen chimed in about the problem — Ward 6 Aderwoman Elizabeth Moreau said she saw three men in the street downtown obviously getting high around 7:30 a.m., as kids were heading off to day camps.

“Did you call the police?” Mayor Craig asked her.

Yes, said Moreau. But by the time officers got there, there was nothing to see.  She also said she feels calling the police for such a complaint, when there are serious crimes in need of attention, is a waste of resources.

And while Capano does not disagree that police must triage calls based on the level of danger, residents should always call police to register complaints.

“We answered 148,000 calls for service last year. I have to answer to the entire community, not just at the downtown parks. We can’t focus solely on chasing people out of the parks and moving them from place to place,” Capano said.

“We have and will continue to have zero tolerance for anyone breaking any aspects of the law we can enforce. But I can’t have a police officer on every street corner. It’s not feasible. And an officer can’t go to the park and say to someone, ‘So-and-so says you were doing drugs an hour ago.’ The most frustrating part is that Manchester Police Department — or any police department — can’t solve homelessness. It’s not part of our mission. We are the law-enforcement component. Everyone looks to us to solve the problem of public sleeping or loitering, but there’s not always something we can do,” Capano says. “We can move them along, but where do they go?”

And furthermore, every person has constitutional rights, he says.  No officer will go down the path of violating those rights. So for those who are critical of police for not doing enough – for not “moving them along,” or arresting them for loitering, or kicking them out of the parks, Capano says it goes back to the lack of accountability.

“In essence, we are moving them from park to park to park, and it doesn’t solve the problem we’re having,” Capano said. “There’s no accountability.”

During the August BOA meeting, Ward 8 Alderwoman Barbara Shaw asked for a presentation from various city leaders and entities, to bring aldermen up to speed about what is and isn’t allowed to happen so they can speak with authority to constituents who lodge complaints. She also suggested the board as a unit go to Concord to express to Gov. Sununu the overall burden the state’s addiction crisis is having on Manchester. It’s clear people come for help through Safe Station or the shelter, but then linger after unsuccessful treatment attempts, living off the system currently in place to provide services. Mayor Craig said a unified trip to the State House was a good idea.

The situation is having a negative impact on downtown businesses and the perception of the city to those who tell business owners they are uncomfortable coming downtown to spend money. Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines, who owns and operates Mint Bistro, and represents the downtown business zone, maintains that more daily outreach is necessary to connect directly with those who are chronically on the streets.

“As someone who walks around the downtown constantly, and I walk through the parks two to three times a week, I can tell you the population keeps growing and we don’t have people trying to help them find a safer place and get them off the streets. I have yet to see outreach teams, and I’m here every day,” Baines said. “We can’t just point to a park ordinance and say they can be removed when we have ordinances on the books that aren’t being enforced.”

“We took them off the river, we took them off of Elm Street — at least for a brief time — now people want them out of the parks. Where to next? The community has to have a larger discussion about the way forward,” Baines said.

As a lifelong city resident, Baines says it seems to him that we have reached a day when police are not allowed to do the job they used to do.

“Back in high school in the ’90s we’d get spoken to by police for driving up and down Elm Street twice in one night. You couldn’t loiter. I don’t speak for our police department, but when I do have conversations with officers, they’re frustrated; they feel they should be able to enforce things they’re not allowed to, and they point to pressure from the ACLU. At some point, enough has to be enough,” Baines said.

Influx of homeless population

Capano says he will not point fingers or speculate about where all the homeless people are coming from, or why.

“Has Safe Station brought more people into the city? Absolutely. I can’t tell you what happens to them once they enter Safe Station, or what the ‘failure rate’ is for those who don’t continue on a path toward rehabilitation. But are they leaving Manchester once they arrive? My perception is that those we have living outside especially may have come here saying they want help, but they come out of Safe Station, relapse and remain in the city,” Capano says.

He also says other communities in Hillsborough County are bringing arrested subjects to Valley Street Jail and, upon their release, they stick around, too.

“In general, we know other municipalities and entities are bringing people to Manchester for services that aren’t available elsewhere and that is part of the influx. Concord shuts its shelter down in the summer.  I am personally out there, always looking for new faces, and was in the parks [Wednesday] and of the three people I grabbed who I didn’t recognize, one was from Nashua, one was from Derry and one was from Raymond. They all said they came for resources, but yet, they’re not using the resouces. That’s what we’re dealing with,” Capano said.

Legislative changes needed

Mayor Joyce Craig, left, addresses Manchester Police Department’s newest officers during a swearing-in ceremony on March 4, 2019 at the MPAL Center. File Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Capano says he’s personally issued a summons for drinking in the park to someone who had 15 prior summonses for the same offense. The first offense is a $50 fine, second offense, $100, and a third offense should send you to court. Instead, those who are issued summonses verbalize to police that they have no intention of paying fines or going to court.

Courts are not holding violators accountable for the work police are doing within existing ordinances, says Capano. And while some relief could come legislatively – even with 100 more ordinances on the books, if people are non-compliant and the courts aren’t holding them accountable, it’s a circular puzzle no one seems to be able to solve.

And there is burn out.

Tomorrow Manchester Police will hold an entrance exam for prospective officers. As of yesterday, there were 111 applicants. Back in 2015, then Assistant Chief Capano described the difficulty in hiring, recalling a time when 500 applicants would show up for 10 or 15 openings.

“And in the scheme of things, we probably get more applicants than other municipalities just by nature of being the ‘big city.’ Being a police officer is difficult these days. We’re doing a lot more social work and mental health services. It’s a difficult climate to work in, with the drugs and opioids and now meth, which is here and which brings violence,” Capano says.

“As an agency, we’re still in good shape as far as crime stats. Granted, we had a busy July, but we don’t measure annual crime in one or two week spikes. We’re trying to move more toward prevention, and we do that with our predictive crime data. But we’ll always be reactive.”

Capano says Manchester is still a safe city. “You have perception and you have reality. Manchester is still a safe place to be.”

But the struggle is real, and as such, retention of officers is a concern. He says 80 percent of his patrol division, the largest division, have been with MPD for five years or less. More and more senior officers are retiring as soon as they are eligible.

“We have the job of managing morale. We keep our officers as safe as possible. They’re well trained. But between those out on medical or military leave, or retiring, and answering to increasing calls from the Board of Aldermen and mayor for how to fix the current problems, it’s difficult to manage all that we have to manage and keep morale up,” Capano says.

“The job has morphed into far more than it was even 10 years ago, and I want to emphasize that, for me, the lack of accountability in our courts is a big part of the problem,” he says. “We are running ragged out there.”

About Carol Robidoux 6698 Articles
Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!