MANCHESTER, NH – The state-owned property at the county courthouse on Chestnut Street was being cleared of campers and their belongings Friday, and a fence erected around it. The campers had been growing in numbers all summer, with more than 40 tents on both sides of the building.
Troopers came in a convoy and assembled across the street in the parking lot of the federal building around 7:15 a.m. Some early risers from the camp were the first alert system.
“Oh my god, they’re coming. Wake up! They’re coming – it looks like a hundred of them. I’m so scared,” one woman screamed. The wake-up call took many people off guard. Individuals began scrambling to pack up what they could into duffle bags and backpacks. About 40 NH State Troopers dressed in green uniforms and masks entered the campground and positioned themselves throughout. They were calm and did not say much. They offered plastic bags and assistance.
NH State Police Capt. Bill Haynes was in charge of the mission. He said he couldn’t answer any questions except to say they were clearing the site of campers and their belongings and it would “be cleared by the end of the day.”
There was a mix of responses from the group – some quietly began packing their things. Others vowed to stand their ground. Still, others became emotional, screaming or crying, or trying to reason with the troopers. Many asked questions about what was going to happen next, but got no response.
“You have to go,” Haynes said to one man who tried to engage him, adding that the site was posted no camping on Nov. 6.
“We’re not camping. We’re living,” the man said. Haynes told him he didn’t have anything else to say, and it became clear there was no option but to clear out.
“Whoever told you to move us, I guarantee people are going to die. It’s a war of attrition,” the man said to a row of masked troopers standing by. You guys aren’t going to lose anyone in this battle; we are.”
When police moved in they directed individuals to Veterans Park behind the courthouse where a few employees of the Department of Health and Human Services were standing with clipboards. A representative of Granite Recovery Centers was also there who had returned from the previous day. He said on Friday they had five open beds left. On Thursday the recovery organization transported 22 people from the camp to take respite beds paid for by an extended state contract arranged by Governor Sununu.
No one from DHHS would comment as to how many other beds were available, or whether transportation would be provided to those in the encampment whose loads of belongings and tents were too much to carry to a new campsite despite a statement made on Wednesday by Assistant Attorney General Anne Edwards who indicated the state would help displaced persons “find housing alternatives – and in some cases those housing alternatives may be other encampments.”
Milford State Rep. Maria Elizbeth Perez came to see if there was anything she could do, but quickly realized there was nothing.
“I’m not from here but I care – I’m a representative of the state. I’ve been reaching out to other state representatives and trying to get more people involved but we need more. I’ve been pushing the governor, but this isn’t right, to do this,” she said.
She said there are homeless people in her town as well, and all around the state.
“Seeing this breaks my heart. Someone needs to do something,” Perez said.
Lisa Anne Hampton, who has been chronically homeless in the city for several years, was there as an ally. She just got into New Horizons on Oct. 30 and has been coming over to the camp daily to support those who are unhoused.
She said her experience this time around at the shelter “is much better” than it was four years ago. But she would like something more permanent. She walked over to Veterans Park to speak to the DHHS workers and returned about five minutes later.
“They wouldn’t tell me where they were offering to take me. I asked if they had a business card or if they could tell me the location. I told them I needed help with housing and they said I already had housing – the shelter. They were very evasive,” Hampton said. “They only said they have ‘other places in other towns’ to take us, but wouldn’t give me any details. I can’t trust that.”
She is worried about what is going to happen to all the people displaced Friday.
“And it’s not just them. There are so many more,” she said, people who, like herself, struggle hard to maintain their mental health. The number of steps it takes to get from homelessness to stability are sometimes insurmountable.
Mayor Joyce Craig and Fire Chief Dan Goonan meanwhile were meeting at the city’s Emergency Operations Center to decide what the city could do. They were beginning to coordinate efforts with other city partners to utilize available city buildings as an emergency shelter, plans that have been in the works for dangerously could nights, but now need to accelerate. Aldermen Joe Levasseur and Pat Long were telling people to head toward Fisher Cats Stadium until the city could coordinate efforts and come up with a plan.
Levasseur said his position is that the city must stop providing free services which he says is what brings homeless people to the city.
“I think we need to reopen the state mental hospital in Concord they closed down,” Levasseur said. “These people need more than the city has to offer.”
Long said he had brought up to the Board of Aldermen a plan for creating a centralized location, in a park or other city-owned property, that would be a central place to deliver services, but that idea did not gain traction.
“The only one who supported me on that was [At-Large Alderman Dan] O’Neil,” Long said.
Glenn Ouellette, a vocal advocate for the city’s poor and homeless, said that just three years ago the city removed a campsite near the river under similar circumstances. He is skeptical of the city’s commitment to really help.
“It’s going to be up to the faith communities,” Ouellette said. “We are working on that at 1269 Cafe. This has been going on too long in our city,” he said.
Sayles Kasten, organizing director for NH Youth Movement. said volunteers pooled their resources and ordered a U-Haul to help the displaced people move their things Friday. Sayles and other volunteers from other groups have spent the past several days on-site bringing food, supplies and necessities.
Craig issued a statement Friday morning explaining steps the city was taking in response to the unannounced evacuation. Despite several attempts to coordinate with the state, Craig said once the Nov. 16 deadline came and went the city anticipated the state might move in without notice, as they did.
The evacuation process began when the state on Nov. 6 posted signs telling campers they had until Nov. 16 to vacate. That deadline came and went.
“When I was notified the state was evicting individuals from the courthouse property, I contacted local outreach teams, including the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, Families in Transition – New Horizons and the City Welfare Department who quickly mobilized teams to assist individuals. As a result, Families in Transition – New Horizons already filled all of their available beds with people being forcibly removed from the courthouse lawn, and we’re working to find any other options available,” Craig said.
“This eviction, uncoordinated with any local non-profit agencies or the City, will disconnect individuals from services they’ve been receiving for months. In the midst of a pandemic, when community spread is at an all-time high, the State is forcing people to move throughout the city with no place to go — putting the health and safety of those living unsheltered and all Manchester residents at risk. This action from the State is inhumane, causing trauma to individuals with nowhere else to go.”
As of noon the state Department of Justice had not responded to several phone calls, text messages and emails requesting comment for this report.