MANCHESTER, NH – The city’s Chief of Police acknowledges that the situation at “the bucket,” a long-time haven on city-owned property for the encamped homeless on the city’s West Side, is not ideal.
“We do get numerous complaints from residents in that area since the inception of the camp,” Chief Allen Aldenberg said Monday, which he estimates has been at least a year.
Citing safety concerns, last week the city posted notice that those living on the property were in violation of city ordinances and state laws regarding camping and cooking inside parks, with a warning to vacate by June 4. On Monday police and city workers finally showed up at the site delivering two dumpsters and some plastic totes, and reinforced that everyone had to go. Aldenberg says there’s not a firm deadline.
“My officers told them at their convenience to utilize the dumpsters to start to clean up the camp, and left behind totes they can put their personal property in for at least 90 days so they know property is secured,” Aldenberg said, adding that there were three employees of the New Horizons shelter doing outreach throughout the day.
Aldenberg said that police engaged in “decent dialogue” with a group of advocates for the people living on Douglas Street who were a front-line of defense since Friday and the anticipated sweep.
“Today, what we encountered was a little passive-aggressive behavior, nothing criminal. My officers engaged in some decent dialogue with those at the camp entrance and none of them did anything illegal,” Aldenberg said. “A lot of questions they have in my opinion need to be directed toward (Director of Homeless Services) Schonna Green. They’re asking things that I myself or my officers don’t have answers for, and I hope that will take place in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Aldenberg said.
Evacuation deadlines are tough, Aldenberg said, and can sometimes escalate a situation that is already frustrating for all concerned.
“What I’d love to prevent is any type of violence or strong resistance. It’s just not necessary,but eventually they need to go. They’re on city property, and there have been legitimate complaints,” Aldenberg said.
“If I lived in the neighborhood I would want it addressed as well. The larger city-wide issues are for Schonna Green to tackle, which she’s preparing to do. So when people ask what’s next, and what’s the plan – those are fair questions. They’re human beings and we want to treat them humanely. The last thing I want to do is arrest homeless people,” Aldenberg said.
Scenes from the current encampment defense at The Bucket. Support is still needed! pic.twitter.com/v9HR7p3gbe
— MAD NH (@MADNewHampshire) June 7, 2021
By late afternoon most of the 20 people or so who had called “the bucket” home had already moved on, according to Brandon Lemay, a housing organizer for Rights and Democracy NH and a vocal advocate for those living in encampments around the city. He wasn’t sure if anyone took advantage of any of the 46 shelter beds the city said are available, between openings at New Horizons and 1269 Cafe.
“Talking to activists on the ground, I don’t know of one houseless person that ever asked to be taken to a shelter. Ever. At least dating back a year,” Lemay said. The Douglas Street encampment is the latest among several located on city-owned and private property that have been posted and ordered vacated in the past year.
But he said he is looking forward to a dialogue with Green.
“I think Shonna was a great hire. I just wish the city didn’t undermine her efforts before her policies could be implemented. I’m excited to see what she has to offer, especially when she talks about community land trusts,” Lemay said. “I fully believe that our presence forced the city into talking,” and gave supporters more time to help relocate those encamped there.
Over the weekend Lemay submitted a list of “demands” to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen on behalf of those living in the Douglas Street encampment which acknowledges that many of those who choose to live rough prefer a tent in the woods to the available shelters. Alderman Pat Long said in reviewing the list, he is in agreement on at least one point, that meaningful conversation through a homeless commission involving “leaders” from within the homeless community and advocates is overdue.
“I’ve already spoken to the mayor and Schonna about it and that’s something that’s very doable, we’d welcome that. I’ve been asking for a meeting with some of these leaders of encampments, but nobody steps up. We need people who have relationships with them to help make that happen,” Long said.
Timing around the vacate order at the Douglas Street encampment seems unfortunate, with the city moving closer to a comprehensive plan, Long said. Green, who has been on the job just six weeks, is working in overdrive and developing four proposals to present to the aldermen.
“They start with an encampment that would welcome all of them, an area whether it’s state or city-owned, and she’s putting together a group of churches willing to administer that plan, it’s in the works,” Long said.
But he also pushed back on some of the statements included in the “demands.” As a person in long-term recovery from addiction, Long says he understands the desire to live without rules or responsibilities.
“Sweeps are not just to break-up encampments, it’s absolutely a safety issue, such as people dying of overdoses. And you know, in looking at the demands, they say they don’t want to go to the shelter because it’s not a good shelter. But nobody’s talked to the shelter lately – they’re doing some good stuff,” Long said. “The people in the encampments want autonomy, they don’t want any authority – I’m sorry, that’s just not the American way. I have to listen to authority, just as you do – we all have rules we need to follow.”
On Monday we asked Families in Transition about the references to issues at the shelter and they responded point-by-point:
Cleanliness: “The shelter is clean. Our staff works diligently to maintain all of our properties, including the original and newly renovated dorm spaces. We are happy to provide a tour of the shelter to anyone who is thinking about staying but unsure due to what they believe is unclean.”
Safety: “Men and women are separated into different dorm spaces for safety purposes and staff continuously monitor various posts on a rotating basis to ensure the safety of all.”
Storage: “Given the 138 participants we serve there are ultimately limitations within our facility for storage. Individuals are offered a place to store items in the dorm space.”
Animals: “Service animals are invited into the shelter; pets are not allowed due to safety concerns.”
Shelter spokesman Kyle Chumas elaborated on how the shelter has been working through the challenges of the past year, including new management and a pandemic.
“We know there are barriers for some people, and under the current leadership and management of the Adult Emergency Shelter, we have worked diligently to transform the culture of the programs and services and reduce a number of barriers,” Chumas said.
“The shelter is meant to serve as an entry point to more permanent solutions. Our goal is to provide stability with access to shelter, meals, and services in order to locate permanent housing as quickly as possible. Very recently, we’ve had eight shelter participants receive their Housing Choice Vouchers in conjunction with case managers. They are now working with our team to find housing. This is what our services are all about, providing access to permanent options,” Chumas said.
Long said in reviewing the list of demands, it’s not the city’s responsibility to “provide a home” for anyone. Shelter services are in place to create a bridge to self-sufficiency, and if people are unwilling to take that first step and try, they are being unrealistic. Creating a better system is at the top of the city’s agenda, Long said.
“They say ‘If the community will not or cannot provide us homes…’ wait a minute; did the city provide you with a home? Me neither. Why are we providing homes for them? Who’s going to pay for that?” Long said. “My kid just bought his first condo at 35 and he worked his ass off. He didn’t move to an encampment and say, ‘Hey, someone better give me a home.’ That’s not how things work. That’s pie in the sky.”
Another criticism of the shelter was that couples are separated, something that the shelter acknowledges is a goal, to create housing options for dedicated couples. But Long says as things are right now, people have to be willing to put in the work to get out of places not designed for long-term living like “the bucket’ and onto higher ground.
He tells a story about a homeless couple he sees often as they walk past his home on their way to Elm Street. The other day he said he watched the guy toss an empty potato chip bag on the ground.
“I decided to say something. I walked up to him and explained that I’m working my heart out to try and help to get them more services but when my neighbors see you throw trash on the ground that’s a strike against you and you’re a reflection on every other homeless person,” Long said.
“My moment of solace is when I jump in bed and my wife is there, all the problems I had all day are gone. And I will be waking up with her, so I don’t have to worry about a thing. So yeah, I get that they’d rather sleep with a partner. That’s nice, but nobody got that for me. I had to get that for myself. I’m not entitled to that, it’s something you work on and set up your life for that,” Long said.
On Monday Mayor Joyce Craig issued a statement [see the full statement here] on the Douglas Street encampment outlining recent initiatives in the city to support more access to supportive housing for those facing the greatest hurdles to independent living, including: federal money for Families in Transition to set up 11 supportive apartments for the chronically homeless; up to 20 emergency beds for homeless youth ages 18-24; deferring certain fees for the development of affordable housing in the city; changes to zoning laws to accommodate mixed-use housing; and establishing the Manchester Housing commission to conduct a housing study and make recommendations for future action plans.
The mayor added, “Manchester cannot solve this problem alone, and we look forward to the statewide plan to address homelessness, set to be released later this month,” a reference to a strategic plan that was slated for public review on June 1 from the Council on Housing Stability, established in Dec. by executive order of Gov. Sununu.