As winter shelters close, Concord officials look to clear homeless camps
Ken Boutin, center, sits on the railroad tracks on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 while visiting with friends. Boutin lived along the tracks and in shelters in Concord throughout part of last year. In January, with the help of a local organization, Boutin was able to move in to an apartment, but regularly visits his friends and where he once stayed. "I try to surround myself with some good people," he said.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Residents of the tent community in Concord say every Spring the police come through and notify them they have to move on. With local shelters closing, many people are unsure where to go.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
As emergency shelters close for the season, some members of Concord’s homeless population are wondering where they will stay.
They can’t return to the woods behind Everett Arena, where state land is now posted for trespassing.
Soon, they’ll be asked to leave camps along the railroad tracks between North Main Street and Stickney Avenue. The police are addressing an increasing number of complaints and public safety issues on that land, which is private property.
By Saturday morning, both of the cold-weather shelters in Concord will be closed. Advocates are helping individuals find housing and giving out sleeping bags and tents, as they do every year. But some say this year is different.
“Well, I think it feels more urgent this year because two of the places where they’ve traditionally put up tents aren’t available,” said Marcia Sprague, director of the Concord Homeless Resource Center. “Everyone is kind of scratching their head and thinking, ‘Well, where am I going to go?’ ”
The Concord police worked with state officials and homeless advocates to clear the homeless camp behind Everett Arena last fall. Police chief John Duval said a number of incidents last year led to clearing the camp, including the disappearance of a man whose body was later found nearby in the Merrimack River, the drowning of another homeless man who was swimming in the river and an ax attack on a homeless man by another man at the camp.
Since that camp emptied, the number of tents and homeless camps along the railroad tracks has increased.
Duval said he is working with property owners and homeless advocates, and he hopes to clear foliage in the area and ask campers “to move along.” Officers have responded in recent months to complaints of suspicious activity, theft, criminal trespassing, fights, disturbances, criminal mischief and suspicious fires.
The police are also concerned about the safety of people who stay in the camps.
“The police – me in particular – have an increasing concern that the increase in the population . . . in that area is causing similar concerns that we had behind the arena,” Duval said.
Asking the homeless to move does raise an important question, Duval said: “If not there, where?” He is reaching out to homeless advocates who can address that concern.
Meanwhile, camps remain along the railroad tracks, and those who live there are asking the same question.
“If they force us out, where would we go?” asked Mark Lufkin, standing with a group of friends under the Interstate 393 overpass yesterday morning.
Lufkin said he’s grateful for the resources at the Friendly Kitchen, the winter shelters and the homeless resource centers in Concord. If there’s nowhere to camp, he wondered whether the homeless will have to leave the city. That’s “something I very much worry about,” he said.
‘Each year it goes up’
The two cold weather shelters in Concord have had 150 guests this winter, said Terry Blake, director of the shelter at First Congregational Church. That’s more than in the past – “each year it goes up a little bit,” she said.
The shelter at South Church closed last weekend, and the First Church shelter will close after Friday night.
Each spring, Blake works with other organizations to hand out tents and sleeping bags to her guests. About 60 people have requested supplies this year. Many of them know they may not be able to return to their former campsites, Blake said, and they’re “scouting out some new areas” in the city. She advises campers to take care of the land around them.
“The problem comes in when they make a mess and cause issues,” she said. “So we told them be respectful and clean up the area around your tent and people wouldn’t have quite as much of a problem.”
Sprague and Blake often refer people to the year-round McKenna House shelter, run by the Salvation Army. But it can be difficult to find an opening at that 26-bed shelter, where Director Lorrie Dale adds to her waiting list. In January and February, she turned people away 352 times, though some of those inquiries came from the same individuals.
Subsidized housing has requirements, and guests at the McKenna House shelter can’t be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Some of them, just because of their circumstances, aren’t eligible for some of the housing,” said Blake, who runs the First Church shelter. “So they’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place. They want to get off the street . . . but they don’t fit the criteria for some of the places. So it’s difficult.”
The Concord police, state police, state officials and homeless advocates worked together to clear the homeless camps behind the Everett Arena last fall. No one was forcibly removed, and the area was empty by mid-December, when the winter shelters opened.
The land was posted for trespassing this month, said Michael Connor, director of plant and property management for the state Department of Administrative Services. That measure allows the police to enforce trespassing laws on the property and ensure that it remains empty.
Officials are beginning a similar effort for the land along the railroad tracks – or “the tubes,” as Sprague said the land is known in the homeless community.
Individuals who camp there have heard from homeless outreach workers that they’ll likely be asked to leave.
William Clifton said he’s been living along the tracks for the past year. He stayed there all winter in one of many tents tucked behind bushes, on the land between the railroad tracks and Stickney Avenue. Yesterday, he said he’s not sure where he would move if he has to leave.
“Everybody I talk to that I know, they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Clifton said.
Though people have camped on that land for years, Duval said he’s taking action now because of new and increasing concerns.
Addressing these issues is based on a goal of problem solving, Duval said. The police react to specific incidents, but also work to prevent them from reoccurring. He said he can’t “arrest my way out of this situation.”
“These people have to be somewhere, so we don’t go looking for opportunities to displace,” he said.
The Friendly Kitchen’s new building on South Commercial Street is close to the camps along the railroad tracks. While many guests come and go every day from the building, Duval said problems in the area are not related to the soup kitchen.
The Friendly Kitchen has received just one complaint from a neighboring property owner since its building opened in December, said board Chairman Phil Wallingford. He said the soup kitchen has had a record number of guests in its new space, and the board is still working to find the best way for people to access the building. Most guests walk there for meals.
“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.
The Friendly Kitchen isn’t alone in seeing more guests. Sprague said the Concord Homeless Resource Center had 6,000 visits last year, and has seen a nearly 400 percent increase in visitors since 2009. In the past month, she helped five people find housing.
“It’s been really, really busy here,” Sprague said. “People are anxious.”
At the cold weather shelters, Blake said the number of guests was nearly 10 percent higher than last year, and many stayed for longer periods of time. This week, Blake said there are still about 40 people staying at First Church on North Main Street. After Friday night, it will close until December. Blake said she and others will continue handing out sleeping bags and tents.
While no formal action has been taken to clear campsites along the railroad tracks, Duval said the police will continue to collaborate with homeless advocates, property owners and other organizations.
“I want every opportunity for those that have an interest in this to find solutions,” he said.