Homeless can move from camps to shelters outside Concord, state argues
Homeless people who are camping in Concord could move to shelters in other cities, an attorney for the state argued in court yesterday.
Even though there aren’t beds available in Concord, shelters statewide are only 77 percent full, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Ann Dempsey.
“So to say that Concord is the only place that people can stay is incorrect,” Dempsey said.
But Barbara Keshen, an attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said Concord’s homeless residents have family, doctors and lives in Concord and shouldn’t be expected to leave the city.
Keshen sued the state last month on behalf of three homeless men, claiming that they have nowhere else to go and should be permitted to camp on state land.
Judge Larry Smukler heard arguments from both sides at Merrimack County Superior Court yesterday. They now must wait for Smukler to determine whether the state can enforce the camping restrictions it posted on property around Concord this spring.
While Dempsey said the state is prepared to find shelter for Concord’s homeless campers, she stressed yesterday that the lawsuit isn’t based on shelter availability or other issues surrounding homelessness. The state simply doesn’t permit any camping on its land without permission, she said.
But Keshen said evicting homeless people from public land is “unconstitutional, because these folks will be sanctioned for one reason only, and it’s because they’re poor and they don’t have any other options.”
One of her clients, 52-year-old Frank Sobol, is living in a tent in the woods off Hazen Drive. He said he keeps his campsite clean and goes to 24-hour businesses on Loudon Road to dispose of his trash and use the bathroom.
Sobol testified yesterday that he came to Concord from Berlin to find shelter. He spent the winter sleeping at the South Congregational Church emergency shelter, which is for homeless people who aren’t under the influence of alcohol. When the winter shelters closed, Sobol said he camped along the railroad tracks behind South Commercial Street until the police began clearing the land at the request of private property owners. He moved to the woods off Hazen Drive with two other men because it wasn’t yet posted for no trespassing.
State officials and the police have concerns about safety and sanitation at homeless camps, Dempsey said. She said a series of crimes and deaths on state-owned land behind the Everett Arena caused officials to begin discussing the issue last fall.
Many of the existing camps are filled with trash and human waste, Dempsey said.
“There’s fire pits that are close to state buildings,” she said. “There’s cooking outside. There’s state equipment on this land. There’s also gas lines.”
Marcia Sprague, director of the Concord Homeless Resource Center, testified that she assists about 32 new people each month. The resource center is a private organization. In a typical month, Sprague said she’s successful in finding housing for about five people.
Some people are willing to move elsewhere in the state to find shelter, Sprague said. But others have medical appointments, counseling or psychiatrists to see in Concord. Keshen added that one of her clients has leukemia and is receiving treatment from a Concord doctor.
“The fact that we would ask people to move 30 miles away to sleep somewhere overnight when their lives are in Concord is bewildering,” Sprague said. “It’s frustrating because they have important things going on in Concord.”
Dempsey noted that Sprague is an advocate for the homeless who has spoken at rallies and argued for homeless residents’ right to camp on state land. But Maureen Ryan of the state’s Bureau of Homeless and Housing provided a court affidavit affirming availability in shelters, Dempsey said.
The state would help individuals access medical care if they left Concord, Dempsey said, and Concord’s welfare office can arrange transportation to shelters in other cities. She said homeless campers can’t stay on public land simply because they don’t want to move or comply with the rules at shelters, which often prohibit drugs and alcohol.
“But you heard Ms. Sprague concede that a lot of individuals don’t want to be inside,” Dempsey said. “There are restrictions to being at these locations . . . the fact is that it’s not a right to sleep outside.”
Keshen said the homeless shouldn’t be subjected to the state law that regulates camping and allows the state to confiscate the possessions of those who violate it.
“For these men, what you’re talking about is every single worldly possession that they have,” she said. “And the state cannot simply seize that without offending the Constitution.”