Homeless get more time to sue over evictions from state land
Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union speaks to a group of homeless outside the Merrimack County Superior Court Monday May 20, 2013 in Concord, N.H. Keshen is representing three homeless men kicked off private land and is challenging a "No Camping" order on public lands. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Three homeless men have received more time to file a lawsuit arguing they have a right to camp on state land.
Their attorney, Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said her lawsuit filed earlier this month was a temporary measure to prevent evictions from state land without a formal hearing. Yesterday, Judge Larry Smukler granted her 10 days to file a more complete lawsuit, which she said will explore more “complicated constitutional issues” with homelessness.
It remains unclear, however, whether Concord’s homeless population can continue camping on state land until the case returns to court. Smukler said he would consider the state’s argument that camps present safety issues and that the homeless can move into shelters, as well as Keshen’s argument that her clients have nowhere else to go.
“And the question that I’m taking under advisement, specifically, is what is going to happen between now and the next hearing,” Smukler said.
In March, the state posted “no trespassing” signs on land behind the Everett Arena, owned by the Department of Administrative Services. They were replaced with “no camping” signs after Keshen sent a letter to the department last month. Keshen’s homeless clients – Frank Sobol, Vincent Coppola and Andrew Thompson – are all living on state land off Hazen Drive that was recently posted “no camping.”
The state has not yet asked any campers to leave, Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Ann Dempsey said in court yesterday. But she argued that enforcement should begin, “and we’re prepared to say that there is no such constitutional claim” to camping on public land.
Dempsey asked Smukler to dismiss the lawsuit and prohibit camping on all public land in Concord. Camping is only permitted on 19 state-owned, designated areas in the state, she wrote in a court filing.
“Here, there are concerns with safety issues of individuals setting up encampments where there have already been suspicious deaths, assaults, substance abuse issues and thefts in the areas where encampments are established,” she wrote. “Likewise, there are sanitation concerns not only related to the septic and sewage but hazardous wastes, water quality and rodent infestation.”
Dempsey argued yesterday that homeless shelters across the state have available beds. That’s the “better place for these individuals to be,” she said.
Smukler suggested that granting Keshen’s request to keep the “status quo” until the next court hearing could prevent new campers from moving to the posted properties. But Keshen said there’s no way to guarantee people won’t settle there. Because the Concord police are clearing campers from private property along the railroad tracks between Storrs Street and Interstate 393, she said many are left without other options.
“People want to avoid controversy, so it’s unlikely that people will settle in posted areas,” Keshen said. “But . . . who knows where they can stay?”
Dempsey said in court yesterday that she is willing to give Keshen more time to file her complaint, but the state will have the same response.
“It’s the state’s position that proper notice has been given and there’s the opportunity for individuals living on the public property to, in fact, move to shelters that are available,” she said after the hearing.
Outside the courthouse yesterday afternoon, homeless advocates held a vigil and said many people can’t meet shelter requirements, or struggle to find spots as they fill on a first come, first served basis. More than 30 homeless people, advocates and local pastors gathered to pray and sing songs like “This Land is Your Land.”
Keshen explained to the small crowd that she doesn’t believe anyone will have to leave their camps before the next court hearing.
“The actions by states to displace people simply because they are poor criminalizes not behavior, but status,” Keshen said. “It criminalizes the status of being poor. And there is good case law that says that you cannot criminalize people just because of their status.”
One of her clients, 48-year-old Thompson, said he doesn’t intend to leave his camp and doesn’t have anywhere else to go. He’s been homeless for two years, and has already moved from behind Everett Arena to a camp off Hazen Drive.
“I want an answer,” Thompson said.
Keshen also offered yesterday to defend individuals charged with criminal trespassing for camping on private property. The police began pressing charges at the request of private property owners this spring, and issued 18 court summonses for trespassing and alcohol violations on a single Sunday.
Keshen has until May 30 to file her lawsuit, and another hearing will be scheduled in Merrimack County Superior Court. But, she said yesterday, the court system can’t solve the issue of homelessness.
“I don’t think the court is the right place for this issue, and I feel disappointed that we had to come to court,” she said.