State can evict homeless campers in Concord, judge rules
Feathers inside Andrew Thompson's tent, the second place where he is being forced from after previously relocating from an area near Everett Arena. NHCLU has filed suit under three individuals presently camping on state owned property. The suit comes as they are being forced from the land, yet due to limited resources available, have no where else to go. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
The homeless don’t have a right to camp on state land, a judge ruled this week.
The court ruling allows the state to evict homeless residents from its land around Concord. That effort will unfold over the coming days, a state official said yesterday. But it won’t be a simple process – attorneys on both sides of the lawsuit and Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler acknowledged that the problems surrounding homelessness are complex.
This week’s decision came nearly two months after the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union sued the state on behalf of three homeless men. They argued that the homeless had a right to camp on state-owned land in Concord, where officials posted “no trespassing” and “no camping” notices this spring.
Though Smukler ruled that there is no legal right to camp on state land, his ruling called homelessness “an issue of major societal concern.”
Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Ann Dempsey has said the state is prepared to help homeless residents move from camps into shelters across the state.
“We remain firmly committed to addressing issues of homelessness and helping individuals who need emergency shelter,” she said yesterday.
The three men named in the lawsuit camp in the woods off Hazen Drive. The state has also posted land off Loudon and Gully Hill Roads, along Stickney Avenue and behind the Everett Arena. The postings hadn’t been enforced while the lawsuit was pending.
Attorney Barbara Keshen of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said yesterday she’s disappointed with the outcome.
“And I wonder where people are going to live,” Keshen said. “Where are they going to move? They can’t live on public land. They can’t live on private land. So, you know, what’s going to happen to these people?”
Since Concord’s two emergency winter shelters closed this spring, the police have cleared homeless camps on private property between Storrs and South Commercial streets. Members of Concord’s homeless population have traditionally camped on that land, but the police charged campers with trespassing in the past two months, at the request of private property owners. Concord police Chief John Duval said yesterday that the police continue to monitor those properties, but the concerns over camping there are “pretty much mitigated.”
Duval said he believes homeless camps have shifted to other areas of the city, but declined to say where.
“But similar to how we’ve handled problems before, we don’t go looking for problems,” he said. “We’ve taken the approach when situations arise that cause concern we deal with those appropriately. And it seems like for the last six to eight weeks there has been a dramatic decline in behaviors that have brought police to respond to that.”
When state and private land was posted for trespassing earlier this year, Duval had cited a number of concerns and complaints about the homeless camps. He began working with state officials to clear camps behind Everett Arena last fall, after a number of incidents, 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.
In court hearings about the lawsuit, Keshen had argued that the homeless have a right to camp on state land because they have no other option, and that evicting them would unfairly punish her clients simply due to their status as homeless citizens. But Smukler sided with Dempsey’s arguments that there is no right to camp on state land without permission.
The law “does not criminalize homelessness,” Smukler wrote. “The statute is not punitive; rather it is regulatory.”
Yesterday, Dempsey said state officials will discuss plans for enforcement in the coming days. That effort will include the state police, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Administrative Services.
Keshen said she hopes there will be a “positive public policy response” in the aftermath of the lawsuit because her clients and others still need a place to live. She is grateful for the support her clients received at court hearings from advocates and other members of the homeless community.
But, she added, she knows the court system cannot solve the complex issue of homelessness. Smukler agreed. The testimony from Keshen and her clients was “troubling,” he wrote in his order.
“The court, however, is constrained to interpret and follow the law,” he wrote. “The court’s role in the resolution of serious social issues is limited.”