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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.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    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.<br/><br/>(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)

  • 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.<br/><br/>(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.<br/><br/>(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.”

Camps cleared

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.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or
lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

Legacy Comments18

I still see the same attacks and lack of empathy consistently year after year. Lets address the Families that turn their backs on their own children and or siblings. Because they can't or won't cope with, most times the problems they create themselves with their selfishness, unreal expectations and angry indignance. Then you have a severely broken mismanaged HHS. Exploitive slumlords. Church members that miss use their positions to play at being God and make the rest of their congregations bare the abuse silently. Oh the overworked shortchange and barebones mental health system. So make available some property close to services for the homeless. most of all quit crying and do something constructive to solve the problem.

donc4450, RabbitNH, ItsaRepublic : (sorry getting a bit off topic) ... “Current Use” – I continue some from my original post below because everyone pays extra taxes due to land held in current use. Many think they know what they are talking about but have no facts about “current use”. A few quotes from http://www.nhspace.org. Read for yourselves, don’t just believe the posters in here. Basically “current Use” is a just huge tax break for even someone having only 10 acres behind their house that no one ever knows about. Working farms are included (in my opinion the only property) but that is not even close to the majority of land in current use. Conservation is not a true factor as anyone can sell the land (or a portion) anytime they want to anyone they want. Is that conservation? Low property tax for everyone is a better answer, there is plenty of land in every state that does not have buildings on it. People sell due to high property tax – why should only large landowners pay low property tax in a property tax state.. Q&A from site: Isn't it true that all Current Use land is open to the public? No. There is no requirement for Current Use landowners to allow public use of their land. Current Use land is private property and the landowner has the right to decide how their property is used. Can Current Use land be posted? Having land enrolled in Current Use does not require a landowner to open the property to public use. What can I do about land I used to enjoy, but now is posted? If land you like to use has been posted, get in touch with the landowner and ask their permission to use their land. Often posted land is used by many. Landowners may post against all trespassing, but are really only interested in restricting certain uses or discouraging strangers…… Could be the “homeless” would prefer to live near town, just a thought that they could use some of the land that everyone helps pay the tax on.

Sorry Jim, but your posts totally ignore the revenue that Current Use brings in. Forest based manufacturing alone has revenues of 1.5 billion. That includes 8,100 jobs and a payroll of 384 million. The Timber Tax which is paid when wood is cut brought in 3 million to communities and lowered their taxes. Christmas Trees and Maple Syrup represent 7 million. That is not even listing furniture, orchards and farm products. Families own 68% of the open land in NH. If you have your 10 acres in current use it has to have a conservation plan by a state forester. Just saying, your stance is not based on all the aspects of Current Use.

We have created the problem with the homeless and have nobody but ourselves to blame. You do not, I repeat, do not help people by giving them everything and making them dependent upon you. This is the best example of misguided help I ever seen. I personally consider it a form of abuse, because we are enabling their behavior and not teaching them coping skills and how to get up and help themselves, thus restoring their dignity and self-worth. No easy answer to handling the monster, we ourselves have created, because we can't bring ourselves to execute tough love.

Totally agree!

Great letter Collie. That logic can be applied to a lot of social programs.

You're right on the money, Collie.

While it is true that "SOME" of the homeless cause problems and break laws. The same is true for the mainstream residents of the city. Why not concentrate on the people who are breaking the law and leave the rest alone. Clearing out their campsites WILL NOT solve a thing. It may be a "feel good" solution for the moment, but it will only cause more problems in the very near future. Oh and by the way, "current use" property CAN NOT be posted No Trespassing. It CAN be posted limiting it's use, such as "no camping", "no wheeled vehicles", "no snow mobiles", etc.. Property that is in "current use" is privately owned, however, is open to the public. Homelessness in this, or any other community, is NOT going to go away. The City of Concord seems to want to be a model for other communities in many ways, so why not become a model in how we deal with our homeless population? Having our Police try and "run them off" WILL NOT work. They know it, I know it, we all know it.

Property under Current Use is not opened to the public. If it is , the landowner has been generous to share it with the public. He can post a No Tresspassing Sign for no reason. The folks that do allow you to use their land, have a liability clause with the state to cover them for some things. If you do not believe me check out the SPACE Page.

donc4450, Do you have a model for the city of Concord to deal with homeless? I understand that the campsites have increased in size and crime has increased greatly at these sites. My basic question is why do people think they have a right to use private property for thier own use?

Joe, it's a matter of survival, not choice. A larger proportion of public land made available to "camp" on would diminish the trespassers. Let's not confuse "camping" with "homeless temporary tenting". And if crime actually has increased over all, it just goes to the increasing population of homeless, and level of desperation. Empathy is the only workable mindset.

You would think with nothing else to do, they could at least clean up their disgusting mess. Wait until Concord puts in heated sidewalks, downtown, and see the problem you have. They will be coming from out of state to live here.

You are off base on "current use". If people who owned 100 acres of current use removed it, only land developers could afford to own large tracts of land that that would mean land in fewer hands in NH, only the well off could own that land. It would also mean a building boom.

Folks who have no info whatsoever about Current Use assume a lot. Just look at who owns the land in current use % wise, and their income level. You might be surprised to find those folks are not wealthy. The truth is that no everybody who would use someone elses land is always respectful of it. They can dump trash, ruin roads with snowmobiles, etc. That does not always help when the land is in use for logging. No logger wants to be out there working if hunters are around and may catch a stray bullet. The reason Current Use exists is to keep farms, orchards, timber products etc going. Otherwise you will have strip malls everywhere. farms gone etc. Take a look at the revenue those lands bring to NH. .

With over 50% of the state in "Current Use" status one would think there would be some "open land" to camp on. All those residents in Concord owning less than 10 acres are paying extra taxes so the large landowners can pay less tax through "Current Use" tax exemptions. They are paying most of taxes on the land so why should Concord residents not be allowed to use it in this case. Whoops, I forgot, land in "Current Use" can be posted no trespassing.

I do not think Jim the homeless want to live on land outside of town. They prefer to be in town to access all the freebies and panhandle. And the heated sidewalks will draw a bigger population here also. What will that mean for the police? Will they be allowed to patrol those sidewalks that have been taken over, or will folks yell they are being mean to evict a person that is just getting warm on the sidewalk? Geeze!

Mr. Rabbit, in my experience, less than 5% of the homeless I've met took to panhandling, and most all felt some level of shame in having to accept "freebies" to survive. And this large population of homeless arriving to take full advantage of our heated sidewalks, with little hope of employment or housing? Don't worry, they're already in San Diego, L.A., Miami Beach...

I was not speaking about the folks in the warmer climates. They will stay where they are. I was talking about our northern states like Maine,Vt, and MA. Come to NH, they have heated sidewalks? As far as shame goes, many homeless have been homeless for many years, due to drinking or drugs.

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