Franklin wants answers to its homeless problem

  • Robyn Kingsley walks across an old train bridge, seeking homeless camps in Franklin. Ray Duckler photos / Monitor staff

  • Robyn Kingsley of Franklin lives across the street from a homeless hangout. Ray Duckler / Monitor staff

  • No one was home at this homeless site early in the morning in Franklin where homelessness is becoming a more visible issue.

  • No one was home at this homeless site early in the morning in Franklin. By Ray Duckler—

Monior columnist
Published: 10/27/2018 9:34:04 PM

The narrow paved and dirt path, a mile-long strip of level ground sandwiched between two rows of trees, looked inviting.

A sign welcomed visitors to the “The Winnipesaukee River Trail,” a city-owned spot that officials hoped would serve as a breath of fresh air, softening the town’s hard edges.

The river itself roared nearby, under an old, charming train trestle, and continued flowing to a manicured park across Main Street in Franklin. There was even a picnic table at the entrance to the trail that essentially rolled out a red carpet and pleaded with people to walk on it.

That’s the feeling you get from a flat, tree-lined path that stretches as far as the eye can see and includes the sound of white-capped rapids. Usually, anyway. Not this one, though.

“No one walks here anymore,” said Robyn Kingsley, who took me on a tour down that path to show me one of Franklin’s hidden homeless camps. “They don’t feel safe walking down here.”

Her words contrasted sharply with this peaceful scene. They tell a story about a city and its homeless problem, about concerned citizens who have no answers, about residents who juggle fear with sympathy, about parents trying to shield children from the ugly underbelly that sometimes surfaces into plain view, and about police and local officials who are either helpless to fix things or don’t do enough, depending on whom you ask.

Smack in the middle of this long-running struggle are people like Kingsley, a petite woman with lines of worry on her face. She runs her own cab company, working 13-hour days, six days a week.

She’s a local resident who’s opened her house to two homeless people and had the courage to escort me into one of the camps early one recent morning.

Once, not too long ago, Kingsley said she awoke and scared a homeless woman out of her house, which sits on a street near the Winnipesaukee Trail. The woman had snatched Kingsley’s blue cab money bag, with $700 in it.

“I chased her down the street,” Kingsley said. “I knew her when she was a good little girl. I was hurt by that.”

Episodes like that reveal a long-simmering problem in town. The issue has varying opinions on how bad things are and what, if anything, can be done to solve it.

The bottom line is that Franklin has homeless people in three central areas – behind the car wash near that quiet trail, behind a hardware store and behind an auto shop – and its residents don’t like it.

They’re trying to figure something out. I went to a weekly Tuesday night meeting at the downtown laundromat, where feelings and frustration were tossed around like clothes in a nearby dryer.

Jim Wells, a mechanic for the National Guard, pointed the finger at local officials, saying, “The city is not stepping up to the plate and doing what it should be doing. They’re not doing anything because they’re afraid it’s going to cost too much.”

Nancy Waltros is a retired factory worker who’s lived in the city for 45 years. At the meeting, she cited high taxes and their effect on homeowners, saying, “Let’s do something about that instead of bitching.”

Reached by phone later, Waltros walked a tightrope, a balancing act often seen when the issue is homelessness. Residents want to be kind. Residents want to be fair. But residents want a pleasant downtown, too.

“I’m concerned with the drugs and that is the main thing, panhandlers,” Waltros said. “It’s inhumane to have people without the ability to have some place to go for shelter. They should have some place to go, but should they be panhandling on the streets? No. They should be removed and put somewhere, but we have no shelters.”

Few residents have more to complain about than Desiree McLaughlin, who organized the weekly meeting and hosts it at her laundromat, open 24 hours a day. Homeless people sometimes use her business for shelter without permission, but they are always removed.

“The city vehemently says they don’t want a shelter here,” McLaughlin said at the meeting.

She, Kingsley, Wells and others described a vigilante mentality in town, born from an incident last month when 25 to 30 residents climbed a hill to assess a stretch of private property used for partying – drinking and drug use.

The word pitchfork was used more than once at the laundromat meeting, a reference to what was seen by some as a mob more than a curious gathering.

Rep. Werner Horn of Merrimack District 2 said the problem that night last month was greatly exaggerated. He saw photos and talked to people who had gone and said, “It gave me the impression that this wasn’t a go-up-the-hill-and-throw-them-in-the-river mob.”

Horn also criticized those who blamed city government.

“The most important aspect is people are not addressing the city council on this matter,” Horn said. “For all the people making noise or who have been molested, they don’t talk in public to the city council.”

Kingsley talks about this, all the time. The plight of the homeless, the good she can do and the fear she feels, all are a big part of her life.

At her home near the Winnipesaukee River Trail I met Doris Kellogg and Joey Leighton, both of whom had run into bad luck and had no place to sleep. Kingsley opened a pair of bedrooms for them. Leighton suffers from epileptic seizures, a condition worsened by his drinking.

He worked at McDonald’s and recently got a job at a local factory. Kellogg receives disability, and both pay Kingsley rent and have chores to do around the house.

“If it wasn’t for this lady, I don’t know where I’d be,” said Kellogg, crying.

Kingsley exudes fearlessness. She started her own company and drives her cab before the sun has risen. She invited strangers to live in her house. She offered to bring me deep into the woods, beyond the Winnipesaukee River Trail, across a railroad bridge, with rotting ties and open space between each one, the river’s roaring presence, about 20 feet below, a major distraction.

We found tarps and tents in wooded areas far from downtown, behind the car wash, secluded and quiet, its residents presumably sleeping. The land is private, meaning the police are helpless to clear it out without an official complaint.

Meanwhile, the homeless landscape is changing as the cold weather sets in. Kingsley said homeless people leave their campsites, seeking shelter where ever they can find it. Maybe illegally in McLaughlin’s 24-hour laundromat. Maybe in someone’s basement, after breaking into a house.

Then, when the warm weather returns, the cycle will begin again, with the Winnipesaukee River Trail welcoming hikers down a path to a hidden world well known by the city.

“It’s a different kind of problem when it’s colder,” Kingsley said. “You don’t see (the homeless) as often, but the problem is not gone.”


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