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Manchester camps in the crosshairs: 1 homeless enclave bulldozed, 2 others eyed

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

April 08. 2018 2:33AM
Kai Chambers speaks with a reporter at her camp on the west bank of the Merrimack River in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
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MANCHESTER - With one homeless camp bulldozed this past winter, city officials say they are taking steps to eliminate two more camps, one where a woman said she's been living for four years and not bothering anyone.

The effort comes as downtown business owners and Alderman Tim Baines pressure Mayor Joyce Craig and Police Chief Nick Willard to address increasing problems downtown, including crime and homeless people sleeping on the streets.

On Feb. 20, city officials from several departments eliminated a homeless camp that had existed on the abandoned railroad corridor that runs behind Motorcycles of Manchester on Willow Street, according to Bryan Disko, the licensing and compliance officer in the city clerk's office who coordinates the Neighborhood Enforcement Team for the city.

Disko said city workers trimmed brush to make the area visible, removed hazards - such as syringes - and brought in trucks to load up and cart away personal belongings.

"There was everything - tents, trash. It went on throughout the corridor," Disko said. The city clears about five camps a year.

Meanwhile, Manchester police and state Department of Transportation officials said action is pending on a camp brought to their attention by Mayor Joyce Craig.

A Craig spokesman tried to distance the mayor from the effort.

"To be clear, our office has received one complaint from a Manchester resident, and we passed that complaint along to the Manchester Police Department. That is the extent of our involvement in this matter," said Craig spokesman Lauren Smith.

The area in question is on the west bank of the Merrimack River, between the river and Interstate 293.

Kai Chambers said she has been living there alone for 15 years. About four years ago, New Hampshire State Police kicked her off the property. She quickly returned.

Her multi-person tent and tarp are secured by taut guy ropes. The tent shelters her sleeping area, clothes and food stores for herself and the feral cats she cares for. Outside are a table, a few chairs and decorations: a metallic butterfly, a framed mirror, artificial flowers.

She scoffed at the notion of Craig and Gov. Chris Sununu recently sleeping outside for one night to raise money for homeless youth.

"They don't understand," Chambers said. "They ruin everybody's lives. They don't care. They need to leave us alone."

Chambers, who is 47, said she gets a $750 Social Security disability check. She blames the federal government for a loss of food stamps and Medicaid. She gets food from Liberty House, which operates a pantry, and other help from Blessed Sacrament Church.

She said she gets day-old bread from Panera Bread, which she shares with the ducks and Canada geese who ply the waters near her campsite.

"I don't want to go to the shelter. I can't breathe when I'm in there. I want to be out," Chambers said.

Thirty feet down the shore from her, a young man was neatly packing up and organizing his gear. He and his friend were moving on.

"To be honest with you, I don't like trespassing," said the man, who would not give his name or age.

Like Chambers, he said some belligerent homeless people ruin it for others. He thinks the city should establish a place where the homeless could easily pitch their tents and live.

Debris remains after the city of Manchester removed homeless encampments along an old rail bed behind Willow Street. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

The Turnpikes Bureau of the Department of Transportation is reviewing the request from the Manchester mayor's office to clear the land between the river and highway, according to DOT spokesman William Boynton. He said the request came through New Hampshire State Police.

"Removing homeless encampments on state property has not been a priority of the NHDOT unless they pose a safety threat to motorists, or the highway system," Boynton wrote in an email.

He said any removal would be preceded by warnings to the homeless, a careful explanation of the need to remove them, and making sure local services are provided.

With notice and screenings, it can take two weeks to clear a homeless camp, police Lt. Brian O'Keefe said. He also confirmed that Craig's office contacted police about the Merrimack River site.

Last week, Willard announced stepped-up foot patrols downtown on weekend nights. Willard told the police commission that officers will address intimidation and aggressive panhandling on Elm Street. He said the Manchester city solicitor is researching whether it is legal to sleep on city sidewalks.

But Willard said American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire officials remind him that they are watching his actions.

Willard said he would like to see an entity in city government to address issues related to homelessness. "The police department has its role and we're going to do it. I also think city government has its role as well."

As for Chambers, she said she thought she had a deal with the state, and she would be left alone. "If you guys could help, that would be great," she said.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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