Somersworth homeless camp

Officials say police will clear a homeless encampment in Somersworth on Monday, Nov. 8.

Along Route 108, just beyond the Dover-Somersworth line and diagonally across the street from the Somersworth One Stop convenience store, sits a 114-acre tract of land stretching down to Willand Pond. Marked by a chain hanging across the entrance, the path leads deep into the woods.

Walking a short distance, perhaps the length of a football field, one starts to see through the trees clusters of tents. Directly ahead is a small, two-person tent, home to 70-year-old Virgil Hashman.

Virgil says he was a factory worker in Ohio for a time, and has lived in Dover, but he’s otherwise reticent on the journey that led him here. He sits calmly in a blue canvas folding chair, his Santa Claus-like white hair and beard — and ball cap — hiding his weathered face. Quietly friendly, he’s almost serene.

“How did you end-up here?” a reporter asks.

Hashman hesitates, his voice soft and gravelly. “I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”

“Do you have a family around?”

“My family’s all dead,” Hashman says. He then says his younger sister might be around, but he doesn’t know where she is.

He is one of approximately 60 homeless people encamped in this wooded, undeveloped private property abutting Somersworth’s Willand Pond Park. Some have been here for months; a smaller number for much longer.

The estimate of the number of homeless in the tent city comes from Betsey Andrews-Parker, who heads the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County (CAPSC), the lead public welfare agency coordinating the response on behalf of the cities of Somersworth, Dover and Rochester.

A news release issued on Friday by city officials said in part “In collaboration with the Community Action Partnership of Strafford County (CAPSC) and other local, state and federal agencies, the cities of Somersworth, Rochester and Dover are working closely to provide a wide variety of services to a significant homeless encampment located on private property in Somersworth.”

The statement said police would clear the encampment on Monday, Nov. 8, which could result in arresting trespassers if necessary, but officials, including Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard, emphasized it would be done with compassion.

“While the issue at hand will not resolve the broader issue of homelessness, it is imperative that the current matter be handled with compassion, understanding and empathy,” Hilliard said Friday.

CAPSC and other agencies, including the welfare departments from the tri-city area, said they plan to use the Strafford County Extreme Cold Weather Warming Center located on Willand Drive in Somersworth as a venue for connecting the tent city homeless with services. The warming center facility was purchased by the City of Dover with grant funding to operate during extreme cold-weather events.

Plastic bottles and other debris litter the landscape of the encampment, some piled a foot deep. Broken chairs, shoes, mattresses, discarded clothing and shopping carts are visible along with two automobiles, one framing up part of makeshift home.

Desiree Malloy, 31, and her 25-year-old male companion, whom she identified as her fiance, share a small tent immediately next to Hashman’s.

Malloy pops her head out, and steps into the open dressed in flannel pajama-bottoms and an oversized button-down shirt. She says she hadn’t eaten in three days, and was about to head out to panhandle for something to eat.

The trash surrounding the two tents is not theirs, she says, and they have been trying to clean it up.

She freely acknowledges she is a recovering methamphetamine addict who has relapsed several times. She says she is pregnant.

Malloy says she, her fiancee and Virgil all receive federal Supplemental Security Income and could afford their own place.

She said they’re thinking of moving to Nashville.

Through the trees and down the path a little further Christina — a woman who appears to be in her mid- to late-30s — sits in the passenger side of a diabled Ford SUV backed into a clearing near a cluster of tents.

The hood is open and a battery sits on the ground in front. She scoops peanut butter out of a jar and tokes on a cigarette.

Her male companion sitting behind the wheel said the car needs a new wheel bearing. Another woman companion stands next to the vehicle. Together they relate how they were evicted from Amazon Park campground in Rochester and ended-up here.

Christina says she was one of only about three or four who lived in the woods last year at this time. She claims half the residents from Amazon Park were evicted and ended up in the tent city. She said some of their belongings and other valuables are still stored in trailers at the park.

When asked about the reason for the evictions, she said much of their problems stem from methamphetamine drug use, but “each story was different,” she said.

“Unfortunately, mental health problems, which no one comprehends, is also part of it,” she said.

The youngest homeless person in the tent city is a 19-year old boy, according to Christina, and the oldest, a 70-year old man, she said. Presumably, she was referring to Virgil.

Back at Virgil’s campsite, a bicycle is parked between the two tents. Asked where he gets food to eat, Virgil says his buddies who live across the street in a trailer park help him out.

The owner of the property, listed in records as “CJP Garabedian Trust”, reportedly sought the assistance of Somersworth officials in resettling the homeless campers and intends to post ‘No Trespassing’ signs at the encampment soon.

The property is zoned commercial and is currently listed for sale.

Safety net resources for the tent city homeless include a long list of local, state and federal public and private welfare agencies. The announcement from the tri-city coalition said these agencies, led by CAPSC, have been proactively reaching out to members of the encampment “to provide services to those who choose to accept the assistance.”

CAPSC used the announcement Friday to seek donations, such as food and other items, to assist those at the encampment. The current list of needed items includes wagons to help people move their belongings, sleeping bags, and gift cards to local restaurants or supermarkets.

Somersworth, Dover and Rochester officials stated that under state welfare statutes, municipalities are required to provide emergency shelter, food and medical care.

CAPSC has agreed to lead the outreach effort with the help of non-profits and local, state and federal agencies.

The agencies involved in helping provide services include SOS Community Recovery Organization, Seacoast Mental Health Center, Pope Memorial Humane Society Cocheco Valley, New Hampshire Legal Aid, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, Easterseals, New Hampshire Bureau of Housing, New Hampshire Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services, New Hampshire Mutual Aid Relief Fund, New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition, Waypoint, Cross Roads House, Greater Seacoast Community Health, Families First Health, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Somersworth and Dover Housing Authorities, Community Partners, Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, The Doorway, and the welfare departments of Somersworth, Rochester and Dover. The agencies, led by CAPSC, have been proactively reaching out to members of the encampment to provide services to those who choose to accept the assistance.

Those able to help are asked to contact Dan Clark at dclark@straffordcap.org. To donate, visit the CAPSC website and designate a gift to the Willand Pond Emergency Fund: https://straffordcap.org/donate/. Funds raised will be utilized collectively by all agencies working together to support these individuals.

CAPSC is also seeking apartment owners who can accept or are willing to accept Section 8 housing vouchers to help connect encampment members with permanent housing.