Within the last year, the city has bulldozed a homeless camp off Willow Street, cleared homeless from the west bank of the Merrimack River and made downtown inhospitable by banning smoking in downtown parks and keeping restrooms padlocked at Veterans Memorial Park.
The result? Homeless sprawl.
Just ask David and Cheryl Pinard.
The Pinards live at the south end of Riverdale Avenue, a long street of modest, working-class homes that hugs the eastern shore of the Merrimack River south of the Sundial mill complex. For years, a handful of homeless people have camped out in forested riverbank at the end of Riverdale and Smith Ferry Road, they said.
But in the last few months, the Pinards have seen the numbers increase, from about three to as many as nine, they estimate.
They are mostly young. They ride bicycles, they walk along the railroad tracks, or people drive them and drop them off at a gate that blocks an unpaved road into the woods, the Pinards said.
Fire department records show eight ambulance calls to the area in the last three months, all for a 52-year-old when he experienced trouble breathing or tightness in his chest. Fire officials said there have been no calls for overdoses.
But the Pinards and their neighbors have their worries: petty crime, fires that could get out of control in the brush, a grandchild’s play interrupted by a homeless man.
“Most of them I see are all young guys. Why are they homeless? You can’t drive by a business (without seeing) a sign that says ‘now hiring,’” said Laurie Jolin, another Riverdale Avenue resident.
I visited the neighborhood last week. I took a 30-minute walk into the forest of tall pines and brushy understory that runs between the riverbank and a railroad track. It goes on for at least a mile, according to maps.
David Pinard and I saw two abandoned camps. One had discarded camping materials, clothes and food containers. We saw no one, but it’s a big enough place that there could be a lot of hidden camping areas.
At this point, there’s a City Hall file about the Riverdale Avenue camp. City inspectors with the Neighborhood Enhancement Team visited the area in mid-June and spoke to three homeless people, officials wrote. Cops told them they had 13 days to leave.
But to take any real action, the city needs permission from the landowner, in this case the state of New Hampshire. To get permission, Bryan Disko, an assistant city clerk who organizes NET, contacted the state Department of Transportation, which told him to contact Fish and Game, which told him to contact the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Which goes to show that even bureaucrats get the bureaucratic runaround.
Meanwhile, Cheryl Pinard is irked because she once encountered social workers walking the trails. The Pinards said the outreach workers told them that they were there to offer services to the homeless, and the homeless were displaced after the city cleared out camps earlier this year.
“The problem is, (the homeless) disrupt neighborhoods and they disrupt the downtown,” said Alderman Barbara Shaw of Ward 9, which includes Riverdale Avenue. “Personally, I don’t think they should have thrown them out of downtown.”
She has told the Pinards that the NET team will eventually remove the camps, but it will take time. The landowner has to get permission. The social workers get involved. And the homeless get a minimum 10-day notice.
Eventually, the NET team will act and bring in the heavy equipment. Getting rid of homeless camps is easy. Not so easy to get rid of homeless, who are free to go elsewhere, and restart the entire process.
Here, in a nutshell, is the situation for the homeless. Lots of organizations — Catholic Medical Center, New Horizons, Manchester Mental Health, 1269 Cafe — offer services with few strings attached. Others, like Families in Transition, Liberty House, Farnum Center, and Helping Hands will help, but they expect some behavioral changes, such as sobriety or mental health care.
Now the city’s police have spelled out their policy for moving homeless camps.
Shaw actually has a suggestion: find a wooded area away from homes where the homeless can live.
“I don’t want to say down to Litchfield,” she said, “but why can’t they move farther south?”
Or north? Jolin points out a location with a lot of vacant, unused government land. It’s got access to the Merrimack River. There are no homes next to it, and it is close to the center of the city: The Sununu Youth Center property.
“No one knows what to do with it. You could make it a campground. They’d be by the river,” she said. But she knows how things run in this city: “The people in the North End would never put up with that.”