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Court rejects challenge to Hundred Nights' Water Street move
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A judge has cleared the way for Hundred Nights Inc. to build a homeless shelter on Water Street in Keene, ruling against a trio of residents who challenged the zoning board of adjustment’s decision last year to grant a land-use variance for the project.

In a March 26 order, Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David Ruoff affirmed the zoning board’s decision, concluding that it was “neither unlawful nor unreasonable.”

Barring an appeal, the ruling positions Hundred Nights to build a permanent two-story shelter at 122-124 Water St. — formerly Tom’s Auto Service — where it also plans to relocate its housing resource center.

Hundred Nights’ Executive Director Mindy Cambiar has said the organization needs more space to help a growing number of families experiencing homelessness and to keep its services, which also include the housing resource center, in one place. The organization served five families with a total of seven children in 2016 and 14 families with 26 children in 2019, Cambiar told the zoning board in September.

The new facility on Water Street would have private rooms for families, better serve people with disabilities, offer public restrooms and showers and have outdoor space where clients could spend time during the day, she said.

Hundred Nights requested a variance last August to build a shelter at that site, according to city records. (The organization needs a variance because the property is in Keene’s business growth and reuse zoning district, which does not otherwise permit congregate-living facilities.)

Cambiar could not be reached for comment Monday, or Tuesday morning.

After hearing testimony from Hundred Nights officials and more than a dozen members of the public at a Sept. 22 public hearing, the zoning board voted 3-2 to approve Hundred Nights’ request for a variance.

However, three Keene residents who own property nearby — John Pappas, Kevin Beal and Stephen B. Bragdon — challenged that decision in a lawsuit filed Nov. 25 in Cheshire County Superior Court. In their complaint, the group said the zoning board’s decision was “unlawful and unreasonable,” arguing that the proposal did not meet the board’s standards for granting a variance.

Those criteria require that the proposed use serve the public interest, observe the spirit of the zoning ordinance, do “substantial justice” and that it would not reduce the value of surrounding properties. They also require that without a variance, literal enforcement of the ordinance would result in unnecessary hardship.

“The spirit of the zoning ordinance is to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of all the public, not just part of the public,” Pappas, Beal and Bragdon said in their lawsuit. “The placing of a homeless shelter in this position does not encourage the redevelopment of the properties near the area.”

At a court hearing earlier this month, Bragdon, who represented the group, said Hundred Nights failed to prove its new facility would not reduce property values in the area. He argued that data the organization presented in September — indicating that properties abutting its Lamson Street shelter declined in value less than properties citywide between 2011 and 2016 — was irrelevant to the new site.

Bragdon also said public pressure to address homelessness led some zoning board members to be “swayed by arguments that they should not have been.”

Ruoff rejected those claims in his March 26 order, however, ruling that the zoning board did not err in applying its criteria for a variance.

Addressing the claim that Hundred Nights failed to prove its facility would not reduce local property values, Ruoff said the court’s job is not to “assess the credibility of evidence before the ZBA” but rather to determine whether its decision was reasonably based on evidence. He concluded that the data submitted by Hundred Nights was relevant to its application and said board members also considered other factors, including a need to redevelop the Water Street property, that “undercut some of the arguments regarding decreased property values.”

Ruoff found that the zoning board also properly applied the other criteria for a variance.

The board had seen reasonable evidence that Hundred Nights’ facility would comply with the objectives of the business growth and reuse zoning district and would not threaten public health or safety, he said. In addition, Ruoff concluded that board members’ consideration of homelessness in Keene, generally, and Hundred Nights’ struggle to find a new location “were directly relevant” to their decision.

Bragdon said Tuesday morning he was "disappointed" by the ruling but commended Ruoff for issuing a decision quickly. He maintained the zoning board erred in granting a variance, questioning its conclusion that certain zoning conditions at 122-124 Water St. justify a finding of unnecessary hardship.

"I think that the zoning board make a mistake," he said. "But based on the records [from the board's Sept. 22 hearing], I can't say the judge made a mistake."

Bragdon said the plaintiffs have not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

Hundred Nights has been trying to move from its current 17 Lamson St. shelter to a larger facility for several years.

The zoning board denied the organization a variance for a property on Washington Street in 2017, and another planned move fell through in 2018 when the building was sold before the board could hear Hundred Nights’ application. The shelter received a variance in September 2010 to operate at its current location on Lamson Street, which is in the city’s central business district.

The pandemic exacerbated Hundred Nights’ need for more space, Cambiar has said, because two local churches that had provided a combined 24 wintertime beds the previous year declined to host again due to COVID-related safety concerns. In addition to seeking a variance at 122-124 Water St., the nonprofit requested last year a change of nonconforming use at 15 King Court, where it hoped to run a shelter until April 2022. (The zoning board rejected that petition in December.)

Hundred Nights has since replaced the 24 wintertime beds by renting rooms at a local motel and retrofitting a coach bus as overnight shelter. Cambiar told The Sentinel in December, however, that the organization remained committed to acquiring the Water Street property to ensure its long-term stability.

“We’re not done with the big fight yet,” she said at the time.

This article has been updated to include comments from Stephen B. Bragdon.

Religious membership in the US falls below the majority

The portion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped below 50 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Monday. It is the first time that has happened since Gallup first asked the question in 1937, when church membership was 73 percent.

In recent years, data has shown a U.S. shift away from religious institutions and toward general disaffiliation, a trend that analysts say could have major implications for politics, business and how Americans group themselves. In 2020, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. The polling firm also found that the number of people who said religion was very important to them has fallen to 48 percent, a new low point in the polling since 2000.

For some Americans, religious membership is seen as a relic of an older generation, said Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a pastor in the American Baptist Church. Gallup’s data finds that church membership is strongly correlated with age: 66 percent of American adults born before 1946 belong to a church, compared with 58 percent of baby boomers, 50 percent of those in Generation X and 36 percent of millennials.

Burge said many Christians still attend church but do not consider membership to be important, especially those who attend nondenominational churches. But no matter how researchers measure people’s faith — such as attendance, giving, self-identification — Americans’ attachment to institutional religion is on the decline.

Burge, who recently published a book about disaffiliating Americans called “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going,” predicts that in the next 30 years, America will not have one dominant religion.

“We have to start thinking about what the world looks like in terms of politics, policy, social service,” Burge said. “How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked when Christians are half of what it was. Who picks up the slack, especially if the government isn’t going to?”

The pandemic, which forced most churches to close in March 2020, has caused a major disruption to American religious life, with most pweople unable to join weekly mass gatherings. However, polls have not found a significant impact on Americans’ religiosity in the past year. Americans are more likely than people in other countries to say that their religious faith has become stronger during the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center.

Tara Isabella Burton, author of “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” attributes the national decline in religious affiliation to two major trends among younger Americans. First, she points to broader shifts suggesting a larger distrust of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. Some Americans are disillusioned by the behavior of religious leaders, including the Catholic sex abuse scandal and the strong White evangelical alignment with former president Donald Trump.

The other major trend Burton describes is how people are mixing and matching from various religious traditions to create their own. Many people who do not identify with a particular religious institution still say they believe in God or pray or do things that tend to be associated with faith.

“Why shouldn’t I pray or meditate or attend a liturgy? Or perhaps I feel closer to the divine when I can do something privately rather than something that’s prescribed for me,” she said. “It’s my own spin on it.”

Younger generations that grew up with the Internet have a different kind of relationship with information, texts and hierarchy, Burton said.

“Existing trends in American religious life were exacerbated by generations that grew up in Internet culture that celebrates ownership, the idea that you can re-create a meme or narrative,” she said. “You have ownership over curating your own experience.”

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in a recent essay for The Atlantic that what was once religious belief has been replaced by political belief in many communities.

On the political right, he said in an interview, conservative Christians focused on Trump as a political savior rather than focusing on their traditional questions of morality. Christians in the Republican Party, he said, are being less defined by their faith than by a set of more narrow concerns.

And on the political left, Hamid said, people have taken up religious notions such as sin and excommunication and repurposed them for secular ends. Hamid said that because there are not clear leaders, such as priests or imams, or a transcendent source that defines belief, the standards for what is considered “woke” continues to change.

“The vacuum [of religion] can’t just remain a vacuum,” Hamid said. “Americans are believers in some sense, and there has to be structures of belief and belonging. The question is, what takes the place of that religious affiliation?”

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Genocide Awareness Month marked with event in Keene

Roughly 11 years after leaving Rwanda to move to Keene, Yves Gakunde remembers what it was like to live in a country plagued by prejudice and genocide.

In observance of Genocide Awareness Month, which runs throughout April, Gakunde joined several other community members Monday afternoon in Keene’s Central Square to discuss the impact of previous genocides and to stand against those taking place right now. While genocide may feel like something that happens far away, or in the distant past, no place is immune to hatred, he said.

“Yesterday it was Rwanda, or Cambodia, but tomorrow, or after tomorrow, it could be in any other country, including our community,” he said to the crowd on Monday. “’You may think people have moved on because so many years have passed. Well, my friends, it may be history for you, but it’s [a] current life story for many of us, including myself.”

Gakunde stressed that the scars from genocides are still widely felt, that people are still struggling to survive this type of violence, and that it’s important to teach the consequences of bias and hate, particularly to children, to prevent such atrocities in the future.

During Monday’s event, N.H. Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, read a proclamation from Gov. Chris Sununu recognizing Genocide Awareness Month. Kahn helped spearhead an effort last year to pass legislation requiring genocide education in New Hampshire schools, reaffirming the state’s commitment to observing Genocide Awareness Month and urging communities in the state to do the same.

“Look at what’s around us,” he told The Sentinel Monday. “There’s a growing number of victims of genocide, and there’s religious and racial hatred. It’s present on a regular basis.”

Kahn said the legislation, which Sununu signed into law in July, is still in the process of being implemented. However he noted that one directive of the law — which required the state to form a commission to study genocide education — has been met. That body includes legislators, educators and community and religious leaders, he said.

Another speaker on Monday was Ken Jue, a former CEO of Monadnock Family Services who, like Gakunde, reminded people that no community is immune to genocide. Jue, who is Asian-American, pointed to the increase in violence against Asians and people of Asian descent since the start of the pandemic, including this month’s shooting spree in Atlanta that left eight people dead. The victims included six Asian women.

Monday’s event featured several other speakers, including Mayor George Hansel, Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera, representatives from the Monadnock Interfaith Council and others. All of them spoke of ways the Keene community can work against the discrimination and hate that can fuel genocide.

“We are leading the state,” Hansel said. “Keene is the perfect-sized community to lead on a statewide, a national, and even a global level. With our connections that we have, with the Cohen Center being located here, and just the overall size of our community, we really do have a really powerful, loud voice.”

Peter McBride, who became the director of Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies last year, said the center has much planned in coming months to bring the conversation about genocide to the forefront.

The schedule includes an April 13 lecture by Susan Shown Harjo on violence against Indigenous Americans and an April 22 lecture by Elisa Von Joeden-Forgey on the Armenian Genocide, both of which will be held virtually. McBride said the April 22 lecture will be accompanied by an art exhibit that also focuses on the Armenian Genocide.

McBride, who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles — a long, violent conflict between republican paramilitary groups who favored a united Ireland and those who supported British rule in the north — said his goal at the Cohen Center is to take the lessons of history and teach people how to apply them to current events in the U.S. and around the world. He wants the center to be a place where difficult conversations can be facilitated, he said.

“My vision is that the Cohen Center will be a safe place where people can begin to think about some of these difficult issues that feel very personal and that people think of as being political,” McBride said. “They’re not political at all — well, in one sense of course they are, but in another they’re just a part of the human condition, and we need to find a way of talking about them.”

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Federal judge: Freeman poses serious 'risk of flight' if released
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Ian Freeman, one of the Keene residents arrested earlier this month and charged by federal prosecutors with running an unlicensed scheme to sell virtual currency, will remain in custody pending trial, a judge ruled Monday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea K. Johnstone concluded that Freeman, if released, would be a flight risk because of his “substantial financial assets,” a lack of ties to New Hampshire and the length of his potential punishment. Freeman faces half a dozen charges, including one under which he would face a minimum of 10 years and up to life in prison if convicted.

Johnstone also ruled that Freeman, a locally known libertarian activist, poses a danger to the community because, if released on bail, he could continue running the alleged currency-exchange scheme that prosecutors say has helped scammers avoid detection.

He has been held at the Merrimack County jail in Boscawen since March 16.

Freeman was among six New Hampshire residents — including three from Keene and one from Alstead — arrested that day in the federal virtual-currency probe.

In multiple coordinated operations, FBI agents arrested Freeman, Aria DiMezzo and a man whose legal name is Nobody (formerly Richard Paul), all of Keene, as well as Colleen Fordham of Alstead and Derry residents Andrew and Renee Spinella. They also seized Bitcoin ATMs from multiple locations, including My Campus Convenience in Keene, Murphy’s Taproom in Manchester and the Red Arrow Diner in Nashua, according to staff at those establishments and reporting by the N.H. Union Leader.

Federal prosecutors say the six individuals arrested March 16 operated a business that since 2016 has enabled customers to exchange more than $10 million in fiat, or government-issued, currency for virtual currency.

In a March 15 indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for New Hampshire, prosecutors allege that the accused “knowingly operated” their currency-exchange business in violation of federal anti-money-laundering laws and regulations. They say the defendants made “substantial efforts to evade detection” by selling virtual currency via bank accounts established under either their own names or the names of purported religious entities.

Prosecutors also allege that several of the defendants told banks their accounts were used to receive church donations and also instructed customers to conceal from banks that the customers were purchasing virtual currency.

All six are charged with participating in a conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money-transmitting business.

In addition, Freeman, Fordham, Nobody, Andrew Spinella and Renee Spinella are charged with wire fraud and participating in a conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Freeman and DiMezzo are charged with operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business, though prosecutors say DiMezzo may have gotten involved as late as June 2020.

Freeman is also charged with money laundering and operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise. The latter charge carries a penalty of imprisonment for no less than 10 years and up to life.

The six defendants have pleaded not guilty to all charges, according to court records. Freeman and Nobody remain in custody, while the other four have been released on bail.

Jury selection for their trial is scheduled to begin May 4.

In a detention hearing held March 19, Assistant U.S. Attorney Georgiana L. MacDonald argued that Freeman would pose a flight risk if released before trial, due to the penalties he faces — which include forfeiting assets obtained via the currency-exchange operation — and his financial resources.

MacDonald said the FBI seized $178,000 from a safe in Freeman’s bedroom at his 73-75 Leverett St. home on March 16. She also told Johnstone, the magistrate judge, that Freeman has access to 28 Bitcoin — equivalent to approximately $1.6 million — and that an accountant indicated in 2018 that he had $300,000 in deposit accounts and $2.4 million in liquid assets.

MacDonald said Freeman misrepresented his wealth to probation officers after his arrest, and she argued that his alleged financial resources and lack of candor with government officials “raises concerns about his willingness to abide by conditions of his release,” if granted.

Freeman’s Chichester-based attorney, Mark Sisti, pushed back on those claims, however, saying probation officers did not ask Freeman to detail his virtual-currency holdings after his arrest and instead asked only how much money was in his “accounts.” Sisti also said Freeman owns property in Keene, has connections to the area, did not resist arrest and would be willing to accept release with certain restrictions on his electronic activities and virtual-currency operations.

“He’s a perfect example of an individual who should be let go on … bail,” Sisti said.

Johnstone sided with federal prosecutors’ arguments, however, ruling that Freeman’s “substantial assets support a finding that he is a flight risk.” She added that since most of his assets may be in cryptocurrency, they would be difficult for the government to track and could be accessed from anywhere.

In her order, Johnstone noted that Freeman has lived in New Hampshire since 2006 but said he lacks “meaningful ties” to the state and has regularly traveled abroad in recent years.

She said Freeman has family members in Florida and New York. Johnstone concluded that while he previously owned a home in Keene, he transferred it to the organization Shire Free Church in 2012. (Shire Free Church Holdings LLC purchased 73-75 Leverett St. from Freeman in 2013, and ownership was transferred a year later to Shire Free Church Monadnock, according to property records. The N.H. Secretary of State’s Office lists Freeman as chairman of Shire Free Church Monadnock’s board of directors.)

Johnstone added that Freeman’s primary occupation is as a radio host, which “does not require his physical presence in Keene.”

Freeman poses a further flight risk, Johnstone ruled, due to his possible sentence and “strong” evidence against him gathered during a five-year federal investigation, including electronic records, financial analysis, and communications with banks and virtual-currency exchanges.

“The lengthy potential sentence and strong evidence create an incentive to flee and weigh in favor of detention,” she wrote.

In concluding that Freeman would present a danger to the community, Johnstone explained that “dangerousness is not limited to physical acts of violence.”

She cited prosecutors’ allegations that cybercriminals bought virtual currency from Freeman — with his knowledge — in an effort to avoid detection by banks and government regulators. At Freeman’s detention hearing, MacDonald said investigators have identified people across the country who were tricked by scammers into sending money to him or other defendants.

“This operation clearly poses a danger to the community by enabling fraud and economic harm,” Johnstone wrote.