Monday, the last of the 15 or so homeless campers left the woods behind Keene’s West Street Shopping Center as protesters and social services advocates looked on.
The couple wasn’t fighting the departure, but it wasn’t voluntary, either. The city and the property owners had set that day as a deadline for the longtime camp to be evacuated, following lengthy discussions about complaints by their merchant tenants and others. The complaints were predictable in nature: piles of junk and trash visible to customers and employees; residents of the camp panhandling or intimidating people — intentionally or otherwise.
The complaints spurred the center’s owners, who also own the land the camp is on, to ask the city in January for help getting the residents moved elsewhere. At the end of January, the city held a meeting with organizations including Hundred Nights, Southwestern Community Services, Monadnock Family Services, the Keene fire and police departments, the Keene Parks and Recreation Department, property managers and representatives from Hannaford, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said.
A plan ensued to issue a trespass order in the spring. Somehow, that became an order to leave by Monday, a bitterly cold morning in mid March, issued by police the previous week. By the time the deadline arrived, most of the homeless at the camp had left. A few had taken up offers of space in local shelters or sought treatment at rehabilitation facilities. All were offered space or assistance. But some simply left, not wanting to be placed in supervised housing.
And that’s the crux of the problem of homelessness in Keene, as elsewhere. There are dual homeless populations: those who lack housing just because of resources, and those who choose homelessness for the freedom it provides, or because of mental illness or substance dependency.
The solutions generally called for or offered: building more affordable housing, offering counseling, etc., are great for the first group. But there are no ready solutions for those in the second category. They are Granite Staters who put their own twist on the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto: “Leave me alone.”
That comes at a cost, though, both for them and the rest of society. People generally are compassionate and want to help — though perhaps not by being solicited for money on the street. And the community does have a legal obligation to care for them. Knowing that, the city and local service agencies continue to try to get them the help they need.
So the question becomes whether they are doing enough?
Those protesting in downtown Keene last week, and watching as the camp was emptied, say no.
However, the protest signs comparing “property rights” vs. “human rights” might have been pithy, but missed the point. This wasn’t a property issue. The landlords have allowed the campers to live for years on that site. Their hand was forced by the behavior of some of the campers themselves. That’s not being unreasonable. No one involved in disbanding the camp can reasonably be accused of acting maliciously, or even uncaringly.
Still, we understand and applaud the urge to stand up for those who are among the most vulnerable in society.
It’s not the first time this conflict has arisen.
In 2010, city officials learned that some of the homeless people staying there in what was then called “Tent City” had built a shack containing a wood stove, generators, a television and a DVD player. Concerned about code and fire violations, they helped make the shack safer. But by the following spring, the shack was in tatters and the area was cleared of trash.
Three years later, a property owner had the area cleared out when the trash got to be too much again.
In January 2015, a 46-year-old man, Russell Holden, died in a fire in one of the makeshift shelters.
And in 2017, police responded to complaints after hikers found a sign in the area, posted on a tree, warning of “BOOBY TRAPS, SURVEILANCE (sic) CAMERAS AND PLENTY OF CRAZY-PYSCOTIC (sic) PEOPLE WHO WILL PROTECT THEIR PROPERTY.” They found no campers at that time.
The lesson is that however city officials and others attempt to deal with the dynamic, it repeats itself because the root causes aren’t going away. Poverty, high prices and the cost of both physical and mental health care are among them. Yet even if those are addressed, there will still be those who choose to refuse assistance and insist on being left alone.
Make no mistake; those who left the camp on their own while refusing assistance are going to simply find another isolated location to camp, close enough to downtown to access services. Even if moved elsewhere in city, they could return to the same plaza, or another spot, and we might find ourselves in the same predicament.
So while we might question how “come spring” turned into March 14 — because the clocks moved ahead an hour? — the city and property owners acted responsibly and compassionately.
There are simply no easy answers for this problem.