Lebanon Pastor Fears City's Camping Ban Will Drive Homeless 'Further Into the Woods'

Dec 12, 2016

Rev. Rebecca Girrell

City councilors in Lebanon passed a controversial ordinance last week that bans camping and overnight parking on city-owned property.

Those found to be in violation could face a fine of $100.

  Last week’s vote came despite concerns from many who say the measure will disproportionately affect the city’s homeless population.

Reverend Rebecca Girrell is a pastor at Lebanon United Methodist Church. She opposes the ordinance, and NHPR’s Morning Edition caught up with her to talk about the issue of homelessness in the Upper Valley.

This is a discussion that’s been going on in Lebanon for a while now. Can you give us some history of the debate that led up to this vote?

On this particular ordinance, discussion has been going on within the community for at least six months or more. And certainly the development of the ordinance precedes that by a year or two. The ordinance in some form was originally presented at a public hearing in June of this year. The community turned out in overwhelming opposition to the ordinance, and requested that the city really look at more sustainable ways of addressing the lack of housing. The city decided not to take action on the ordinance at that time. It was a very similar ordinance, to ban camping and overnight parking, but they decided not to act on it at that time and instead to create a task force which worked over the summer and through the fall to find some housing for folks in a particular encampment that had come to the attention of the city and the public. They did that and they did that well, but then the task force, as it concluded its work, recommended the ordinance again with some changes to the penalty structure of it, but essentially the same ordinance.

You spoke out against  the ordinance at last week’s meeting. What are your concerns, even with the changes?

What message do we send if we put up signs everywhere that say no parking, no camping? I just don't think that represents who we are as a community.

  I have a couple of concerns about the ordinance, but I also want to frame what I think the problem is that everyone recognizes in the community: the lack of housing, not persons who are themselves homeless. Our housing stock in Lebanon and the community is at about a 1 percent vacancy. It really needs to be at a 4 percent or more vacancy to have a healthy amount of available housing. And of course there are intersecting conditions that exist alongside homelessness: mental health concerns, medical concerns, physical disabilities, substance abuse, criminal history. And so our housing capacity does not provide enough options for those who are in need of housing. My concerns are really two: one is an ethical concern: what does this say about our community? What message do we send if we put up signs everywhere that say no parking, no camping? I just don’t think that represents who we are as a community. And it feels to the folks who are without housing like they are being targeted.

How big of an issue is homelessness in Lebanon? What kind of numbers are you seeing?

At any given time, there’s actually a pretty identifiable list of folks in Lebanon and West Lebanon who are without immediate shelter and housing. Probably under 30 individuals, but it’s hard to get the data really clear because we’re right on the state line, and so the region sort of functions like its own little ecosystem. We think if we could increase our housing capacity for about 100 people – not units, but people – that we would have adequate housing and we would have a very small number of people who would become newly homeless and need assistance to move into sustainable housing. It’s a very manageable concern, a very manageable problem.

What would you like to see the city do to facilitate that?

The city is already working with a group of concerned residents and community members to explore options for a number of solutions. That would include existing buildings that could be repurposed into affordable housing, group living situations, single occupancy dwellings, also minimalist housing, if there’s a place to put things like tiny houses made out of shipping containers or new construction. We just need to be really creative. This will mean we will want the city to look at zoning regulations, building regulations, thinking about our downtown visioning and planning, which is also underway. Just seeing that affordable, available housing is going to need to be part of our vision for what downtown Lebanon includes in order to be a vibrant community.

In the meantime, police say that they’ll give homeless people 48 hours to vacate before issuing a fine. Does that give you any comfort?

I think 48 hours is usually just enough time to pack up from that site and find another place where maybe one won't be discovered.

  Not really. In working with folks who are without housing, 48 hours is not enough time to secure a plan for a long-term solution for housing, or even a short-term solution. I think 48 hours is usually just enough time to pack up from that site and find another place where maybe one won’t be discovered. And so my concern is it would just encourage people to move further into the woods, where I think folks are going to be in more danger as the weather gets colder. However, the ordinance does include exceptions in cases of an emergency and the council and police department have stated that being without housing in the cold of winter is an emergency. They stated that verbally, and it’s not written into the ordinance; we’d love to see that amendment added more explicitly. But my hope would be people would use that to extend the time period as they are looking for housing.

The New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU objected to this ordinance, raising questions about whether it is constitutional. Are you hoping to see a legal challenge?

I am. I’m not happy about what that would entail just in terms of the logistics and the financial implications of that for the community. And I hope we can be focused more on housing solutions, but I do appreciate their concerns about the constitutionality of the ordinance or any law that target a group of people for the conditions under which they have to survive. The city does not have adequate housing or emergency resources, and so the ACLU’s challenge is we cannot then make it illegal to do the things that one would need to do in order to survive at this socioeconomic level.