LACONIA — When police officers in Laconia begin their shifts, they generally meet with the outgoing shift for daily updates, check their messages, and get their instructions from their supervisor.
As temperatures dip below zero, some of those assignments include checking on the various homeless camps hidden throughout the city.
"We want to make sure they're okay," said Police Chief Chris Adams. "Many of these people are in danger of freezing to death."
Adams estimates there are between 20 to 35 chronically homeless people living in Laconia and winter's cold and snow present a unique challenge to both the homeless and the police.
Police have joined forces with other city agencies both public and private to address homelessness in Laconia and to encourage a city-wide effort called Hope for the Homeless. The mission is working together as a community to combat the causes of homelessness and the kickoff is the marshaling of community efforts at the Laconia Middle School on February 17 from 5 to 8 p.m. The highlight will be a community viewing of the award-winning short film "Inocente" that is about a teenaged girl who combats her homelessness with her art work.
The challenges presented to police by the homeless and near-homeless are two-fold said Adams. On one hand, there is the duty to protect and serve and he said people who are homeless deserve and need the same protections offered to all.
To that end, he said many of his patrol officers have struck up relationships with individual members of the community and check in on them regularly.
"Last year we had a man who lived, by his own choice, in a tent nearby," said Adams, beginning just one of the many stories he can tell. He said the man and one particular officer struck up a relationship and the officer checked on him daily and occasionally brought him food, coffee, and other small necessities paid for out of his own pocket.
Adams said the man's only desire was to be left alone and, aside from this officer, he trusted no one.
But he said the officer and other police also had to make sure others weren't taking advantage of this man, adding that people who live on the streets often have their own code and will often times prey on other homeless people.
Over the course of last winter, he said, the Laconia officer realized the man wasn't doing well physically. He drank, which is often the case of the chronically homeless, and his health had deteriorated to the point that the officer realized the man would die if he didn't get medical treatment.
Adams said the officer convinced the man to be put into protective custody and he was taken to the hospital where he was treated for a variety of ailments.
When asked what became of the man, Adams said local agencies learned he was a veteran and they combined resources and convinced him to go to a veterans hospital, where he remains today.
But most times, stories involving the police and the homeless don't have happy endings.
Adams said the department faces constant pressure from the rest of the community to remove homeless people from their camps and hangouts.
In the 20 years he has worked in Laconia, Adams said he has sen the number of homeless and transient people in the city increase.
He said some of the clusters of the chronically homeless, especially the people who congregate near Laconia City Hall and in Rotary Park, are a constant problem for the police.
"We get calls all of the time," he said. "Sleeping in the parking garage, sleeping in the lobbies of banks and ATMs, public urination and defecation, shoplifting, drinking, sleeping in cars, and loitering," he said, reciting off the usual complaints his department gets about the homeless.
Often times, police find intoxicated people who have to be taken into protective custody. In nearly every police log for nearly every shift, the Laconia Police record some response to a complaint about homeless or transient people.
In the 24 hours recorded from 4 p.m. Wednesday until 4 p.m. yesterday, city police responded to one call for shoplifting, one call for loitering, and had to take one transient man into protective custody for intoxication coupled with some mental health problems.
In the past four years, at least two homeless people have died in separate incidents. In both cases, the individuals had fallen into the water and either died from drowning or exposure. The family of one of these men planted a garden in his memory along the WOW Trail.
Police also respond to altercations and incidents within many of the homeless camps — especially in the summer. He said there have been reports of beatings, stabbings, and sexual assaults and all are investigated. Most times the crimes are fueled by alcohol and/or drugs.
He said some of situations within the camps are volatile and present real dangers to the officers who respond to them.
Laconia does not have a cold-weather shelter. Adams said the one shelter available to locals is a "dry" shelter where any alcohol or drugs use is strictly forbidden, which puts it off-limits for many of the city's homeless.
When asked if he would support a cold-weather shelter in the city, Adams said he would if it is done correctly. He also said he thinks many of the homeless people he and his officers deal with regularly would come in to an emergency shelter if there were one.
When asked what police do now, he said on extremely cold nights, police will use money from the Police Relief Association Family Fund to buy hotels rooms for a night.
He also said on extremely cold nights, homeless people will stay with friends who happen to have apartments at the time.