LACONIA — It’s a place in the woods that features touches of home. Plastic flowers in exuberant colors form a garden on either side of a stream. An upholstered bench seat removed from a van is situated to enjoy the view while lounging. And three clotheslines swoop between trees.
The flowers came from a discarded pile at a cemetery. “I just kind of picked them up and put ‘em up for decoration,” said Scott Hill, 53, who has lived here since November. “They made me happier.”
Log and plank stairs lead to a hut with a black tarp roof and wooden door decorated with an animal skull and a sign that reads “Keep Out.”
There’s even an indoor fireplace, and a system for washing clothes that diverts brook water via hollowed-out logs into a plastic bin.
One shadow casts a pall over this secluded retreat, which is a haven for Hill and visitors who are also homeless: it’s erected at the back of three and a half acres owned by Stamping Technologies, without permission of the owners – who say they called police for two months without resolution.
“The police say, ‘What do you expect us to do? They’re just going to move somewhere else,’” said Johanna St. Gelais, co-owner of Stamping Technologies, who has watched homeless camps come and go in the woods behind Hounsell Avenue. Hill’s is a short walk from the company’s parking lot. “Nobody has a place to go. I get it.” St. Gelais said she worries about liability – and potential retaliation from Hill and other homeless individuals if she complains. No trespassing signs have been torn down, which she just replaced. “They could throw rocks or do damage. If they get hurt on my property, then what happens?”
“The bottom line is, they shouldn’t be on private property,” said Brad Fitzgerald, who owns the business park next door, with tenants including Woodshed Coffee Roasters, Laconia Oil and Keymont Construction. Homeless people have camped on his land, Fitzgerald said, and he recently towed a homeless woman’s abandoned van from his parking lot – only to watch and listen on his building’s surveillance camera as she smashed its windows and windshield. Between 9 and 10 p.m. on a recent night, the homeless woman rode her bicycle around his parking lot and looked in his dumpster, he said.
“I don’t want this to be like San Francisco where they try to set up on the street,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe there needs to be a public property where they can set up a tent city several months of the year.”
At a time when the U.S. is reeling from a global public health emergency and economic dislocations wrought by COVID -19, homelessness remains an enduring constant. It’s magnified now by more homeless people choosing to live outside, rather than close together in shelters, said Cathy Kuhn, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness. “In some areas, more people are living outside because of COVID. The weather is warmer, and they just feel safer. As communities see the numbers grow, it’s a concerning situation for everybody.”
“It’s been commonplace every summer, and it grows every summer,” said Capt. Scott McNeil of the Salvation Army in Laconia. Instead of seeking shelter at facilities with strict rules – including curfew and no drinking, substance misuse or social distancing – some homeless people prefer the freedom and independence of living outdoors, McNeil said. “It’s a choice they prefer,” he said. “They’re with a small group of people that are like a family, and they watch out for each other.”
Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield said the city’s homeless numbers seem stable. People without homes are claiming space and benefits where they can find them, sometimes illegally or secretly. Encampments on private land can be moved when property owners complain, and homeless people are asked to leave city property when they are violating city ordinances, such as sleeping or setting up overnight camp in municipal parks, Canfield said.
It’s a public crisis that straddles conscience, health and safety issues and personal property rights. It also brings the potential for legal problems when homeless people, knowingly or unknowingly, camp on private property and help themselves to materials and supplies stored outside, including showering with outdoor hoses. Owners worry that their uninvited “tenants” pose a potential risk to employees and customers – as well as a liability.
Intermittent sounds of a woman screaming and the smell of fire and burning garbage alerted employees at Stamping Technologies.
“The wind changes and it smells like a rancid dumpster,” said John Marceau, general manager of Stamping Technologies.
“If somebody gets hurt down there, they could sue for insurance purposes,” he said. “If it was my home, I wouldn’t want them down there.”
“It started last year, when it was across the street from us, behind Scotia,” said St. Gelais. “The water dried up and they moved behind us.”
The company called Laconia police three or four times in two months, asking police to chase them off. The officers came, but nothing happened. A no-trespass order was issued to one of the residents – but others were not around when law enforcement arrived. In general, homeless people are given time to vacate, depending on the complexity of their encampment, according to police.
Hill said early Monday he would move, but didn’t yet know where. A friend will store his belongings, he said. Later on Monday, police served Hill a summons for trespassing and removed him from the camp, Canfield said.
“If it’s on private property, and the property owner wants them removed, we can do that,” said Canfield. “The homeless problem is challenging. They have rights and they’re protected” – but they aren’t allowed to set up a home base on private property – residential, commercial, agricultural or industrial or otherwise – without the owner’s consent. The eviction process is quicker if the landowner has posted “No Trespassing” signs at legal intervals – and the signs remain up.
Laconia police recently cleared a homeless camp from property owned by Dutile Oil bordering the WOW trail. But another, on nearby land owned by Irving Oil, has been more complicated to disband, Canfield said. Irving Oil is a Canadian company with U.S. corporate headquarters in Texas. To remove this camp, which also abuts the WOW trail, the landowner has to complain – difficult when a big corporation is the owner and there are no active managers on site, Canfield said. Police are in contact with Irving Oil Company administrators, but haven’t located the person who can issue a legal complaint.
Even when homeless people relocate to public property, there are safety concerns. Roughly 10 days ago, Laconia police and firefighters responded to a fire that had gotten out of control at a homeless campsite on city land at the end of Spruce Street, known as the sand pits. They ordered them to vacate, but many have since returned.
It’s a common scenario, according to Canfield. When squatters are ordered to leave and take their belongings, they may relocate somewhere where they’re also not welcome, or come back to the original spot after time has elapsed.
Hill, the occupant of the camp on Stamping Technolies land, is an unemployed cement worker who used to live in Belmont. He said he’s been homeless for a year since he lost his job. He has a criminal record, including burglary, forgery and violating parole. Police and people who work with the local homeless population say one regular visitor to Hill’s camp in the woods is a homeless woman who is addicted to methamphetamines and has a history of mental illness.
Although she refused to be interviewed, the woman insisted that Hill’s setup is on land owned by the electric company – which is not the case. PSNH has an easement to erect power lines on private property, but doesn’t legally own the land underneath.
Housing in shelters is currently available locally, but not all homeless people are willing to go – and not just because of COVID. Currently, two homeless people who are addicted to opioids are living at the Salvation Army’s Carey House in a section reserved for those in LRGH’s substance misuse treatment program, The Doorway, which has been based in Gilford since LRGH’s closures. The Salvation Army requires all Carey House residents to avoid alcohol and drug use, be in counseling, and obey house rules, including a nightly curfew.
“It becomes a choice on their end. They know it’s available,” McNeil said. “The question is, when is it a priority? Until they reach the point of realizing that they need assistance and are willing to receive it, they’re comfortable, unfortunately, living where they are. For some, they feel it’s where they belong,” living with others in the same situation, McNeil said.
Gilford authorities last year removed a large encampment from the Gilford end of Hounsell Avenue, and the homeless people eventually relocated behind Stamping Technologies and other businesses.
Kuhn said one solution, though temporary and geared to COVID, is to move encampments on private property to a large swath of public property, and have the city and shelters and soup kitchens provide services there, including portable toilets, hand-washing stations and showers, and food delivery. The CDC is recommended that these services be brought to a centralized outdoor location where the homeless can camp locally, she said.
“The homelessness sector is a known collaborator,” said Kuhn. “Because we’re faced with a challenge, we’re working together in a way we’ve never had to before. We can’t go back to crowded shelters. There’s discussion around long term strategies – and how we’re going to make long term changes as a whole.”
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com