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Jeff Potter/The Commons

An abandoned jacket on the island in the Connecticut River between Brattleboro and Hinsdale, N.H.


Out of sight

With the emergency shelter closed for the season, homeless people must risk breaking laws that prohibit them from sleeping outside. Police, advocates, and a vulnerable population find a difficult situation on both sides of the Vermont/New Hampshire border — and a looming prospect over the constitutionality of local ordinances.

BRATTLEBORO—The eviction last week by police in Hinsdale, N.H. of three homeless campers from an island in the Connecticut River casts a spotlight on the question of what homeless people in the region do once the seasonal overnight shelter closes in April.

Hinsdale Police Chief Todd A. Faulkner told The Commons that the property, owned by the state of New Hampshire, had been posted to prohibit camping last year but that the signs had been ripped down.

He said that campers on the island last fall had been informed that in the spring the no-camping regulation would be enforced. New signs have since been put up.

Two of the campers in last week’s action were simply asked to leave with their belongings. A third, Josh Martin, was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant from Manchester, N.H., for charges of domestic violence, failure to appear in court, and jumping bail, according to Faulkner.

The individuals who were removed had been receiving services in Brattleboro. The amount of debris made it clear that the island had been used regularly as a camping space by various individuals beyond just these three.

Faulkner said that the goal of the police action was to keep the island free of campers, to clean the space up, and eventually to adapt the site to support recreational uses such as fishing and boating.

The operation, while small, underscored a complex contradiction.

Overnight camping is prohibited on public lands in Vermont and New Hampshire, yet when overnight shelters close for the season, many homeless individuals are forced to live outside, breaking the law.

From the shelter to the elements

When the overnight shelter closes in April, Groundworks Collaborative, the nonprofit that operates the space, provides clients with inexpensive camping gear.

The organization’s request for donations expand to include items useful in the outdoors. A recent Facebook post by one of Groundworks’ outreach staff solicited donations of items like insect repellent, sunscreen, and liquid soap to give to homeless clients.

Many clients may have no alternative but to start living outdoors and, from Groundworks’ perspective, providing support for camping is simply the most humane option available.

At the same time, Brattleboro’s town ordinances are quite clear on the topic of camping on public land.

“No person shall camp on any public lands or in any public park in the Town of Brattleboro unless camping on public lands or in that park is authorized by the Town Manager or Department of Recreation and Parks Director,” the regulation says.

For Brattleboro police, a ‘much softer’ approach

Brattleboro Police Captain Mark Carignan said the department’s approach to the dilemma is based on the community policing model that the department has developed in recent years.

Carignan said that the department’s goal has been to take a compassionate approach, one that balances the competing interests of the municipality and private property owners with the needs and dignity of people who are homeless and have no alternatives.

He said that the police are not directed to look for campers, but they respond whenever they receive a call.

“What we do now, if we get a phone call saying there are people camping illegally, is contact the Groundworks Collaborative, and they’ll go in ahead of us or together [with us],” Carignan said. “We can operate in a much softer way than a state cop going in.”

Noting that he could not recall a time when a ticket was issued for violating the ordinance, Carignan said that in this scenario, campers would keep their possessions and not be cited for a violation of the ordinance.

Such campers are also supported by Groundworks as they relocate. According to Executive Director Joshua Davis, clients are advised to stay away from specific places, including the river, the railroad tracks, cemeteries, and public parks.

Carignan said that he felt the collaboration between the police department and Groundworks has been working well — or as well as it can under the circumstances.

“We don’t have false illusions,” he said. “They still are camping, but they are out of sight, and hopefully safe.”

Davis agreed that the system in Brattleboro is working well, and he drew a contrast between the way the Hinsdale Police Department addressed camping on the island with the way Brattleboro’s Police Department collaborates with Groundworks.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve been in much stronger collaboration with the [police department] around working with folks if they can’t camp out in the spot for whatever reason,” Davis said.

The police reach out, and within 24 to 48 hours, “we do outreach and help somebody find a spot that would be more appropriate,” he added.

According to Davis, Brattleboro’s model is probably as good as it can be, given the current reality.

“You know, it’s crazy — we’ve got people camping out in the community that literally have no place else to go,” Davis said.

A balancing act

In an immediate sense, this protocol of removing people experiencing homelessness to such “more appropriate” spaces meets the immediate and practical needs of homeless people in the summer months.

Longer range, the question is still out on whether ordinances like Brattleboro’s meet constitutional requirements, a debate that is working its way through courts around the United States, including in Vermont.

Last October, the Selectboard repealed the town’s ordinance against begging in response to numerous court decisions and a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The no-camping ordinance has not been a similar topic of discussion for the Selectboard — yet.

In Vermont, the ACLU is pursuing a lawsuit against the city of Burlington on behalf of Jason Ploof.

The lawsuit contends that the municipal ordinance under which Ploof was arrested for trespassing in July 2015, while he was holding an open container in a public park, violated certain state and federal constitutional provisions.

In April, the Chittenden unit of the Vermont Superior Court rejected a motion by the city of Burlington to dismiss the suit because the statute of limitations had run out. The court ordered the case to go to trial.

The ACLU’s suit in Vermont is specific to Burlington’s ordinance, but the litigation is similar to a number of other court cases around the nation.

One such case has already been decided in favor of the right of homeless people to camp.

In September 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Boise, Idaho ordinance banning camping could violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against “cruel and unusual punishment” when applied to homeless people who had no alternative but to sleep outside.

In essence, the ruling affirmed that unless a town can provide adequate shelter for all of its homeless people, they cannot criminalize camping on public land.

The 9th Circuit covers nine Western states, including all three coastal states, and two territories. Lawsuits in other jurisdictions using the same legal theory have met roadblocks or are still in process. It is not clear whether the precedent will be extended to other regions.

Still, on April 1, the 9th Circuit rejected a petition by the city of Boise that the case be heard by the entire court, affirming that the decision set precedent across the region, including in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

The Vermont case is unlikely to be decided for some time to come, and its outcome is uncertain.

Davis also said that while he was aware of the legal activities, the issues were not really on his radar, since Groundworks’ focus is pragmatic, bent on helping those in need.

‘I just don’t understand why they do this to us’

For people forced to live outside, the challenge is mainly to find a place to camp that is not only out of the way. They also need somewhere safe.

They often say that they are more concerned about human predators looking for money to feed a habit than they are of the police.

Davis confirmed this consensus, noting that Groundworks provides regular outreach and works hard to maintain the secrecy of where individuals are sleeping.

For those who receive services in Brattleboro but camp across the river on New Hampshire state land, the outlook is less certain.

Chief Faulkner of the Hinsdale Police said his department plans a sweep of Mount Wantastiquet, where state law prohibits camping, “in the near future.”

Noted the assistance that Groundworks had provided when the island was cleared of campers, Faulkner said that any sweep of the mountain would take the same approach and that no one would be arrested as long as they complied.

For his part, Davis confirmed that Groundworks had provided assistance when campers left the island, and that the collaboration with Hinsdale was very new for Groundworks. He said that he had not been aware of the plan to clear Wantastiquet until the question was asked.

One person who has camped on Wantastiquet since spring — at a site well off the main trails but still visible from secondary trails — said that he was aware of the impending police action.

“I have not made any effort to move because it is so difficult,” said James Douglas, who has spent large parts of his life camping outside because of a lack of permanent shelter. “It takes days. And in my case, I would need help. What the police plan to do to us, I do not know.”

“There was five tents out here plus me, and two disappeared when the island got raided,” he said. “One or maybe two of the people out here are women. The one I spoke to said it would be a nightmare to have to move.”

“What is not understood is that we do not bring everything we have to our tents in a day,” Douglas said. “It takes weeks to accumulate what we have, and it can’t be moved in a day or two.”

“Not only that but we have no safe place to go,” he added. “We are here because we feel safe here. I just don’t understand why they do this to us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #510 (Wednesday, May 15, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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