Critics Say Proposed Lebanon Parking Ban Would Displace City's Homeless

Jun 7, 2016

A new ordinance in Lebanon, New Hampshire that would ban overnight parking on city property could have a profound impact on the city's homeless population.

A woman named Jean visits the lot behind the Hannaford in Lebanon a couple times a week to bring food to the half dozen or so people living there in tents, vans and RVs.

“I think people forget very easily that anybody can end up homeless. I've been homeless before. These people need help,” she said. “I don't know if people don't read their Bible anymore, but Jesus said to feed the hungry and clothe the people and help the homeless. And whatever happened to compassion?”

Because she is in recovery, Jean asked that her last name not be used.

She's not with a ministry or any organization, but she lets people without homes camp on her private property in nearby, across the border in Vermont.

Soon the people living on this city-owned lot may not have a place to park the vehicles they live in.

Lebanon is discussing a city ordinance that would ban parking on city property for more than two hours between dusk and dawn, effectively making transiency illegal.

Chief of Police Richard Mello, who helped draft the ordinance, says despite concerns that the law would punish people experiencing homelessness, behind the scenes the city is trying to mitigate the impact.

“Those types of discussions have been, 'What services are available? What services can we provide? What referrals can we provide?'” he says. “How can we help people deal with the overlying issue that brings them there, and yet push forward with this ordinance to deal with the problem overall?”

“[The lot] is not designed for long term camping or staying on that property, there's no facilities, no trash receptacles ... So there's some residual impact that's been going on to the surrounding area.” — Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello

Mello says that allowing people to live on the lot creates a liability. “It's not designed for long-term camping or staying on that property. There's no facilities, no trash receptacles,” he said. “We're starting to get complaints from Hannaford that some of the residents of that lot have been loitering, using the bathrooms to bathe. So there's some residual impact that's been going on to the surrounding area.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire wrote a letter to the city of Lebanon speaking out against the ordinance. In the letter the ACLU charges that " the proposed ordinance raises serious concerns and is bad policy, as it would evict homeless people from all city property (and effectively from Lebanon) – an action that would have a devastating impact on the City’s least fortunate." 

The letter goes on to ask that the city reject the proposed ordinance, or at least table it so the City can fully examine the consequences. 

In the winter, snow gets dumped in this dirt and gravel lot, but on a summer afternoon it is as peaceful as any suburb.

Tom Moore, 78, has lived out of his RV for the past couple of months at the lot.

“There's a guy that comes here — he stays here in the day time, usually he works nights," Moore says of his neighbors. "That guys been here for a while, quite a few years from what I understand. I can't tell you how long they been here. I don't know, I stay to myself.”

Tom Moore, 78, stands in front of the RV where he lives. It is parked in a city lot where overnight parking may soon be made illegal.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

Moore says he has had to have several heart surgeries. He was born in New Hampshire and says he's come back to die, but can't afford to do that with a stable roof over his head.

“I've signed up for housing all over this place. Indian River in Canaan, the one up here in Enfield, one up here in West Lebanon, one down in Ascutney. It's a two- to three-year wait and it's Section 8 because I don't have that much income, and they take to people who've got more money first,” he said.

Sarah Kobylenski, the executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, says city bans on long-term parking are complicated. “Cities tend to think of it as protecting all the other people, and yes, it is punishing to those people who are making use of that land,” she says. “On the other hand, it is public property and there are certain conditions our society has prescribed for that land.”

Kobylenski calls the homeless population in the Upper Valley small but persistent.

Sarah Kobylenski, the executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, stands in the cafeteria at lunch time. She says city bans on long-term parking are complicated.
Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR

During the coldest months, the state is required to place people without shelter into motel rooms. But as the weather warms, more people  — like those in the Hannaford parking lot — have no option but to camp.

“It's April to November that the questions are really coming up, because the weather is not sufficiently severe to say that there is risk to life for people to be out of doors in that weather. But it is certainly not a desirable way of living,” Kobylenski says.

Between 2011 and 2014, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that bans on sleeping in cars shot up 119 percent.

The City of Lebanon will make their decision on the ordinance on June 15. 

Update 3 p.m. 6/10/2016 This story has been updated to include a letter from the ACLU