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Spurred by U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Manchester tightens restrictions on camping

Protestors gathered outside city hall and held signs like this, ahead of the vote to strike city ordinance 130.13B. They argue the move criminalizes homelessness as those who would be in danger of violating the ordinance are those who are homeless. Violators can be fined up to $250 by Manchester police.
Sadaf Tokhi
/
NHPR
Protestors gathered outside city hall and held signs like this, ahead of the vote. They argue the move criminalizes homelessness as those who would be in danger of violating the ordinance are those who are homeless. Violators can be fined up to $250 by Manchester police.

The Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to ban camping on city streets and parks, no matter the circumstance.

The move came in the wake of a major U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing cities to ban people from sleeping and camping in public places. After that ruling came down, Manchester Mayor Jay Ruais signaled plans to bring forward a similar ban in New Hampshire’s largest city.

When the issue came up at Tuesday’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, Ruais and other city officials said that the Supreme Court’s decision paved the way for tougher enforcement of the city’s camping ban.

Ward 4 Alderman Christine Fajardo was the lone vote in opposition.

Previously, a city ordinance only banned camping in public areas between sunset and sunrise. Manchester Police were only allowed to enforce the ordinance when space was available at an overnight shelter.

But under the changes approved Tuesday, people can now be cited for camping at any time of day and regardless of bed availability at local shelters. Manchester Police are also allowed to, at their discretion, fine people up to $250 for violating the ordinance. Alderman said they trusted police to use their best judgment about how to enforce the new changes and asked the police chief to share more information on how he plans to approach this moving forward.

The ordinance doesn’t explicitly reference people who are “homeless” or “unhoused,” but both supporters and critics acknowledged that those without a stable place to live would be most directly affected by the changes.

Following the vote, the ACLU of New Hampshire said they were “deeply disappointed that Manchester lawmakers have chosen to criminalize and dehumanize unhoused people in the city for simply existing,” and warned that such efforts might violate the state constitution.

The discussion about changing the camping rules drew almost 90 minutes of public commentary, as well as some protestors outside of City Hall.

Supporters of the camping ban generally conveyed a desire to address behavior and safety concerns along sidewalks and parks. Some said certain areas had become impassable due to drug use, public defecation and fights, among other issues.

“I've seen camps set up on school property where our children, where my children, should feel safe and secure,” said Adam Alvarez, a local business owner who says he has lived in Manchester his whole life. “During walks with my kids, we've encountered human excrement. I've had to teach them to be looking out for needles.”

Those opposing the ban warned that the move criminalizes homelessness. Some also said the city should put more money and effort into resources for those who are unhoused, like increasing shelters. Many cited the state’s housing crisis as the root cause of homelessness. (Statewide, the apartment vacancy rate is less than one percent.)

Phoebe Youman said she didn’t feel the same safety concerns articulated by others at the meeting.

“I often walk through the homeless encampments while walking around town,” Youman said. “I'm a young woman. I'm under five feet tall, and I walk alone most times, and not once have the people living on the streets or living in their cars made me uncomfortable or harassed me, let alone caused a safety risk.”

She also urged people to consider “how close to homelessness each and every one of us are.”

“One car accident with an uninsured vehicle, a medical emergency, a fire, any of that could wipe out all of our savings,” Youman said. “I personally would rather live in a city that has a strong safety net if I were to need it.”

Corrected: July 5, 2024 at 9:09 AM EDT
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that people could be arrested under the new camping ordinance. The story has been updated to reflect the correct information.
Sadaf Tokhi is a rising senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is studying journalism and sociology. She's written for the school's newspaper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, and has reported for the campus radio station, WMUA 91.1.