Police inform those living in ‘Firestone’ encampment they have a week to evacuate

A row of tents along the railroad tracks next to Firestone Auto. Police and fire officials, far left, were making the rounds on Thursday, giving notice that the site must be evacuated by April 15. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – People living in a  large encampment behind Firestone Auto Care just beyond the city’s main drag were notified Thursday that they have a week to vacate the privately-owned property.

The word was delivered by Manchester police officers on behalf of Firestone Complete Auto Care, 300 Elm St., which in a corporate statement released Thursday said there has been an “uptick of trespassing” at the Elm Street property and that the company is working with the city police department “to resolve the trespassing issue and ensure our store, employees, and customers remain safe and secure.”

Manchester Assistant Police Chief Steve Mangone, who was at the site Thursday morning along with several city officers, and personnel from the city fire and public works department, said it’s up to Firestone to post a notice. But the verbal head’s up gives those living in tents a chance to figure out what’s next, those like Demarcus Lockett, 37, a combat veteran who says he only joined the encampment about 10 days ago.

He said he’s going to be in touch with the VA to see if there is a place for him. He became homeless when his current living situation in Manchester fell through. He says his military service included five combat deployments, and he’s had trouble finding stability. But he had a tent, and so he pitched it along with others who have no other place to call home.

“It’s hit or miss at the shelter,” Lockett said, when asked if he’d tried to get a shelter bed.

Police made the rounds from tent to tent, taking names and letting people know they had a week to move on. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Outreach workers who visit the encampment regularly were also there. When asked what’s the one thing needed right now to alleviate the issue of homelessness, the answer was singular.

“Housing,” said Jenna Morris. “Today we are told there are two male beds and four female beds available through the shelter, but that changes daily. And many of the people here don’t want to go to the shelter. We’re limited in what we can connect people to.”

There are waitlists for housing. In some cases, people don’t want to be separated from their significant other or there’s no safe place to keep their stuff, Morris said. And the truth is, shelter beds are a momentary solution to a complicated reality each and every person living rough faces, which is the need for a stable and structured pathway to self-sufficiency and independence.

It requires more than a temporary bed. Much more.

Rita Mann and Robert Hedberg were standing among the tents on Thursday. They said they come to the encampment to help out where they can, providing water for those who need it, “most of them are just kids,” Hedberg said. They’ve been living out of their truck for the past year, and so the eviction by Firestone simply means they will have to find a new place to park. 

Rita Mann, left, and Robert Hedberg have been living out of their truck for the past year. Photo/Carol Robidoux

They’ve been together for 22 years and raised three children together. Mann, 48, is dealing with multiple health issues – non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, COPD and emphysema. Robert, 44, has some physical disabilities but needs to get an official diagnosis for his COPD and apply for social security disability. He also needs assistance in getting his federal stimulus checks – so far he’s received none. 

“We just want a hand up, not a handout,” Hedberg said, adding that neither of them have addiction issues. Their last stable living situation was just before COVID, in March of 2020. They were renting space with a roommate who took off and basically left them without a way to continue to stay there. At the time they were paying $400 a month for their share of the apartment. They say that’s about what they could afford now, or maybe a little more. But even rooming houses in the city charge about $200 or more per week. 

“Nobody will help us with housing because we don’t have enough income for even the cheapest available housing,” Hedberg said. “We’ve been shuffled around by the city since COVID hit. We just need a place to get settled. She needs a regimen for her health care and I could really use some help with tax stuff, to get my W2s and my stimulus checks.”

Mann smiles weakly when asked about the prognosis for her cancer. Hedberg mouths the words, “stage four.” He slides his arm around her.

“Our bodies are just so messed up from sleeping in the truck,” says Mann. They don’t have any family around to help – her mother died of cancer, his father passed away. Their kids have kids of their own, and they don’t want to burden them with their own problems.

All they want is a chance to get back on their feet. Hedberg says he can work, but in their current situation, it’s nearly impossible to make that a priority. 

“There’s no place to even go to the bathroom here,” he says.

The view of the encampment from the Elm Street Dunkin Donuts parking lot. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Businesses that back up to the encampment have also been struggling with the situation, unsure of how to address it aside from living with it. Jake King, of Thrive Outdoors, said he came down to see what was happening Thursday morning when he saw the commotion. Since opening a year ago, King says he’s had several thefts and burglaries at his place, which is an indoor recreational center aimed at youth.

“I had things stolen – things like expensive hand tools and tents for our youth program, and I saw some of the items down here,” King said, noting that he also had video footage of people who’d broken into his center, many of them easily identifiable as those living behind his place. “It hurts because I am sympathetic to these people and their situations, but at the same time, it’s been tough for all the businesses here.” 

King knows a thing or two about the needs of the homeless. He is the former director of the city’s day center on Central Street, which ceased operations several years ago, but which provided a place where those who had no place to shower or eat lunch, or to print a resume, could come for assistance. He’s also a former Army ranger and police officer who has worked for years with disadvantaged youth, and established Thrive Outdoors as a refuge and a skill-building resource. Currently, he serves on the board of Hope for NH Recovery.

“I’m not saying things like mandatory detox centers and halfway houses are even a solution, but at one time that was what happened to those dealing with addiction or homelessness,” King said. “There is no acceptable answer right now, but this,” he says, standing next to a huge pile of trash, “this isn’t healthy for anyone.”

King is chatting with George Tselios, who owns a warehouse at the fringes of the encampment. 

“I hope they clean it up,” says Tselios. “Before there were just a few here and there but now, it’s too much,” he says. “I’ve never complained, but it’s not right, people living like this.”

Both King and Tselios agree it’s a complicated issue, and while there are no easy answers, it’s just as unfair to surrounding businesses as it is to the people living in tents that there are no answers at all.

Pallet units, like the ones proposed by Alderman Pat Long, could provide temporary housing for up to 60 people. Photo/Pallet

Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long has spent a lot of time mapping out one possible solution that he says could provide a “housing first” option – although temporary – that could help in the short term. 

He has done the legwork for a project that would provide about 60 mobile “pods” that can be constructed indoors or outdoors as a form of transitional housing. Each unit would have a fold-down bed, a storage locker, heat and air conditioning, and a lockable door. Such pods are currently in use in Portland, Or., provided by a company called Pallet

He says they could be strategically set up anywhere around the state where there’s a need for temporary housing, and that Manchester could be a pilot for such a program.

There are two hurdles – one is cost, which Long estimates would be about $1.5 to 1.8 million,  around half of that being a one-time investment in the pods, the rest, operational. He believes other associated costs can be donated or negotiated.

And with the promise of federal Relief Act money coming to the city, Long feels price is not the greatest hurdle.

“I’m still trying to identify a location. I’m talking to a couple of nonprofits that are open to managing the facility  – I  don’t think the Board of Mayor and Aldermen should be the administrator of this facility, but once again, we have a lot of NIMBY – not in my backyard – sentiment, and I get that,” Long says.

Much of the open space in the city is owned by city Water Works, to protect the watershed. There are some buildings that might work, but it requires cooperation from building owners.

Long says his idea is finally gaining some traction among his fellow board members. 

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Roy said Long isn’t wrong in proposing a sanctioned location where those in need of services can get them, given the lack of housing options for those who need time to get on their feet. At least such a plan could include on-site services for mental health and other needs.

“Those living behind Firestone, they can’t afford whatever housing there is right now, and Alderman Long and I agree on the point that there should be a central location. You can’t displace people who have no place else to go. That’s what the law says, and what the lawyers say. And we can tell people they have to go to a shelter, but they can say ‘no thank you.’ We can’t make them go.” 

A huge trash pile at the edge of the encampment. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Every time an encampment is evacuated, it’s like squeezing a balloon, Roy said. Squeezing the homeless out of one area of the city simply moves them to another.

“The immediate answer isn’t affordable housing, because they can’t afford it. It’s a complex issue and if I had an answer I’d be bringing it forward, for sure,” Roy said. “I personally think we need to address the situation and address their needs, and most of it runs back to mental health – that’s been borne out by research Manchester Fire Department did, that told us 70 to 80 percent of those in the encampments have had contact with Manchester Mental Health.”

He mentioned a program run by Behealthle, which made a presentation to aldermen in November of 2019.

“We need to look at the San Antonio example – they developed a center, and everyone had to buy in – police, fire and hospitals. There is a detox center and mental health, medical aid temporary shelter, counselors for jobs – programs that try to get people back into society. It’s expensive, but it seems to be effective.”

During the April 6 Board of Aldermen meeting, the Firestone encampment came up after At-Large Alderman Joe Levasseur asked about a fire he’d heard about last weekend there, and wondered if the encampment could be shut down like the one under the Amoskeag Bridge was, for safety reasons, after a propane fire. Fire Chief Dan Goonan said there was a small fire there, but the difference between the two scenarios is that the Amoskeag encampment was on city property. 

The truck where Rita Mann and Robert Hedberg have been sleeping for a year, parked alongside the Firestone encampment. Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Mayor Joyce Craig reiterated her position, that she is not in favor of setting up a centralized encampment, as continuing to have people living outdoors is “not an environment people would thrive in,” Craig said.

“We’ve got to focus on supportive housing opportunities across the entire state,” Craig said. One of my hopes is with the $44 million coming into the state that we can establish an affordable housing trust fund, we need to encourage options,” she said. She also noted that the state is supposed to be releasing a Housing Stability plan on June 1. 

On Thursday Rita Mann and Robert Hedberg said they’d heard about Long’s “pods” idea and wanted to know when they’d be available. 

“We’d live there,” Mann said. “We just need some stability – a lot of people here just need something, someplace to start over.”