‘You have to give them someplace to go’ – A Concord homeowner has an encampment in her yard. Nationwide, cities are issuing permanent camping bans.

Robin Bach looks out her kitchen window at the woods in her backyard where two homeless camps are located.

Robin Bach looks out her kitchen window at the woods in her backyard where two homeless camps are located.

Robin Bach points to the woods in her backyard where two homeless camps are located on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps.

Robin Bach points to the woods in her backyard where two homeless camps are located on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Robin Bach stands in her backyard property line where one of the homeless camps are located on June 19. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps. One camp is behind her property while another is behind her neighbor’s.

Robin Bach stands in her backyard property line where one of the homeless camps are located on June 19. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps. One camp is behind her property while another is behind her neighbor’s. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Robin Bach stands in her backyard and points to one of the homeless camps are located on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps.

Robin Bach stands in her backyard and points to one of the homeless camps are located on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

LEFT: One of the two homeless camps behind the home of Robin Bach’s neighbor. The other camp is behind Bach’s backyard.

LEFT: One of the two homeless camps behind the home of Robin Bach’s neighbor. The other camp is behind Bach’s backyard.

ABOVE: Robin Bach has put up signs in her backyard near where two homeless camps are located on Wednesday. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps.

ABOVE: Robin Bach has put up signs in her backyard near where two homeless camps are located on Wednesday. Her children do not play in the backyard because of the camps. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 07-06-2024 3:26 PM

Modified: 07-07-2024 12:00 PM


Robin Bach knows her property is a work in progress.

Room by room, she and her husband have chipped away at restoring their 19th-century Walker house in Concord, measuring out baseboards and cutting trim from the original moldings to preserve the legacy of the home.

With many trips to Lowe’s, they’ve painted the ceiling pockets, sealed off doors and hung wallpaper, determined to complete the project themselves.

Rolled-up floor plans show visions for future additions to their house. Someday, they’ll have a larger kitchen and a library.

What they didn’t plan for, though, was the growing encampment in the woods on their property – where the police are often called to, gunshots have been heard and no one seems to have a response as to whose responsibility it is to manage.

The swingset at the bottom of the hill in Bach’s backyard now goes untouched. It was a pandemic-era birthday present for her two elementary school kids, ages 8 and 11, in 2020. Now they’re too afraid, knowing that people are living just through the trees. And the windows of the small shed that Bach envisioned as a backyard hangout are boarded up with plywood. A no-trespassing sign is affixed to the door.

Instead, balls, gloves and other toys line the front hallway to her house. Their house sits on an acre of land, but often her kids opt to play out front along the sidewalk.

“I can’t even use my backyard. My kids can’t go out there,” she said. “I would like my children to be independent and feel comfortable going outside and playing and they won’t.”

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Bach has called the police 37 times since she bought the house in 2018 according to records from the Concord Police Department – six times for an area check, another six for disturbances. Domestic violence incidents also populate the list along with criminal trespassing.

As homelessness rises across the country – especially in New Hampshire, where the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development identified the state to have the largest percent increase – national conversations about shelter for unhoused people are taking center stage. Just last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that camping on public property was now illegal, in a landmark decision out of Oregon.

For Bach, it’s a complicated issue that requires city and state attention. While she’d like the encampment to be removed from her property, she worries where those people will go next.

One encampment cleared means that people are shuffled to the next spot and can lose touch with outreach service providers. She’d like a solution that addresses her problem but provides help for those living in her yard as well. And while the city assesses its long-term plan for homelessness, there’s not a clear answer as to what this should be.

“It’s Whack-a-Mole. You can’t just ask them to leave, they’re going to go somewhere else,” she said. “You have to give them someplace to go.”

‘The trash remains’

One of the first summers in their house, Bach’s husband went outside to mow the lawn and asked a man sitting in their backyard to leave the property. They’d seen him a few times, emerging from the woods in their backyard, where one or two tents were pitched. The man threatened to shoot him.

He returned several times before Bach filed a restraining order against him – police escorted him handcuffed off her property while her children watched.

Another day she was teaching her son to do laundry upstairs with the windows opened. Screams of “get off me, get off me” echoed into their house. She called the police again.

A dumpster fire behind Kimball Jenkins, two doors down from her property, sent fire trucks racing up her street.

Bach got a quote for a chain link fence to enclose her property. It came in at $50,000.

“I can’t afford to clean it up. I can’t physically do it myself,” she said about the litter that lines her view. “So the trash remains.”

When Bach first moved in, one or two tents were seen through the trees. Now a half dozen – some with large tarps and structures – occupy the wooded area in her yard that lines the train tracks.

For residents like Bach that have concerns about encampments on private property, the first call to make is to the Concord Police Department, according to Mayor Byron Champlin.

From there, Barrett Moulton, the deputy chief of patrol and police liaison on the city’s homeless steering committee, can coordinate with service providers in the area for outreach – to ensure they don’t lose track of individuals who are on waitlists for housing and services – before disbanding the encampment and moving people along.

Each encampment is a case-by-case scenario, though, he said.

“We don’t want to surprise anybody if we don’t have to,” he said. “We usually will go and notice everybody and give them a couple weeks.”

The encampment on Bach’s property poses a unique situation as it also sits on the railroad tracks, owned by CSX. The city has a memorandum of understanding with the company for enforcement action on the property – meaning they can go and issue no-trespassing orders at any time. CSX also has its own police detail that will sweep the area and arrest people.

These measures will clear the camp – which police have done a few times – but, on private property, that’s the extent of the city’s involvement.

“The city won’t clean up any private property,” said Moulton. “But if it is city land then there is a whole process and it’s often expensive.”

At the end of 2022, the city council voted to spend $35,000 to clean up an encampment on city-owned conservation land on Locke Road.

When police have removed tents from Bach’s backyard before, they’re repopulated a few days later. Belongings left behind from a clearing only contribute to the trash accumulated on the site.

Removing these tents, though, is a drop in the bucket to a much larger, coordinated solution, in her opinion.

Moulton would agree.

“We have a pretty significant homeless problem,” he said. “They’re going to be somewhere.”

Grants Pass v. Johnson

Moulton knows homelessness is a visible problem in Concord. Without leaves on the trees in the fall and the spring to mask encampments, more residents will call the department to report sites.

Lately, calls have centered on trash.

“It’s hard to get past that image of these encampments,” he said. “It’s a bad look. It’s a bad look for the city when you have as beautiful of an area as Concord is, to have it just loaded with trash, it is something that there’s a focus on to right now.”

The reality is, though, there are few, if any, public dumpsters in the city and with the Concord Coalition to End Homelessness only operating an emergency shelter from December through March, many do not have a consistent roof over their head.

This conversation has taken center stage across the country in Grants Pass, Oregon – a city of similar size to Concord at 40,000 just over the California border.

In Grants Pass, city ordinances prohibit people from sleeping outside. But the number of available shelter beds is overwhelmed by the 600 people who are experiencing homelessness on a given night.

A court case that challenged the city’s ordinances – stating that these rules violated the Eighth Amendment with excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment – made it to the United States Supreme Court.

Last week, justices sided with the city of Grants Pass, upholding laws that make public camping illegal on a 6-3 decision.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So many be the public policy response required to address it,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in his court opinion. “A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

The city of Manchester has been swift to react to the ruling, with the mayor and board of aldermen voting on Tuesday to change the city ordinances to ban camping at all times, effective immediately. A $250 fine is now in place for offenses.

Champlin does not envision any response to the Grants Pass decision from the city of Concord.

Nonprofits in the area are now sounding the alarm on the implications of the Grants Pass decision, saying that it enables cities like Manchester to further criminalize homelessness at a time when agencies are looking for non-punitive solutions.

Data from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that 67 percent of people experiencing homelessness have a mental health disorder.

To Bernie Seifert, the deputy director of NAMI-NH, the ruling further diverts services away from people experiencing homelessness and instead places the onus on law enforcement.

“To expect that law enforcement could take care of the situation, it’s not going to help the individuals who are in need,” she said. “It would be better to put our money and finances and energy into increasing services, mental health support, helping people who are in these situations.”

The root causes of homelessness are multifaceted, she said, and require a comprehensive response from the city and state beyond criminal penalties.

“It’s not as simple as ‘let’s just whisk them away and put them in jail,’” she said. “It’s not that simple. That just adds to the complexity and the challenges.”

The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness echoed this in a statement after the ruling.

“Penalizing the most vulnerable citizens in our community because of this country’s housing shortage is unconscionable, and won’t solve homelessness,” they wrote. “The solution to ending homelessness is housing.”

‘The worst it’s ever been’

When Bach used to pick up the phone to call 911 her heart rate would spike. At this point, she’s desensitized to it.

It is clear to her that the rotation of people living on her property need help and stable housing. Most recently, she talked to a man living in one tent who holds a 9 to 5 job and has large contractor bags cleaning up his area.

At the same time, she wants a city response to the growing problem. While police can issue no trespass orders or ordinance violations, that doesn’t address the needs of those experiencing homelessness, and the perpetual concerns of residents like herself.

Living by Horseshoe Pond has been an entirely different experience to her old house downtown.

“We never locked our doors. We were pretty casual,” she said. “Now we have a full-on security system.”

To Bach the solution is to create a sanctioned camping area in the city. To her this will concentrate resources in one place.

“You can put your tent here, here’s bathrooms, dumpsters,” she said. “They’ve come here and told them to move a million times, they don’t move.”

Designated camping is among solutions the city’s steering committee on homelessness is considering, according to Jim Schlosser, the Ward 7 councilor and committee representative.

“It’s one of many,” he said. “There’s talk about tiny homes, sanctioned camping, transitional housing and rooming houses. Many, many possible solutions and all of them need to be considered and evaluated.”

Champlin has a stronger stance on that proposal.

“There are a lot of difficulties for a sanctioned encampment. One is, where does it go? Who wants to host it in their neighborhood?” he said. “That is a large hurdle to overcome. Who is responsible for it? Who is managing it?”

But to Bach, the sporadic response of police taking down tents on her property doesn’t address the root causes of her problem or the needs of those in her yard.

As her son sits inside playing on an iPad, she asks him if he wants to play outside later. It’s the start of his summer vacation. His answer remains the same – only in the front yard.

“This is the worst it’s ever been,” she said. “It’s the worst it’s ever been.”