Homelessness: At the intersection of law enforcement and housing, Ruais sees progress

Chairs, shopping carts, coolers, suitcases desk chairs – and the homeless, currently residing at Victory Park. Mayor Ruais says enforcement efforts will begin in earnest on Friday. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH –  Living on a sidewalk, hustling for dollars, relieving yourself in an alley; that is not living. Squirreling into a secluded street corner, wrapping yourself in blankets and rocking yourself to sleep won’t stop the voices of self-destruction in your head.

Neither do the drugs, or the alcohol.

Seeking kinship among those who drift from couch to car to concrete because past trauma has rendered you hopeless only magnifies the pain and perpetuates the cycle of hopelessness.

Yet here – and in Concord and Nashua and Keene and Portsmouth and Rochester and Berlin and enclaves all across the Granite State – there are street people who can’t or won’t step out of the condition they’re living in. 

For all of them – the addicted, the mentally ill, those with criminal records or those just way down on their luck – affordable housing is unattainable because, no matter their circumstances, it does not exist.

Mayor Jay Ruais says the latest number he’s heard was a 0.6% vacancy rate in New Hampshire.

“This is why our zoning rewrite is so important,” Ruais says, referring to the city’s current Draft Zoning Ordinance and a series of public meetings in the coming weeks to review and amend what city Planners have proposed. The changes will allow for more affordable housing to be built, says Ruais.

Mayor Jay Ruais
Mayor Jay Ruais during the July 2 Board of Aldermen meeting during which an anti-camping ordinance was passed. File Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Six months on the job as mayor, Ruais says there’s progress – last Tuesday the Board of Aldermen banned camping in the city and transferred half a million dollars to the police department to provide “hot spot patrols” in problem areas. Those two things will begin to move the needle, says Ruais.

“This gives police a tool in the tool box. They now have legal authority to break up encampments and enforce an ordinance on the books – not just encampments, but where there are sleeping materials, mattresses or tarps slung over fences. This gives them the authority to address those things,” Ruais says. 

Everyone is welcome in city parks, the homeless included. But certain behaviors – including camping, doing drugs and generally inhabiting them overnight with carts and suitcases and bags of stuff – will not be allowed.

“Our public places have to be a place anyone can go and enjoy and they shouldn’t have to worry about an encampment,” Ruais says. 

Last week his team put together a community resource card to be handed out letting people know how to access services. It’s not the first time the city has handed out “help cards” but Ruais says, coupled with other efforts –  his ID recovery program and bus pass program for those trying to get to work, it’s a balanced approach that provides help for those who want and need it. 

On Friday police, utilizing the $500K influx of money offset by eliminating park rangers, will begin patrols to enforce the new ordinance.

A community police officer sits in his cruiser parked within Victory Park on July 9 “just paying special attention,” according to police Public Information Officer Heather Hamel.

“I heard this claim a few times at the meeting last week, and so let me clarify – no one is getting arrested as a result of this ordinance change. It’s a $250 fine, a deterrent mechanism. The only way someone will get arrested is if they defied an order and are not being compliant,” he adds.

The conversation starter in this case was the state of Victory Park, currently where the homeless are gathered – along with suitcases, shopping carts, tents and sleeping bags. Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long says it’s on his radar as part of the daily circuit he drives – past the places where people in survival mode historically congregate – from the city library and Grace Episcopal Church, down Chestnut Street, Union, Hanover, past Down the Block convenience, 1269 Cafe and Families In Transition shelter. 

“It’s a loop that I drive daily. Yesterday 199 Manchester Street didn’t look so bad – but everywhere else? It was bad,” Long says.

Next week Long has a meeting planned with a number of church groups. Although not all aligned philosophically or theologically on social issues, they agree on the need for humanity to meet the basic needs of the poor and homeless. 

Long says he is aware of more homeless people coming into the city of late, and more young women than he’s used to seeing. He mentions a young couple he encountered the other day who said they had come here from somewhere else.

The city will be distributing “Community Resources” cards to direct people on the streets to services. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

“I think it was the Monadnock Region – I can’t recall, but someplace where they had put the hammer down, no services without ID. But it was 3:30 in the morning, and this young couple on my street and I hear her yelling at him, ‘I just want someone to love me,’ and so I decided to invite them onto my patio. I gave them coffee and was talking with them for a while,” Long says. “I offered them help but nah – they were all set.”

Long told the young woman that she will get the respect she wants when she loves herself. 

“I told her that I get that concept may go right over your head – I was there once, and it went over my head – for a long time, but I finally got it. Once you start working toward a better life, you get it,” says Long, who is in recovery from addiction – an area of common ground he shares with Ruais.

Despite their political differences, they are both operating from the other side of being lost.

Says Ruais, “I didn’t get sober until I was  tired of interactions with the criminal justice system. Holding people accountable for their actions is one way to help change behavior.” 

Long favors creating a temporary place where the homeless can ease back into normalcy – he’s advocated for something like tiny homes, and still believes it is a viable way of providing transitional living until more permanent housing is online.

Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long during the July 2 Board of Aldermen meeting. File Photo/Andrew Sylvia

“One of the reasons I supported everything I supported Tuesday was because we’re driving toward this – finally addressing the question of ‘where are they going to go?’,” Long says.

As a state representative Long is also working at the county level to secure funding toward extending the city’s emergency shelter operations through March of 2025.

“The mayor has to go to the county commissioners meeting and all indications is they’re in favor of $470,000 in ARPA funding. Then it goes to the executive committee, which will be a battle, but I feel we’ll be successful. That money will take us through March, and the winter shelter,” he says.

In the meantime, Ruais will continue to chip away at the things he can do.

He mentions an appropriation that came out of the CIP committee for eight units of affordable housing that will go before the aldermen in August. 

“It will be cheap rent – higher than 60% AMI (Area Median Income). We’re working on finding pathways to housing, but an individual will have to make a decision for themselves. We can cut bureaucracy and red tape but, as something Alderman Long and I have talked about, they must break the underlying cycle that keeps them down,” Ruais says.

“Enforcement is a mechanism, and housing is that end piece and that’s what we’re working on. Roughly six months in, we’ve not been able to get the amount of housing units we need, but I do think we’re moving in the right direction and in the next six months you’ll see changes in both appearance and reality,” Ruais says.