Drive the highway between Manchester and Concord, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of the tarps and tents lining sections of the Merrimack River and the train tracks.
When winter shelters close, homeless people find refuge outdoors, in public—but that’s an act that’s often against the law.
But with no unified policy to work with, New Hampshire's cities tend to make it up as they go.
We’re outside the Friendly Kitchen, a meeting place for homeless people in Concord—it’s a couple hours before sundown, and folks here are lingering, nervous to head back to their sleeping places.
"We’ve had the Concord PD say if we police ourselves they’ll leave us alone. Then you have another officer come down and it’s the opposite," Mike Barton tells us.
It’s April, and the first week of the year officers are out shutting down homeless camps.
Barton, who’s homeless, and Melissa Sieredski, who used to be homeless, say talk at dinner tonight was all about when police officers might show up and tell them they need to leave.
We ask them if the cops shut down all the camp sites in the next week, where are the homeless people going to be sleeping?
"We’re gonna have to sleep on the sidewalks down on Main Street," says Barton.
Sieredski jumps in: "That’s what’s gonna end up happenin’ and then there’s really gonna be a lot of trouble. They want them out of the city. Do they think we’re just gonna disappear?"
That’s a question that rings all across New Hampshire’s cities—and no one really seems to have the answer. Public policy tends to answer it with where they aren’t allowed to go.
Lieutenant John Thomas of the Concord Police says he sends out officers to homeless camps when he get complaints—about anything from open beer cans to violent assaults, even murder. And he says three summers ago he got so many complaints that the city just cleared them all out.
"I’ll tell you if you saw when the city cleaned up and down Storrs Street? I mean when I’m telling you tons I mean in weight tons of trash left by some of the camps that were down there I mean it actually made some folks like disgusted, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’"
All that stuff left behind—it went to a landfill. But the people who got cleared out—they just went somewhere else.
Lt. Thomas says he’s not trying to make homeless people’s life harder.
"Just because you're homeless doesn't mean you lose your rights," Lt. Thomas says.
The Department of Justice agrees. Last year it filed a brief that said making it illegal for people to sleep in public places, when there aren’t shelters that can take them criminalizes homelessness.
Some cities in New Hampshire have backed away from rules against camping or panhandling, while others still choose to enforce them.
And through these layers of conflicting policy, it’s unclear for homeless people what their rights actually are.
Which means if you’re living on the streets of New Hampshire’s cities, you’re expected to pull off a kind of magic trick: make yourself disappear, right in plain sight.
This is the fragile geography of homelessness.
Kevin Kintner, who directs programming at New Horizons, Manchester's biggest shelter, takes us to a bridge overlooking the city.
"You want to be away from backyards," he says. "You don’t want to have too many private owners who can see you. You want to kind of hide," he says, and points up the Merrimack River to the rocks under the Granite Street Bridge, a spot he says people always camp, despite how dangerous that can be. "And we always worry about them when the river rises because people actually can get trapped over there. There was actually someone that drowned not too far from there a couple years ago."
Most of these spots Kintner points out from here are on public property. And he says the Manchester police know about them, but most of the time, they leave them alone. Thirty miles up the river, Lieutenant Thomas of the Concord PD says most of the time, that’s how it should be.
"There is a no camping policy on city property. But if I sat here and told you, ‘Yeah, we’re shaking everybody off city property’? I’d be lying to you. If you’re outta sight outta mind and nobody’s complaining about you, the last thing we wanna do is bother you and up root you."
In the middle of a sunny May day, Walt Healey lies on a bare mattress a few feet from the train tracks in Concord. Cars and trucks on Route 93 make a constant roar. He's set up camp here hoping this spot won't get him in trouble--he says last time he chose the wrong spot it sent him to jail—three months, for trespassing.
"Right. I did three months. I was crossing the tracks behind the liquor store? And bingo, they hooked me."
Guys like Healey say they know their best option is to stay out of the way, even if it means sleeping alone on the highway. But just a couple days after we met, Healey got hooked again--arrested for trespassing right at that spot.
Sitting up in his office in Manchester’s City Hall, Mayor and Republican Gubernatorial candidate Ted Gatsas says for most of his constituents, homelessness is mainly a cosmetic problem.
"Well I think it’s important that people don’t have to look at someone urinating or defecating because they’re camping out and it’s okay just to do it," Mayor Gatsas says.
Gatsas’s city, Manchester, is New Hampshire’s biggest—and it’s the latest to be sued by the ACLU for approving policies that target the homelessness—this one is against panhandling. But every city handles it differently.
Concord cracked down on camping and panhandling. Meanwhile, Rochester officials repealed a panhandling ordinance after a lawsuit. Nashua’s City Council passed a panhandling ban twice, but both times, the mayor vetoed it. And just this summer in Lebanon, a hundred people showed up at a city meeting to protest a camping ban—the protesters said it wasn’t a solution to homelessness, and the City Council didn’t pass it.
Manchester Mayor Gatsas says there’s only so much a city can do. "I can only tell you that some people want to be homeless. They don’t want any help. They want to live under a bridge. They’ll be homeless no matter what you give them. So some people make that choice," he says.
On that night last April, outside Concord’s soup kitchen, we met a guy named Kevin. He told us he didn’t think the city was treating him or other homeless people fairly. But he also didn’t seem like he had any option but to sleep on the street.
"I just love bein’ outdoors," Kevin told us. "I don’t like being confined inside. I don’t stay inside very long if I can help it."
With that, Kevin walked down toward the tracks, back somewhere we can’t see him.