By GAIL OBER, InDepthNH.org
UPDATED: Prompted by Councilor Henry Lipman, the city of Laconia decided on Monday to set aside $20,000 from end-of-fiscal year contingency money as a financial incentive for the city police to develop a plan for policing the homeless who use the city parks as living quarters.
In a separate yet uncoordinated move, the leadership of the Belknap Mill Society issued a Take Back the Park community campaign via its Facebook page for 5 p.m. on July 12 for a conversation that it hopes will return respectability to city parks – primarily Rotary Park, the site of the historic mill.
But on Thursday, the event date was cancelled saying on Facebook: “Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to our community meeting post, we have decided to reschedule to a date in the very near future. In the meantime, we will continue to work closely with our community leaders and interested citizens to plan a larger and more comprehensive forum. We appreciate the positive steps already taken and encourage you to participate in all our park activities this summer!”
Complaints about drunkenness, overt drug use, and public urination from people who on Friday evening attended an Arts in the Park musical performance sponsored by the Belknap Mill Society triggered the most recent spate of official activity said Police Chief Matt Canfield.
“I got all kinds of phone calls on Monday,” Canfield said, adding that most of the complaints came from city councilors and other community leaders who fielded them from their constituents.
Canfield said that by Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning he had increased foot and bicycle patrols in the city parks with Rotary Park being ground zero.
“We will continue to do this all summer,” he said.
He said he met with Belknap Mill Executive Director Cheryl Avery this week. “I applaud her for wanting to get (some community effort) off the ground,” he said.
A lack of respect for all of the city’s 20 parks is both personal and professional for city Parks Director Amy Lovisek.
A employee of the parks department since the 1990s, Lovisek said the problem has been ongoing. She cites vandalism, strewn garbage, and a considerable lack of respect for her staff as her pet peeves.
“Crews have been disrespected – mostly at Rotary Park,” she said. People are literally laughing at my maintenance team while they are picking up the trash as (some park patrons) throw it down.”
“The same thing happens at Weirs Beach,” she said, adding just the other day one of her crew members was yelled at for locking the bathrooms at Bartlett Beach even though there is an available portable toilet.
She said she never gets to send any maintenance or custodial crews to the park just to mow, water the flowers or prune the trees.
“They have to pick up all the trash first,” she said, adding that if they didn’t have to do all the garbage clean-up she could accomplish much more with the team she has.
As to homelessness and park usage, she said it is a problem. And one she doesn’t have a quick solution to. “Parks are designed for loitering,” she said. “Sitting and doing nothing is what parks are for.”
As to Rotary Park – the focus of the Belknap Mill Society’s recent effort – it’s the first park you see when you enter the downtown. She said recently her crews went to mow Stewart Park, a small park along Union Avenue across the Winnipesaukee River from Rotary Park and found a person in a sleeping bag under one of the trees that line the main thoroughfare.
“It’s a bad image,” she said.
Image and city appearances were also discussed at the recent city council meeting. With development in various sections of Laconia – especially in downtown with the opening of the Colonial Theater – growing at a pace not seen in many, many years, leaders are acutely aware of how Laconia’s image is perceived by visitors, home buyers, and future business owners.
“Parks are one of our strongest selling points,” Lipman said.
Lovisek said she had no prior knowledge of Monday’s Take Back the Park post on the Belknap Mill Society Facebook page but said she was approached Tuesday by Mayor Andrew Hosmer who wants her to be included in the “forum” being held at the Belknap Mill. Hosmer, now in his second term, has spear-headed homelessness as one of his mayoral priorities and leads the task force.
Lipman told the city council he would like to see something similar to a program targeting drug overdoses based on a concept developed about five years ago by the local police department to stem the number of overdose deaths. Deemed successful, the Prevention, Education, and Treatment effort has been recognized nationally and is being developed on a state-wide scale.
“We didn’t stop drug overdoses but we saved a lot of lives and got some people into long-term recovery,” Canfield said.
The police department dedicated a single officer to the P.E.T. Project and Canfield said he will dedicate an officer to lead a similar effort to curb homelessness.
Canfield said that he is taking Lipman’s offer of $20,000 for the right program to heart and is working with the Mayor’s Homelessness Task Force, local mental health agencies, representatives from the three area homeless shelters, and local drug recovery programs leaders to set up a series of smallish community meetings in the city’s six wards for productive discussions.
“I don’t want gripe sessions,” he said.
“There needs to be a community response and I don’t mind heading up that effort,” he said. “My goal is to bring all of that together.”
“We’re not going to solve homelessness,” he said, noting that a sustained community effort can over time help to smooth some of its rough edges.
“I expect to have a program suggestion for the August meeting of the city council,” he said.