NH Voices: Elliott Berry — Mayor Craig’s veto was the right thing to do
The New Hampshire Union Leader
March 22, 2019
On March 5, 2019, Mayor Joyce Craig courageously vetoed, with a majority of Aldermen supporting her veto, a proposed Manchester provision that would alter city ordinances to permit downtown business owners to control the use of sidewalks outside their storefronts year-round.
There is currently an existing ordinance, which has been in place since 2009, that allows downtown businesses to have sidewalk cafes during business hours throughout the year, However, the intent of the ordinance change that Mayor Craig vetoed would have allowed business owners to bar poor and homeless people from using public sidewalks, thereby providing “some relief ” as Alderman Baines stated.
This proposed ordinance was blatantly unconstitutional, and Mayor Craig did the right thing in rejecting this effort to bar the poor and homeless from public spaces. The poor and homeless who are not committing crimes, like anyone else, have the constitutional right to use public spaces. Yet this proposed ordinance would have allowed private businesses to control a portion of the sidewalk in the winter time, thereby giving them the ability to evict people occupying this public space.
What this proposed ordinance ignored is that public sidewalks do not exclusively belong to private businesses; public sidewalks belong to all of us, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The proposal suggested that the poor and homeless who occupy public spaces should be criminalized because their presence represents a “blight” on the community. While some people would prefer not to see poor people on sidewalks, the answer to homelessness and poverty is not to criminalize otherwise peaceful conduct, or to push poor people out of public view. Punishing the poor with fines, fees, and arrests simply for occupying public places will only prolong their poverty. Moreover, although it may make some people uncomfortable, having contact with poor and homeless people from time to time heightens public awareness, and on balance is a good thing for the community.
To meaningfully address homelessness, policy makers must work to resolve the issues that cause people to be insecure in their housing. With median rents climbing faster than wages, it can be impossible to secure stable housing. People facing homelessness often face other challenges including mental health disorders, trauma histories, and substance use disorder. Thus, we support increased funding and capacity for mental health services and substance use disorder treatment in Manchester, support systems for victims of domestic violence, and policies which increase the availability of affordable housing.
Mayor Craig’s initiatives to address poverty and homeless in Manchester tackle the root causes of poverty without infringing on civil rights. This includes a plan to improve the FIT-New Horizons shelter and funding to allow New Horizons to be open during the day. The Mayor has convened a commission comprised of citywide as well as downtown businesses, faith groups, non-profits, the Chamber of Commerce, Intown Manchester and members of the community to study the causes of homelessness in the City and to figure out a comprehensive way to address the issue. We support the commission as it considers increased messaging, funding, and collaboration to address homelessness and housing insecurity to stop homelessness before it occurs.
The proposed ordinance giving businesses the ability to bar the poor and homeless from sidewalks was the wrong approach. Manchester cannot arrest and jail its way out of its perceived homelessness problem. Criminalizing poverty does not make poverty go away. Thankfully, with the Mayor’s veto and on-going work , the City is on the right track.