In Manchester, New Hampshire, a tent city outside Hillsborough County Superior Court has become a flashpoint of class struggle. Between 50 and 100 people have been living there since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they are threatened with eviction, misdemeanor charges and the destruction of all their personal property.
At 4:00 a.m. on Nov. 16, the day of the scheduled eviction, dozens of community members began assembling outside the courthouse where it was reported that a state contracted private cleaning crew was planning to show up at 9:00 a.m. By 8:00 a.m., a crowd of more than 50 people had set up a human perimeter around the encampment. As of this writing, they have staved off the illegal eviction for three days.
For months, the encampment has been a contentious issue with plenty of finger pointing between the city and the state government. The city began asking the state to destroy the encampment this summer. Legally, the encampment cannot be destroyed unless the residents are offered another place to go.
City and state officials blame each other, refuse to address housing crisis
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig has made frequent media appearances and issued memoranda saying she has asked for assistance from the state government and has been denied, including a $250,000 grant.
Governor Chris Sununu claims that the city already received $2.9 million and only used $300,000. This is parroted by Sununu-apologists in the city government like Ward 8 Alderman Michael Porter, but refuted by others, like Manchester Department of Planning and Community Development Director Leon LaFreniere.
The mayor’s talk of underfunding is a misdirection. This June, during a historic mass movement calling to defund the police, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen had no problem spending $999,124 to hire 10 more police officers. On November 10, the Board voted to spend $200,000 of contingency funds to cover back pay for a police officer, Aaron Brown, who was fired in 2018 when an internal investigation proved he was stalking and raping women while on duty, making jokes about killing Black people and habitually using the N-word. Craig said that voting to not give him back pay would “defund” the police, which she finds unconscionable. On average, each Manchester taxpayer spends $194 on police each fiscal year, compared to only $9 on public health.
Craig asked for the state to open up the National Guard Armory and Sununu said no. This does not surprise anyone familiar with his record. Sununu is called “Sunono” by his opponents, because he is infamous for vetoing over 80 bills so far, including a raise in the minimum wage and a paid family and medical leave bill.
Craig claims that she does not have anything to do with the encampment outside the courthouse because it is on state property. This erases the 34 other encampments throughout the city. The tent city is only now on the courthouse lawn because the Manchester Police Department used anti-camping laws and park curfews to push the homeless community out of neighboring Veterans’ Memorial Park over the summer. Liberation News has twice reached out to Craig for comment, but has not yet received a reply.
Without offering any alternatives, the state erected “no camping” signs in early October. The residents remained. “We’re just normal human beings struggling to survive in the economy that we have now because of COVID, and a lot of us lost our jobs, lost our homes, lost our family because of COVID,” Eddie Santiago, who lives at the encampment, told Liberation News. “So it’s crazy that they’re trying to kick us out from here and other places where tent cities are, when they know there’s nowhere else for us to go. That ‘no camping’ crap is bullshit because we’re not camping, we’re living.”
No time to play the blame game
On November 5, the mayors of all 13 of New Hampshire’s cities penned a letter to Governor Sununu urging him “to establish a commission… to develop and implement a statewide homelessness plan.” This letter was ignored. New Hampshire has not had a statewide plan since 2006. While a statewide plan is needed and would be more than welcome, the Governor’s inaction does not excuse Mayor Craig’s inaction.
The city’s homeless population has increased almost fivefold from 74 people last year, to 365 now. There’s only 107 beds available in the city’s two shelters. Fifty more will open up, but not until mid-December. Temperatures are already hitting lows of 16°F. The growing consensus on the ground is that there is no time to play a blame game while lives are at stake.
The situation began barrelling towards an open confrontation on November 6 when the state posted an eviction notice. “Individuals must evacuate this property by Monday, November 16, 2020.”
The people launch a struggle for housing
Immediately following the posting of the eviction notice, residents of the tent city began communicating with organizers from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, NH Youth Movement, 350 NH, NH Mutual Aid and Relief Fund, Black Lives Matter Manchester and others. While government officials continued to point fingers, working class organizers and activists were on the ground preparing to defend the tent city community.
On the day of the scheduled eviction, after supporters joined the encampment residents early in the morning, everyone sang “We shall not be moved” and picked up litter, cleaning the lawn together.
Forrest Rapier, an organizer with NHMARF, said “There were people talking to the Union Leader [newspaper] not too long ago, and they suggested the Youth Detention Center. It’s a big empty space with a roof. They suggested the SNHU arena because again, it’s a big empty space with a roof, it’s got bathrooms and showers, it’s got everything you need. There is no reason people couldn’t be there. There is literally no reason at all logistically or ethically these people aren’t housed.”
As 9:00 a.m. came and went, Manchester police lurked, but no cleaning crew showed up. People held signs with slogans like “The people demand housing, nothing less!” and chanted “Homeless lives matter!” Organizers moved to coordinate supplies, clothes, food and other necessities the encampment residents are denied by the capitalist government.
Until CDC guidelines came out against the practice at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the destruction of tent cities was common in Manchester, happening three or four times a year. This is the first time the people have organized a fight back.
State government responds, recommits to the eviction
Now in the third night of the protracted occupation, the government has nothing to offer except empty words. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General’s office issued a joint press release blaming the homeless and the protestors for the entire situation.
“The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Attorney General’s Office have been working with State contracted providers to assist individuals who are currently residing on the lawn of the Hillsborough County North Courthouse and in other encampments in the city… The outreach teams go out 7 days per week… All of the individuals remaining at the courthouse encampment have refused housing opportunities multiple times.” The press release continues, “Over the course of the past 48 hours, individuals have come to the site to protest… some of the protesters have interfered with the work of the outreach teams. Providers have told us that the situation has made them feel uncomfortable… While we share the desire of these individuals to end homelessness, they are harming or interfering with our ability to find accommodations for these individuals.”
This fools no one. At a Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting Nov. 17, Fire Chief Goonan accused DHHS and the AG of “crap” and “spin,” saying he’s been on the ground frequently and has never seen these providers.
The press release concludes, “The State will follow through on its commitment to the City of Manchester to clear the Hillsborough County North Courthouse property.”
Protestors say they will continue to stay at the tent city until their demands are met: halt the eviction, and immediately provide housing for all people living unsheltered in Manchester and throughout New Hampshire.
You can support the tent city encampment by donating to the Mutual Aid and Relief Fund.