Police enforce no camping on The Island

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HINSDALE, N.H. — A law enforcement sweep of The Island between Brattleboro and Hinsdale resulted in the eviction of three campers, with one arrested on a warrant.

"We've been getting a lot of complaints about The Island," said Hinsdale Police Chief Todd Faulkner during a briefing prior to the Wednesday sweep. "That area has been known as a homeless encampment for quite a while."

Faulkner said complaints peak this time of the year because the undergrowth and the trees are still bare of leaves, meaning anyone driving or walking by can see the detritus that has been left behind by campers.

"But once it gets grown, it will get worse," he said. "What we are trying to do is catch it early."

The Hinsdale Police Department conducted the sweep with assistance from two wardens from New Hampshire Fish and Game and two deputies from the Cheshire County Sheriff's Office. Also in attendance was a film crew from Animal Planet's "North Woods Law: New Hampshire," a reality show that follows game wardens in the Granite State.

The Island itself, which sits on the Connecticut River and serves as a footing for two bridges, is owned by the state of New Hampshire, but most of the people who find refuge on it are served by organizations in Brattleboro.

"It's not the property of the town of Hinsdale, however we have jurisdiction to enforce laws on it," Faulkner said.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation is responsible for The Island's upkeep.

"According to District 4 Engineer John Kallfelz, he and Hinsdale Police Chief Todd Faulkner have discussed the possible need to clean up the island," said Bill Boynton, spokesman for N.H. DOT. "At this time, no date has been set (for the cleanup). Personnel and resources have not yet been committed toward the cleanup effort."

Last year, at the request of Hinsdale, the Department of Transportation posted signs forbidding camping on The Island.

"The Island is supposed to only be used as boat access and for fishing and walking," Faulkner said.

After the briefing, while on The Island, officers paired off to search for campers. They found three people in tents and lots of trash, discarded IV needles, abandoned tents and clothes and empty beer and soda cans.

"I didn't know this was New Hampshire," said Josh Martin, who was taken into custody on an arrest warrant out of Manchester, N.H. "I thought it was Vermont."

But Martin also contended that he should have the right to camp on The Island if he wants to. "I thought all water is free. Nobody owns it."

"People camp here all the time," said one of the other campers. "We just came down here for the night. I guess we'll have to find another campsite."

Faulkner said he has learned that civic agencies in Vermont are handing out tents and telling homeless people they can camp on The Island.

Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, which serves the local homeless population and people struggling with poverty, said that while his agency does give out tents, no one at Groundworks is telling people they can camp on The Island.

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"We actually say don't camp there, or by the railroad tracks or in the cemeteries," he said.

Davis said this year, Groundworks purchased about 40 tents using contributions from donors.

"It is something that we provide each year when we close down the winter overflow shelter," he said. "We feel the least we can do is provide some semblance of shelter for folks with no other options in the community. And we are not buying high-end tents. We are trying to stretch our dollars. We are lucky if we can get a season's use out of them."

Davis said Groundworks knows through its outreach programs where a lot of the homeless are camping, "But we don't talk about it too much to respect their privacy."

"They give us tents every year," said one of the people evicted Wednesday. "They don't tell us where to camp. They just tell us to be safe."

Davis said while he hasn't had much contact with the Hinsdale Police Department, he was open to a collaborative cleanup of The Island.

Keeping an eye on The Island is an ongoing effort for the Hinsdale Police Department, Faulkner said.

"The last time we went down we recovered 300 used bindles of heroin and a bunch of needles, a lot human feces and a lot of waste," he said. "We'll probably do this again in another week or two."

First-time offenders will be evicted, Faulkner said, but any repeat offenders will be cited with trespassing.

"We don't have any intent of putting people in jail because they are homeless and looking for a place to stay, but the town has expressed that they don't want this here and the state has expressed they don't want them on this property," Faulkner said.

He is hoping the word will get out that the Hinsdale Police Department will be making regular visits to The Island this year. "Hopefully we can encourage them not to come back."

Faulkner said it might require some clearing of The Island, including cutting down some of the trees, so there are no hiding places for people to set up tents.

"If you make it viewable, people won't want to stay here," he said.

Faulkner said he hopes the state can get a handle on the problem before the new bridge connecting the two towns is built and the old bridges are closed to vehicular traffic.

Construction on the new bridge is slated to start in May 2020. It is expected to take at least three years. When complete, the Anna Hunt Marsh Bridge and the Charles Dana Bridge will be closed, but people will still be able to walk or ride bicycles on them.

"The Brattleboro Police Department and the Hinsdale Police Department have very clearly said unless we do something and get it done early, this island is going to become a drug haven," Faulkner said. "Step one is to get this place cleaned up. Once we get this stuff knocked down and get it opened up, this could be a great place to take your kids fishing. If you make it accessible, the right people will come down here and not the people who leave behind trash and needles."

Faulkner said his department is also aware of people pitching tents on Mount Wantastiquet, which overlooks the Connecticut River. He said a sweep of that area will happen soon.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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