Homeless woman plans to sue city over new park rules

A homeless woman who has been living in her truck at Milford’s Fowler Park says the recent establishment of a park closing time violates her rights, and she says she will sue the city.

The city recently posted signs at Fowler Park — the area around the Milford Public Library — stating that the park closes at 9 p.m. The area, which includes the library, playground, tennis courts and basketball courts, was named Fowler Park and designated a city park at the December Board of Aldermen meeting.

Mary Schipke, 61, who says she has been living in her truck in a rear parking lot, called the designation of a closing time, meaning a time when she has to leave, “an act of war” and a violation of her constitutional rights.

She sleeps on a mattress in the back of her truck at night, with a propane heater to keep her warm. She spends her days at the library, grocery store and other places. She uses some of the approximately $750 she gets per month from Supplemental Security Income for a YMCA membership so she can shower.

She said the new signs at Fowler Park mean she cannot park there overnight anymore. Earlier this week, she fought back tears as she debated whether she would risk a fine by sleeping in the parking lot that night or try to find another place to park and sleep.

She cites a long list of medical problems that keep her from working, problems she claims date back to chemical agents used on her late mother in the military. She talks about government conspiracies and illegal immigrants taking funds and resources that could be going to the nation’s homeless.

Schipke delivered a handwritten letter to the City Clerk’s office Dec. 31, notifying the city that she intends to sue over the placement of signs that state the closing hour of Fowler Park. She has filed other lawsuits in the past, one against the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) in 2015 for telling her to leave the former dump area of Silver Sands State Park, where she had set up an encampment. According to the state’s judicial website, the case was dismissed in 2016, as was a subsequent appeal.

Schipke said she has been banned from the local homeless shelter, so that is not an alternative for her.

Homeless shelter officials are aware of Schipke and her plight and said they have tried to work with her over the years. They confirm that Schipke has been banned from Beth-El due to “violent threats” against staff, but point out that she is not banned from other shelters in the region or state, which they have tried to transition her to.

Officials say that cases like Schipke’s require “stabilization of physical and mental health services as well as supportive housing,” and offer an example of why issues surrounding the homeless can be very complicated.

To Schipke the matter is pretty clear cut: She says her rights are being violated.

Looking at her laptop computer at the Milford Public Library, she refers to The Criminalization of Homelessness in Connecticut, a 2016 report by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School.

“Laws that restrict behaviors in which people experiencing homelessness must engage to survive, as well as the practices used to enforce these laws, constitute what this report refers

to as ‘making homelessness a crime’ or ‘the criminalization of homelessness’,” the report states.

“Constantly being told to move from the park, then the plaza, then the coffee shop, Connecticut’s homeless feel they have ‘nowhere to go,’ the report continues, adding that the criminalization of homelessness violates Connecticut, federal, and international law.

“People experiencing homelessness often have no choice but to perform basic daily activities in public,” according to the report. “Yet many cities choose to ban these very behaviors. Loitering, panhandling, and anti-camping ordinances restrict human rights and may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

Schipke refers to these statements, as well as other state and national policies and lawsuits, as she talks about the recent signs posted at the park.

City Attorney Jon Berchem received Schipke’s letter of intent to sue the city on Wednesday. He could not comment much on the matter, though he said the city has not violated constitutional rights by posting the park rules.

In recent months there has been an increase in the number of homeless people in and around the library, including a person who has set up a tent in Wilcox Park, behind the library. Residents have reported that they are hesitant to use the library, especially the book drop at night.

The Beth-El Center is working with the mayor’s office, local police, health officials, the fire department, Bridges Healthcare and the library staff to address the issue. Outreach workers are going into the library two days a week to offer services and gather information to help the homeless.

Officials who have spoken about the homeless situation in recent weeks, including the police chief, have said that homeless people have rights, and that homelessness is not a crime.

Beth-El Center Director Jenn Paradis said during a recent interview that the intent isn’t just to move people somewhere else in the cold, but to help them.

“We don’t want to criminalize these people,” Paradis said. “That wasn’t the intent.”

Schipke argues that she hasn’t been bothering anyone, and adds that the harbor air at Fowler Park has been good for her health. She doesn’t want to move elsewhere.