Neighbors raise red flag about homeless encampment

Alderman Bryan Anderson thinks it might be time to make changes to the Wampus Lane property where a homeless encampment has existed for perhaps 10 years, while other city leaders believe the situation is appropriately in the hands of a new task force making headway helping the city’s homeless find housing.
Residents who live in the area of Spruce Circle, Corona Drive and Home Acres Avenue packed a police commission meeting May 13 to plead for help addressing the homeless situation that exists near their homes. Residents say the Wampus Lane encampment has grown over the years, and residents worry about their safety. One official estimated there are about 11 people living at the property now, though that number fluctuates.
Wampus Lane runs through an industrial area off Gulf Street not far from St. Mary Church. Concrete blocks stand at the end of the road, and Fire Department Spokesman Anthony Fabrizi said a trail leads from there into the woods, juts to the left and to a spot where people have set up campsites, using tents, furniture and various items. Some of the people camped there have strung deck lights and other ornaments to mark their living spot, one police officer said, and one city official described it as a “sophisticated” camping area.
The encampment is located on part of a 33.6 acre parcel the city acquired in 2003 using a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) grant, according to Open Space Manager Steve Johnson, who said the funding would have included a deed restriction that the property remain as open space.
According to minutes from the May police commission meeting, one resident who lives in the Home Acres/Corona Drive area said she lives across from the encampment and often hears gunshots. Others talked about seeing camp fires every night, and one resident said she worries about the safety of the children who live in the neighborhood.
Last April firefighters from multiple stations battled an extensive brush fire near the encampment for about three hours before putting it out, and Fabrizi said he understands neighbor’s concerns about campfires possibly spreading to their homes.
“They have a legitimate concern in that regard,” Fabrizi said.
City officials, including the police chief and the mayor’s chief of staff, say a homeless task force established last year to address an increasing homeless population in Milford is making some headway. And they say the task force is addressing concerns on Wampus Lane.
“The city is actively working to address the concerns of the neighborhood while approaching the individuals in the Wampus area with compassion and understanding, as well as presenting them with the availability of social services,” said Justin Rosen, Mayor Ben Blake’s chief of staff.
“The city has partnered with several area groups and organizations to address the issue of unsheltered homelessness city wide and we are making good progress in getting individuals the help that they need to transition to stable housing.”
Police Chief Keith Mello said he believes the number of unsheltered homeless has gone down recently.
“We have seen a slight decrease in homelessness in certain areas of the city,” Mello said. “We believe this is the result of the outreach efforts of the task force to persuade people to take advantage of the services available to them, including the homeless shelters. All of the members of our task force have contributed significant time and resources to this effort.”
Police don’t randomly enter the Wampus Lane encampment to monitor activity there, but only go there if there is illegal activity, said Police Spokesman Mike Devito.
But that doesn't mean police aren’t paying attention. There are active bicycle and vehicle patrols downtown and close to the encampment, and Devito said if police spot illegal activity they address it.
City leaders point out that homelessness is not a crime, and people living outside in Milford have Constitutional rights that have to be respected. “We are not going to make homelessness into a criminal matter,” Devito said.
Alderman Anderson said he worries about the Wampus Lane site because of its proximity to a residential neighborhood, and thinks some action should be taken.
“I think the City of Milford should consider any and all options to insure public safety, including a conveyance of the property to a non-profit entity,” Anderson said. “The land would remain open space, but the city would no longer be a default landlord and owner. Short of that, the city could also make an investment in the property, and permit accessible portions to be available for passive recreation. Right now, the area is remote and largely unused by the general public. Having more people there acts as a check for unwanted activity.”
Jennifer Paradis, executive director of the Beth-El homeless shelter, said Wampus Lane is just one piece of a larger homelessness puzzle.
“The scope and needs of those experiencing unsheltered homelessness are both complex and ever-changing,” Paradis said. “The visibility of homelessness today leads observers to believe that resolution is specific to shelter and stable housing, however this work requires a much greater, more comprehensive response.”
All the issues have to be addressed, she said, from affordable housing to mental health services.
Milford’s homeless task force, called the Milford Homeless Outreach Workgroup, is made up of subject matter experts that are evaluating these situations and the issue holistically, “balancing the concerns of residents with the complex challenges and needs of those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” Paradis said.