Panhandling is a polarizing issue. Charitable giving is a personal, sometimes private, topic that strikes chords in many realms: religious, political, practical, moral, economic, philosophical, philanthropic.
When requests for charity approaches us on the street in the form of panhandling, it can be disquieting for many. Giving money to panhandlers is a personal choice, one that does not have a right or wrong response, even though many of us are confronted daily with the question in the public forum of our community’s sidewalks, parking lots, and medians.
Sadly, these conditions are increasingly common.
Brattleboro is in good company with cities, towns, and rural areas confronting poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness. These are all complicated — and often, but not always, interwoven — issues that need multi-faceted solutions.
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To be clear, not all panhandlers are homeless. There is no one face or singular story of poverty. It manifests itself in many of our community members’ lives: a friend who had to live in her car for a few months due to financial woes, our co-worker striken by a life-altering illness, the child in our kid’s class whose housing is insecure, a mentally ill family member who just can’t seem to hold down a job.
Poverty is far-reaching, and we all experience its side effects, whether in our own lives or in our neighbors’. The poverty of the mind, body, and spirit that often can accompany economic poverty can result in ignorance, apathy, disempowerment, and disenfranchisement.
Not healthy ingredients for democracies or communities.
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The good news: Brattleboro has many systems in place to serve people in need.
Groundworks Collaborative, along with partner organizations like Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, and Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), works to support our community members in meeting their basic needs: food, shelter, clothing.
In Groundworks’ inaugural year (2016), the organization provided:
• Emergency food assistance to 3,683 individuals.
• Emergency shelter to more than 300 individual adults and children.
• Support for 25 households in securing housing.
These impressive numbers illustrate the need in our community.
The vast majority of people Groundworks serves are from the greater Brattleboro area, or have significant ties to a vital support network here. Variables like low wages, low vacancy rates, high rents, and transportation issues make it very challenging for individuals to meet their basic needs. Consequently, more people need support from these agencies than the agencies have the capacity to provide.
Addressing panhandling, like addressing the symptoms of poverty, starts with acceptance.
Acceptance in this sense is not passive ambivalence but rather an acceptance that the people we see on the streets in this community are part of this community. Very often, solutions offered to panhandling are aimed at removing people and/or limiting their ability to ask for money.
Many locales, including Portland, Maine, have tried a panhandling ordinance, but that measure was ultimately ineffective as the police could not enforce it.
Asking someone for money is free speech — a constitutional right, which makes panhandling legal. The civil right of free speech is the supreme law of the land, making a town ordinance a gesture — a statement.
Some Brattleboro community members might choose to pursue an ordinance to communicate their frustration about and disapproval of panhandling. This does not address or solve the problem but might be effective in sending a message of intolerance, a community statement that we do not accept panhandling as a behavioral norm.
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It is worth highlighting a couple points about safety, and when law enforcement should be called if you have an encounter with someone panhandling.
• You feel unsafe: Someone is obstructing your path and personal space, someone asks you for money at an ATM or any other place where money may be exchanged (i.e. parking meters), someone asks you for money when you are entering/exiting a car, or if someone touches you or becomes belligerent.
• Also, at a private property owner’s request, police officers may issue a “Trespass After Warning Affidavit.” This affidavit is in effect once it has been served to the defendant. If the defendant returns to the property in violation of the warning, they will be arrested immediately and charged with “Trespass After Warning.”
Contrary to popular belief, a majority of police work is assisting with quality-of-life issues and not responding to criminal activity. Local law enforcement is committed to the safety of all Brattleboro citizens and is active and engaged in dialogue with the town’s many constituents and contrasting perspectives.
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How can we respond to panhandling as a community and as individuals?
One meta-answer is to alleviate poverty via economic development. Jobs provide steady income and routine — both necessary elements for confronting homelessness, addiction, or mental illness.
Paradoxically, downtown Brattleboro’s industry — primarily shopping, dining, and entertainment — is negatively affected by the presence of panhandlers. How can we bring in more customer dollars and, hence, more jobs, when many downtown establishment owners report with increasing frustration that panhandlers deter customers from entering their shops and restaurants, directly impacting their income?
One answer might be the inclusive approach piloted in places like Albuquerque, N.M. and Portland, Maine.
With Albuquerque’s “There Is a Better Way” program, a city van will drive around town and offer day work to people who are panhandling. Work projects include cleaning up parks and public spaces. Participants are fed breakfast and lunch, given a day’s wage, and provided an opportunity to connect with support services.
This model starts with the premise that everyone has something to offer the community, given an opportunity to do so. Creating opportunities for everyone to contribute will create a stronger, more vibrant Brattleboro.
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As individuals, we each must make a choice when asked for spare change. Whether that choice is to give what you can without worry, donate to organizations you trust, volunteer your time instead of offering money, or not give at all, your choice must feel aligned with your conscience and values.
This still doesn’t alleviate the discomfort many feel when confronted with the faces of poverty. We have developed a graphic to offer suggestions to those who “just don’t know what to say” when asked for spare change.
This approach is by no means prescriptive, just as there is no silver bullet to alleviate poverty.
However, one of our town’s greatest advantages is our tireless engagement in dialogue and our commitment to place and community.
We might not agree on how to deal with panhandling, but we can all agree on active citizenship.