In response to ongoing conversations about visible inequity in our downtown, I feel compelled to add my perspective.
There is much consternation about the state of our downtown and there has been for a while now. I share that concern and agree that we should be extremely bothered by what we see happening: people camping at the Transportation Center, sleeping outside, suffering from the ravages of addiction.
However, my anger is not directed at the people on the street, but at the systems that are broken and continue to produce homelessness, poverty, and chronically escalating economic inequity.
What we are experiencing in Brattleboro is not unique to this community — in regard to both the specter of poverty and the effects of addiction. The people struggling to meet their most basic needs are also not the primary reason that our downtown is a precarious economic environment — that is a much-too-simplistic analysis of the economic struggles of small, rural communities nationwide.
We should be angry — angry that polarity and division are threatening to infect our town. This I see as the greater threat to where we live than the fact that we have visible signs of poverty on the doorstep of the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
The people who are on the streets are as much a part of Brattleboro as I am. As such, any policy solution whose goal is focused on just getting people off the streets is not a solution at all. It is an acquiescence of responsibility and an alignment with an inequitable system that continues to produce what we are currently experiencing.
Why are things getting worse? Just to name a couple of broad factors that impact what we are experiencing in our town: we have recovered from the Great Recession in broad economic indicators, but a closer look shows that people at the bottom of our economy are faring worse than before it hit. In other words, the U.S.’s longstanding problem of economic inequity is not only persisting but getting worse.
Additionally, we are in the midst of a full-blown health crisis — the opioid epidemic — that has been primarily facilitated by large pharmaceutical companies. As conspiratorial as that sounds, it is fact, with the recent judgment against Johnson & Johnson for its role in promoting opioids with reckless abandon.
Blaming those impacted is not only unfair but also will not solve anything. Nor is it enough to stand by — in the name of compassion — and politely watch as people suffer and our streets become de facto refugee camps.
We, as a community, need to demand better for all who live here. Systemic factors push vulnerable individuals into homelessness and addiction; only thoughtful, compassionate, and systemic interventions will help people get out of that space.
Our policies must be laser-focused on fast-tracking housing, creative opioid overdose prevention and treatment options, employment, and support. Only that approach will get people off of our streets.
That is a vision of people no longer loitering on our streets that we can, and should, all get behind.