A direct negative impact on our economic sustainability
In Brattleboro, solicitation on the sidewalk is a familiar sight.

A direct negative impact on our economic sustainability

Those of us working downtown witness the negative reverberations of our community’s generosity to those asking for money on our streets. We are enabling continued drug use, alcohol abuse, and emotionally out-of-control exchanges.

BRATTLEBORO — The time has come for civilian community action. Our town's culture is in danger of being defined by the opioid crisis and there is only so much the local authorities can do. We need to do something ourselves as a community.

Addiction is here in Brattleboro, and those of us working downtown are bearing witness to the negative reverberations of our community's generosity to those asking for money on our streets. These individuals range from opportunists to truly homeless or troubled souls. They are not all in one category.

However, we are enabling behavior that none of us wants: continued drug use, alcohol abuse, and emotionally out-of-control exchanges on our streets.

These drug-and-alcohol-induced behaviors are having a harmful impact on those who live and work downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. They are affecting our public safety (both real and perceived) which, in turn, is affecting our ability to attract visitors and future residents, who are critical if we are to generate desperately needed economic growth for the greater Brattleboro area.

This behavior is having a direct negative impact on the economic sustainability of our downtown business district, the jobs within our downtown district, our local area property values, and our quality of life.

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The hard facts are murky.

Some locals claim that individuals on our streets are collecting from $250 to $400 or more per person per day, but whatever they actually bring in, it is lucrative enough that when local business owners offer these individuals episodic work for as much as $20 per hour, they decline because they claim they can make more on the street.

There are reports that cars with out-of-state plates are driving people into our town to panhandle here, and that there are an increased number of individuals living on our streets from out of town.

On Tuesday, May 7, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA) held a meeting that included representatives from the police, Project Care, the Windham County Consortium on Substance Abuse, Groundworks, Community Organizing Effort, and town government. After the reports, there was a lengthy, passionate and concerned discussion.

We learned many important things at this meeting:

• There is truth in all of the above claims from the gossip mill, but the exact statistics are not known.

• The increased panhandling and number of homeless people on our streets here is an element of the larger opioid epidemic hammering all of New England and much of the nation.

• The number of local deaths from opioid overdose has tripled in two years in Brattleboro, and many of the individuals living on the streets are locals who have recently crossed over into opioid addiction.

• The Brattleboro police are working with local programs to try to help individuals move toward recovery rather than just continuing the cycle of arrest-release-wash-and-repeat.

• The police are understaffed (they cannot fill available positions), and while they are trying to have more of a presence downtown, they need more officers.

• Giving money to panhandlers is not the ideal way to help. In fact, the opposite is true. We need to give the money to the local programs like Project Care, Turning Point, and Groundworks which are dedicated to helping.

• Affordable housing and access to work is critical to helping individuals move beyond drug addiction and into a new way of living.

• Connection is the way to reach these individuals on the street; their ability to move on is not a straight or reliable path. They need support, friendly faces, and more than one chance to make a change.

• All the local business owners reported that their customers regularly complain of the panhandling and that their customers are not comfortable in the public parking areas, particularly in the evenings and, most notably, the Harmony Lot and the Transportation Center.

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Many members of the downtown business community are now actively working to change the culture on our streets. We have begun to put some things in motion, but our efforts will be futile without your support and involvement.

We must, all of us, stop giving money directly to individuals on the street and instead give our quarters, dimes, dollars, and checks directly to Project Care, Turning Point, or Groundworks.

We are working on a plan to have well-placed locked receptacles on the street and posters and collection cans in all local businesses willing to accept donations. You will be able to identify them, because they will say “Give a Hand/Not a Handout.”

We are also working on programming that will generate the positive energy we want for our town. We are actively scheduling artists of all kinds to perform on our sidewalks. We believe that investing in a fun and creative atmosphere downtown is the best way to articulate what is important to Brattleboro.

It is a start, but much more could be done.

We could raise money to create a position for one or two individuals to be a presence on our streets, to help with cleanup and plantings, and to act as a liaison among business owners, residents, individuals living on the streets, and the police.

We could raise money for signage, ads, public service announcements, and educational materials so that residents and visitors all understand what we are working to accomplish.

We know that we all want all of our community members to feel safe and well, that we all want to help those who are struggling, and that we all want to stop the opioid epidemic.

We have the ability as a community to really help those in need and to take back our downtown, but we need to act together and we need to act now.

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