Coordination, collaboration, and community
Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative.

Coordination, collaboration, and community

Panhandling is a symptom of a much larger series of overlapping problems, which requires a network of agencies starved for funding to help vulnerable people with basic human needs. Meanwhile, a community wrestles with balancing compassion with tolerance for uncivil behavior.

BRATTLEBORO — For those working on the front lines in various service agencies, the downtown reality of people who hang out downtown and sometimes ask for money is a symptom of larger, systemic problems.

A key question is how to see and define the problem, of which panhandling plays only a small role in the broader series of issues, including housing and income insecurity; psychiatric issues, including substance-use disorders; medical crises like overdoses; and crime, both petty and violent.

What one leader in Brattleboro called “a crisis” is, in fact, many very different crises for very different individuals affected in very different ways.

Those responding to this crisis might be trying to help an older man who is homeless and addicted to alcohol, a younger person recovering from opioid use and in need of secure housing and a job, and a single-parent family trying to make ends meet on multiple minimum-wage jobs.

Each has different needs and requires different services and supports.

A variety of social-service agencies are working on the underlying issues that pervade Brattleboro and other cities and towns in Vermont and nationwide.

One top priority: the challenge of coordination and collaboration - essentially, of making sure that the resources available are used in the most effective way possible.

Part of that is about creating adequate systems of coordination and communication, and work in this area is evidenced by a number of ongoing initiatives and by recent community forums. Another part has to do with making sure that resources are allocated in ways that make the most sense, given that resources will always be limited.

“I don't think we see anything that's all that different from anything else that happens in the rest of the country,” said Joshua Davis, executive director of the Groundworks Collaborative. “When we get hyper-focused on these conversations about Brattleboro and downtown Brattleboro, we forget that the same issues exist everywhere.”

Groundworks Collaborative plays a major role in addressing homelessness in Windham County.

According to 2018 statistics, the agency served more than 4,000 individuals through its various services.

This number included 3,773 people served through its food shelf. Groundworks shelter housed 57 households and helped 27 adults and 10 children transition to their own homes. The overnight shelter that operates in cold months served 157 from October to April.

* * *

On a warm Saturday afternoon stroll in Brattleboro, one might count as many as eight panhandlers.

But an estimated four times that number of people are scattered on downtown streets: sitting on stoops, congregated outside the Indo-European Grocer on Elliot Street, spending time outside the Flat Street entrance to the Transportation Center, or sitting on park benches in the small park across from the Co-op on the Whetstone Brook.

Some of them may be addicted to opiates, alcohol, or other substances.

Some may be on probation.

Some live in downtown apartments and have no jobs and no transportation, living on government subsidies.

Some are homeless and some may be housing insecure, with no permanent residence.

Some cycle in and out of the Brattleboro Retreat because of psychiatric disorders. Some may just be passing through, having heard that Brattleboro is a good place to stop on their travels.

On a recent afternoon, two reporters for The Commons witnessed a small drug deal cut in front of the Transportation Center and then enacted in a quick pick-up along the side of the building. A young woman raced up the stairs with a package, a young man close behind her. It is an everyday occurrence.

* * *

The array of needs represented simply by the downtown population keep police and emergency services busy. A recent public forum on addiction underscored how central opioid addiction is to the problems that the town faces [“Opioid crisis worsens, with no end in sight,” News, June 26].

At the same time, all of the problems associated with rural poverty, including housing and income insecurity, extend beyond the scourge of addiction that afflicts the region. Relative to that complex mix, the problem of panhandling downtown diminishes.

Through Project CARE, which is administered through the police department, officers work closely with other services such as Groundworks and the Brattleboro Retreat.

Sleeping outside on public or private property is illegal in town but such ordinances are not actively enforced unless a specific complaint is made.

When police get such a complaint, they coordinate with Groundworks to assure that the issue is addressed through a human-service approach rather than a criminal-justice one.

As a result, more than two years have passed since anyone was cited for violating the public camping ordinance.

Through Project CARE, the police department also assures that individuals arrested for drug offenses have the option of seeking treatment instead of going into the criminal justice system and winding up in jail.

A full-time social worker works with the police department and coordinates efforts closely with other agencies.

When Groundworks' winter overflow shelter is open, the Brattleboro Retreat provides a social worker to support efforts to provide services to guests in need.

Coordination between the Groundworks' shelter, the Retreat, the police department, and the emergency department at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital has become increasingly essential in the past two years because of the opioid crisis in Brattleboro and Windham County.

Across the state, Community of Care committees assemble representatives of different agencies to coordinate services and assure that basic needs like food and shelter are met without gaps that leave vulnerable people unsafe.

Emma Stewart, housing coordinator at Windham-Windsor Housing Trust, described how one challenge can be when resources are misaligned: when money is available for housing vouchers through government programs, but agencies at the local level do not have the resources to provide case management for supported housing.

Josh Davis described how in the past four years the shelter has gone from servicing “a group of primarily men, mostly older men [who are] struggling with chronic homelessness and alcoholism” to serving more homeless people addicted to opiates.

In the past year, the police frequently had to be called to address problems at the shelter.

“Someone who has had a bit too much to drink [would generally be] just going to sleep at night,” said Davis, “versus someone who is using heroin, [where] those behaviors often look more intense and included the issues fighting with each other. The needs we thought the shelter had really took a significant change.”

* * *

Groundworks depends on donations and grants, and it makes clear that it could use more resources, as could other organizations in town, from Brattleboro Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters, to Loaves and Fishes, Brigid's Kitchen, and Meals on Wheels.

Asked what would really help the current crisis in Brattleboro, Kurt White, director of outreach and ambulatory services at the Brattleboro Retreat, said half-jokingly, “Well, another $5 million for Groundworks would be nice.”

Social services in the area depend largely on charitable giving, though they do often receive foundation or government grants or via municipal appropriations at Annual Town Meeting. Every individual interviewed by The Commons who is involved in providing social services said that resources are an issue.

Asked directly about the question of resources, most leaders in the various agencies acknowledge that they could use more, but none put a dollar figure to the question.

Resources flow from national levels through the states, and in the past four decades, since the Reagan era, the kinds of open checkbooks implied in the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s have been steadily curtailed, while bureaucratic requirements for documentation and evidence of work and effort have increased.

“There is a popular misconception that there is something called welfare, and there is no welfare,” said Josh Davis. “If you have a family, they may be receiving...a benefit that gives them a few hundred dollars a month - that means you have children in your family.”

Individuals might qualify for $190 from the 3SquaresVT program - what people still think of as “food stamps.”

Beyond that, “If you're a single individual and you qualify, you may get $56 in personal needs money a month - $56, and that's it,” said Davis.

“So people who are flying a sign could be housed with a subsidy and have no other source of income, and so they're trying to meet their needs,” said Davis.

“As an agency, we are not able to meet the need for food; we have far more folks in need of our services than we have services and dollars to give them the food,” he said.

In a June 20 community forum on addiction, Dr. Kathleen McGraw, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital's Chief Medical Officer, posed a simple question: “Does our checkbook reflect our values?”

In response to a group of downtown businesses' efforts to discourage people from giving money directly to panhandlers and instead donating to local agencies, no service provider thought such an effort would have any impact on Brattleboro's actual needs.

For many service providers, the key element, beyond community involvement, is simply to see people who may be struggling in Windham County or on the streets of Brattleboro with dignity and respect for their personhood - to see them as members of the community, not as “the other.”

Asked at the recent community forum on addiction how to disentangle the web of various forces that create the town's population in need, Chad Simmons, project coordinator of the Brattleboro Consortium on Substance Abuse, had a simple answer.

“They're people,” he said. “People are people, and they want to belong.”

* * *

At the same forum, the topic of panhandling barely came up, but toward the end of the meeting, Larry Cassidy, a local landlord, approached the topic directly.

“There is a tremendous amount of confusion swirling around the town about this issue, obviously because of what we see in the room. There is also an issue of panhandling in the town,” he said.

“Part of the problem is that we are a pretty generous community. So my question is, and everyone is arguing about this, but when people are panhandling in town, are we helping the addiction by giving them money? Or are we not to give them money? Maybe show them where the soup kitchen is? What is the best thing that a person can do when they are approached on the street?”

Rhianna Kendrick, director of operations for Groundworks, responded (expostulating that “we couldn't get through an entire conversation without talking about panhandling”).

“We get this question a lot, and there isn't really a great answer and no single solution,” she said. “By giving someone money on the street, they may use it to purchase drugs. If you give them money, it is not that you are creating an addiction, you are not creating something that already exists. Somebody is trying to meet their needs.”

“Are you making it worse? It's doubtful,” she said.

“People are going to get their needs met in whatever way they are working to get them. I think it comes down to a bit of a personal values choice. It's about acknowledging people and making a connection.”

Selectboard Chair Brandie Starr, an outreach worker for Groundworks, recommended simple human connection.

“What I would recommend is if somebody approaches you on the street, you say, 'Hello, how are you today? What's going on for you today?' and then the next time you see them on the street, you say, 'How did that issue resolve for you that you were dealing with yesterday?'

“Because just as they might sometimes not feel human to some mainstream members of the community, because of the way we choose to show hostility and apathy, we then are not human to them either,” Starr said.

“The bridge needs to be built both ways,” Starr said. “So ask them their name and what they're dealing with and if you want to give them money, do. And if you don't want to give them money, don't.”

* * *

For those on the front lines of this issue, the need to work tirelessly on behalf of disadvantaged people seems a given.

For others in the community, it can be a more difficult question.

At the forum, one speaker who identified herself as an employee of the Brattleboro Food Co-op described the ways in which these problems impact those who work at the business.

“Are there services for those of us who work in the community, like us at the Co-op?” she asked. “We have people coming in and using in our bathrooms, we have had overdoses, we have staff traumatized by walking in on an overdose because someone is bleeding from the back of their head from falling down. So how do we recognize some of the symptoms? Are there resources for us?”

“While I understand the necessity of being a compassionate community, I have a family member struggling with addiction, and it is also affecting my family as we speak,” the employee said.

“There is a distinction between being compassionate and being tolerant of uncivil behavior which is happening right outside of our door,” she said.

“ I want to know how to get involved coming out of this,” she said. “I see these people every day. What kind of groups are going to get formed? And how can those of us who live and work in this town become involved so that we can help all of you who are doing this work do what is going to be necessary to be sustainable, so we don't have this conversation again five years from now?”

There are no easy answers, but the frictions that exist between different perspectives may lead to better solutions.

“It's really all about community,” said one forum participant, commenting on the question of civility and what civil behavior is. “It's really about community and how we all exist together.”

Toward the end of the forum, Peter “Fish” Case acknowledged ways in which things have stayed the same or gotten worse for Brattleboro.

“Five years ago and one month almost to the day, I also moderated and co-hosted a forum about opioid addiction,” Case said. “What I learned tonight is that the problem has gotten bigger.”

“We might all go home, flick on the TV, we might talk about it, but what are you going to do when you wake up tomorrow? Are you going to stay in the fight? Are you going to say, 'Nah, these guys got it'?” said Case, referring to the panel.

“These people just can't do this alone,” Case said. “If we continue to show up, we will continue to move the needle.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates