Downtown, through the lens of the business community
Robert “Woody” Woodworth operates Burrow’s Specialized Sports, a longtime downtown business.

Downtown, through the lens of the business community

Observations from stewards of four businesses

Robert Woodworth, Burrows Specialized Sports

Robert “Woody” Woodworth is the owner of Burrows Specialized Sports on Main Street in Brattleboro. Over the years, Woodworth, a Windham County native who lives in town, has contributed to the community in many ways, from his long-time role on the School Board to the support that his store offers to sports teams at the local schools.

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My experience goes back to the 1950s. The panhandling and homeless situation has been much more visible, especially in recent years. It is a frustrating thing in many ways, because those of us who have been in Brattleboro, and love Brattleboro, want to see it thrive and also want to be able to help people who need help.

The challenge is sorting out those who really need the help versus those just coming in.

We are a compassionate community. We have a lot of people who need help, and the frustrating thing is more people coming in to take advantage of the system. We have a lot of folks already here who we need to be helping out, as opposed to helping everyone who comes up from wherever.

There are some individuals who would ask for water or said they needed some money for a cup of coffee. Frequently, someone says they need a bus ticket.

In response, I say, “OK, well, let's go down to the bus station, I'll buy you a bus ticket,” or I'll go into the grocery store on Elliot Street or offer to get them some water from the Hotel Pharmacy. All of a sudden, the interest isn't there.

It's also frustrating when you hear the stories about how down at the [Brattleboro Food] Co-op [there are] people giving some of these individuals food and that's not what they want, so the food gets dumped.

I am flexible about people sitting on my steps, and I have talked to them. They would sometimes mention being willing to work. I've had people do odd jobs for me for a period of time. I had one person I employed upstairs in my building to do some painting.

It works out until something happens. In one case, it was an overdose. The nature of their lives is that they are always shifting around, and I've not had anyone turn into a long-term employee.

My experience with the people holding signs is that they are very polite. They are not being aggressive or bullying. I guess it is disquieting when they are all gathering in one place, but there are a lot of other things going on downtown, in my opinion, that are more disquieting than the panhandlers. I think those other things might have more of an impact on our business.

When there are a lot of people on the street, it gets diffused. I don't see it [the panhandling] as a major deterrent; people still come downtown, especially on the weekends. But I do think it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Sabine Rhyne and Jon Megas-Russell, Brattleboro Food Co-op

The Brattleboro Food Co-op started as a small buying club in 1975 and has now grown to be a 14,580-square-foot market in downtown Brattleboro. People often congregate in the park on the Whetstone Brook across from the parking lot, and it is common to find people panhandling there.

Sabine Rhyne has been with the Co-op since 2011 and has worked as general manager since 2014. She was accompanied to the interview by Jon Megas-Russell, the grocery's marketing director since 2015.

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We tend to be a little bit of a collection point in many ways, naturally, because of our position in downtown. Because we are a business that interacts with our community and is a community partner, it is our position to be a leader.

We have participated in the conversations that the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance has had around these issues, and we have been a gathering place for the group that meets here with various representatives to try to resolve these issues.

We are a welcoming marketplace and we want the Brattleboro Food Co-op to be warm, respectful, welcoming, and safe for everyone who comes here to shop, hang out in the café, etc. But we have had situations when people are using in the bathrooms or you know, stealing product, or just creating an environment that feels unsafe by being aggressive.

And that is where we draw the line. We want to protect our assets and our greatest asset is our staff.

Our team takes a social-justice approach with folks, which comes about when someone has usually infringed on us - for example, theft. Such people are usually pretty good candidates for restorative justice, especially if they are fighting an addiction. It feels to us that this path that is open to them through the restorative justice panels might be more successful for their health than the path through the courts.

We have worked with Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shiver and Mel Motel from the Brattleboro Community Justice Center. We've gotten the police to agree. We have a memo of understanding around this. And we have been able to propose restorative justice as an alternative option.

So let's say that someone gets served with no-trespass papers - we wish there were a better way to say that - they have this other option, and they have some time to think about taking the restorative-justice approach.

Should they choose to exercise that option and fulfill their obligation, then they don't need to go through the courts. So it is a choice but with a time limit.

Our first rule is not to stigmatize or call anybody out. We don't target services to anyone, but we try to figure out how to meet people as best we can where they are.

Dante Corsano, Gallery in the Woods

Dante Corsano has lived in Marlboro since the early 1980s. He and his wife, Suzanne, have run art-focused businesses and galleries in downtown Brattleboro for the past 18 years.

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This is not something that just erupted that is unique to Brattleboro. I identify it as a spiritual issue. I became aware of different things going on in society, and it struck me that there are some big problems and big discrepancies. The monetary structures of our society that were put in place are not working for everyone.

There were big issues that needed and started to be discussed during the '60s - civil rights, women's rights, poverty, all big topics.

Every one of those topics is still an issue that has not been resolved. Black people are still getting shot sitting in their cars, women are regularly being mistreated, poverty is as bad as it's ever been.

Here we are, 50 and 60 years later. And while there have been some changes, these are all still issues.

There are also so many people living paycheck to paycheck. Your car breaks down, you get sick, your wife or girlfriend gets sick, or your husband leaves, and you can't make ends meet. You can't make your rent, maybe you don't have enough food, and maybe you have kids. And maybe you have a mental-health issue that perhaps triggers a drug problem - any number of things that have someone who goes from just making it to really not being able to make it.

It's our whole system - it's educational, economic, spiritual.

You need to have at least a decent life. People are not receiving what they need and are unable to cope. It is a hard world out there.

When I grew up, it was never better than the '50s or the '60s in terms of the opportunities. I was 20 years old, I could make a living, I could buy a house being a carpenter. It's all escalated. There was the huge housing bust in 2008, when a lot of people lost homes and lost their money.

These are all bigger factors contributing to why more and more people are falling through the cracks. There is not enough money for food stamps; they want to cut services. Yeah, sure, there are people who want to game the system, but look at all the laws: they are made for people with property and wealth. For someone who is poor, they do not benefit from the current structure.

I don't think a lot of people who are in vulnerable positions - mental health, drugs, alcoholism, etc. - have the tools to work their way out of it. It's like they are in a dead end.

I think that downtown has gotten this bad rap because of a scenario that goes something like this: Imagine you are trying to make a living, and there is a big guy who is unfortunately dirty and he is blocking the way for you to make your living.

This happens with some regularity. I don't have a problem or issue with him. It's the systems that are not in place to assist a lot of these folks in sorting themselves out.

The resources are not sufficient for the problem, and I think it is only getting worse.

Jon Potter, LatchisArts

Jon Potter has been the executive director of LatchisArts - the nonprofit umbrella that owns the historic Latchis building on Main Street and operates its theater and hotel - since 2014 and for 11 years served as the arts editor for the Brattleboro Reformer.

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History - and I think science as well - says that we are inclined to be helpful, and many of us were raised that way. So when we are presented with people in distress, one of our natural inclinations is to want to help.

Speaking as a community member, what's really challenging is I don't know how to help. I don't know what that help looks like.

The other thing that makes this very uncomfortable for people is that we also have a natural inclination to extrapolate stories and to draw conclusions from very quick assessments of what we think we are seeing of a situation. We may judge books by their covers, and that's not helpful to us as a community, our compassion, and our solutions to this problem, which I think is really not one problem.

And what we see is often a multilayered and multifaceted set of problems. For example, if someone sees someone who is in distress and asking for money, people might jump to the assumption that they are enabling a drug abuser to continue abusing drugs. That may or may not be the story.

Concurrent with our inclination to help is also, I think, an inclination for people to avoid pain and avoid discomfort.

It is easiest for many people - when confronted with a panhandler or a scene on the street, a gathering of people that makes them feel uncomfortable - to pull away from that, to close off.

When we are confronted directly with human suffering, it makes us uncomfortable. It inherently places us in conflict in a very deep way with who we are, how we are raised, and how we deal with it.

What does that mean for people? Does that mean always giving a buck or two to someone who asks for money? What does it mean to say no or close yourself off to the person in your community asking for help?

We don't know what the problem really is. We're only seeing the symptom and end results without seeing the causes.

Speaking on behalf of the Latchis, we are very proud of the fact that we are positioned right downtown, and it is one of our main selling points. Being positioned in the heart of downtown is a wonderful thing for our hotel guests. So if that is going to be one of our advantages, this means that we are going to have to live with everything that that comes with. We can't say, “We are great, except we have these downtown problems in our backyard.” We need to take where we are in total, in its complete package.

My perception is that the volume level has been turned up. These conversations weren't happening, and now they are. I do think that in terms of meeting the needs of the homeless population, there is a body of evidence and illustrations of successful work in other communities that simply providing a home - whether it is micro-housing, tiny housing, co-housing - is such an effective tool, one that is cost-effective as well. Even if the person faces other challenges, the evidence shows that providing a home to someone who does not have a place to live is a successful strategy.

Flipping it around, maybe we're very fortunate as a community that we have this situation - we still have a thriving downtown. Maybe we're fortunate that our community hasn't been more changed and negatively impacted than it has been. I think we are uniquely and happily poised to forge as much positive out of this as any community can.

This is something that is quintessentially Brattleboro. We can be dealing with all of these issues, and we can say that we may be able to forge something positive out of this.

Let's be leaders in this; let's be really good at this. Let's be a community that other people look to as a community that approaches this the right way.

We are not going to fix everybody's problem, but let's provide as much help as we possibly can to everyone who is affected by this - which is all of us. Let's deal with this in a way that makes us proud.

We have the mental-health-support infrastructure in place; we have compassionate law enforcement in place. We have a still-thriving downtown and social-service organizations. We have a community that has compassion and caring wired into it, along with a lot of different belief systems that have compassion at their core.

We have a lot of the pieces in place to address these challenges.

Imagine the communities that don't have these things in place?

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