Flying signs
A discarded sign at the Whetstone Walkway. The pedestrian bridge linking Flat Street to the Brattleboro Food Co-op has served as the backdrop for a wide range of street activity, including public solicitation of money.

Flying signs

Brattleboro’s tensions over panhandling bring to the surface discussions about how to share the streets with people in need — and how to balance compassion, safety, and community in the process

BRATTLEBORO — She gave her name as Sara and said that she was homeless. Night had fallen in early November. She was holding a polite sign asking for money if anyone could help. She was standing next to one of the parking ticket booths in the Harmony Lot.

The weather was close to freezing, and the overnight shelter had not yet opened for the season. She was wearing just a light jacket.

Sara said she was from Rutland but had lived in Brattleboro for about eight years. She said she had two children, a 7-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, but they did not live with her because she is unhoused.

“My ex kind of messed up my life a little bit,” she said. “He was a drug addict, and he screwed up our money a little bit...a lot of bit.”

She was hesitant as she talked. She wasn't entirely blaming her ex, she said: “It takes two to tango.”

“I can't say that I haven't had problems with drugs in the past, because I have had,” she said. “Life is hard, and it is easy to do things that aren't socially acceptable when it's like that.”

Sara said that she no longer uses drugs and barely drinks. Beyond that, she did not want to say much about her past.

“My story's still untold at this point,” she said. “I still have a hard time with it myself - my struggles and whatnot, what I've gone through. I'm not ready to go there.”

Sara talked about how difficult it is to live the way she is living right now.

“It's hard, it's cold. It's getting cold,” she said. “It's sad. Depressing, Lonely. Tiring. Lonely.”

Sara said that she had been camping out some nights, but she didn't have a tent.

“It's supposed to get down to freezing tonight,” she said, “and there's no other option but sleeping outside or getting a hotel room for the night. That's why I've been standing outside with my sign all day, trying to get enough money.”

“It's hard.”

* * *

In warm weather, the small downtown area can be overrun with people asking for money, although there are never more than a half dozen or so actual panhandlers. There are also a lot of people on the streets, hanging out at places like the Transportation Center, the Whetstone Pathway, or on stoops on Main Street or Elliot Street, who are not necessarily asking for money, but simply make up part of street life in Brattleboro.

For more than two years, the question of panhandling has been a hot topic of conversation, one that often divides the town.

In recent years, the word “panhandling” has mushroomed from its objective definition, becoming a loaded code word in public discourse for many challenges facing the town, the largest in southeastern Vermont.

For some people close to the streets, the term “panhandling” is pejorative. In their view, “flying a sign” is the better way to talk about those who ask for money on the street. Anti-poverty advocates are fiercely protective of clients and urge compassion and human kindness. They say the vast majority of people seeking money do so from severe and unambiguous economic need.

For others, the influx of people who hang out on the streets and sometimes ask for money is a problem that enables bad choices and drug use for people who are not getting available help or shelter - and in the process, drives potential customers from a downtown that depends on a certain amount of traffic from visitors.

A recent Open Letter published in The Commons from 23 people associated with 18 local businesses (their names were withheld as a condition of publication) underscored that concern as it urged people to stop giving money to people who ask for it on the street and to redirect charitable energy to local human-services nonprofits like Groundworks.

Many people in the area say that multiple people asking for money on the streets and in the parking lots is mainly a nuisance, but one that makes them tend to stay away from downtown if they can.

Wistful nostalgia for a different Brattleboro of years gone by also emerges in various threads on local Facebook groups and pages. Such discussions often take antagonistic turns.

Laws do protect citizenry against harassment and assault. “If someone downtown follows, harasses, or threatens you, please call the police,” the department advised on Facebook in 2018. “Give your name and number so an officer can get a statement from you.”

But there is no law against asking for money on the street. The Selectboard repealed a century-old anti-begging ordinance last fall, after the American Civil Liberties Union alerted the town that court precedent had made such laws unconstitutional.

Talking to people on public property - even when that speech comes in the form of asking others for money - is an expression of free speech, a right squarely covered by the First Amendment.

“In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015) that laws that discriminate against speech on their face or in their purpose are considered content-based and are subject to strict scrutiny,” according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia, a project of the Free Speech Center and the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies.

That decision, the encyclopedia explains, “has had an impact on panhandling litigation, as the lower courts have invalidated numerous panhandling laws as impermissible content-based restrictions on speech.”

In 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Norton v. City of Springfield, a ruling that overturned Springfield, Illinois' panhandling ordinance as unconstitutional.

“Springfield's ordinance banned only oral requests for immediate money but did not address signs requesting money or oral requests for money later,” the encyclopedia explained.

While there may be no pride in flying a sign, from some perspectives there is no shame, either. Advocates and service providers underscore the systemic factors that lead people to asking for money, and emphasize that all individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

At a recent forum on addiction in Brattleboro, when asked how to differentiate between various sectors of the vulnerable population (people who are homeless, people who have substance abuse disorders, etc.), Chad Simmons, Project Coordinator of the Windham County Consortium on Substance Use, simply said not to.

“They're people,” he said.

Most residents agree, in opinion pieces, on social media pages, and in interviews, that the current situation downtown in terms of people asking for money and just hanging out, sometimes cutting drug deals on the side streets, jeopardizes the town's image and its economy in a way that damages the town's well-being.

In conversations over the course of more than a year of reporting for this Special Focus, almost everyone agrees that something must be done and that the issue is, first and foremost, a humanitarian issue that merits a compassionate response.

But achieving a common perspective is still a work in progress.

Sometimes it seems that the one thing that everyone can agree on is that the problems are real.

* * *

For many local business owners, the presence of what can sometimes seem like an urban street life in downtown is a challenge to the image they want to project.

For the local economy, which depends partly on millions of dollars of revenues from tourism, which in turn are spread throughout the county and the state, the impact feels severe.

For those on the front lines of dealing with the problems Brattleboro faces, the question of panhandling is relatively minor beside the chronic issues of insecure and unaffordable housing, homelessness, food insecurity, and mental health disorders, especially substance abuse and the crime that often is associated with the opioid epidemic.

No one in the discussion would disagree that the challenge of how to serve those in need is difficult. Anyone directly involved in managing the current crisis will note that the problems Brattleboro faces play out at a level that is nationwide and deeply embedded in the local region.

One need not travel much farther than Bellows Falls, Rutland, Greenfield or Northampton, Mass., or Hinsdale or Keene, N.H., to know that the challenges that Brattleboro faces are endemic in the region.

* * *

John and Anna live outdoors in Greenfield, Mass. They camp in the woods around the town. In the winter, they used the local shelter only when it got really cold.

Anna is Inuit, from Alaska, and she had come to Greenfield because she had relatives there. She had housing for a while, but her boyfriend began to beat her up and finally got arrested.

Things basically just fell apart. She lost her housing.

She met John on the streets. They decided to be a team.

John said he had had a lot of experience in trucking and in housing development work, but he also had had some trouble and lost everything he had. He told a long story about how he had wound up homeless in Greenfield that involved some illegal activity that he felt was unfairly blamed on him.

He described how vulnerable it is to be in Greenfield because of the addicts there. He and Anna shared a tent in a private area, and he knew how to keep a camp. He said that she raised her own money panhandling and that he didn't panhandle himself, since he had some government money.

John said that he worried that when people thought they had any money they might come and try to rob them in their tent. He said that he kept a lead pipe and a hammer next to his bedroll. He was a strong man in his physical appearance, and as he described how he had fought off three addicts just a couple of nights before, it was easy to see that he was capable of it.

He was proud of how he had fought them off, but the day he was interviewed he also said he was worried that they would come back again, maybe in greater force.

* * *

For most of us, the challenges and questions can seem confusing and complex.

No one wants to be accosted and asked for money while doing something as simple as trying to pay for parking while rushing to a downtown meeting. In Facebook groups, many people who live in Brattleboro's surrounding suburban towns have declared that they never go downtown anymore if they can help it.

Tourists who come to Main Street still find a warm and welcoming, even uniquely interesting, place.

One visitor who lives in a rural town outside of New York City and runs a major landscaping business there recently said how much he and his wife had enjoyed just wandering through the town, trying out the restaurants, shopping at Sam's, and sampling some of the local brews.

Another visitor, a poet who has traveled to the area several times with her family, echoed those sentiments, saying she would love to live in Brattleboro.

Many locals would have advised these visitors not to wander too far up the side streets on the lower end of town. And plenty of posts linger on social media from people who say they won't come back to Brattleboro because what they found was not what they expected.

It is clear that many, if not most, local residents of the downtown area want things to change. Inside that desire lies the fundamental complexity of what the real problem is and what can be done.

Panhandling can seem the most visible and sometimes irritating sign of Brattleboro's challenges, but more than a year of research and reporting by The Commons made clear that people asking for money in public is simply the visible surface of varied and much deeper underlying problems.

* * *

Mike said that he has been homeless on and off for a long time. He has spent 30 years in the area, including seven years in prison, an experience he didn't want to talk about.

He said that he had worked manual labor for much of his life, but also had often struggled with addiction to alcohol, and never managed to hold a steady job for more than a few years. He said that there had been times when he was doing really well, but then some other things happened.

Mike said he was old enough that he received some money from the government, but not enough to live on - much less afford a home.

He said that he had family and friends in the area where he could sometimes stay, and that he also stayed in the shelter on most nights when it was open.

Unsteady and holding a beer can, Mike talked about how his needs were basically met. He said that by eating the free food at shelters and by scrimping and saving his government allotment, he could get his beer and cigarettes.

Sometimes when he runs short, he will panhandle.

“I don't like panhandling,” Mike said. “It demoralizes me.”

* * *

Most of those interviewed by The Commons agreed that the problems that the town faces don't have any easy solution, at least not at the local level. Most of what drives the town's local challenges stems from forces beyond its control.

That hasn't stopped a variety of people from offering their perspectives in all sorts of venues.

In Facebook groups that reporters for The Commons followed daily for more than five months, posts about the incidence of petty crime in Brattleboro often bring comments that talk about using guns against intruders. Other comments talk about giving or buying food for a panhandler rather than giving them money as the best way to do the right thing.

One Facebook user was furious after buying food for someone who was hungry - a person who then took that food and threw it into the Whetstone Brook.

“Anyone who thinks that someone asking for money is doing it because they are hungry is just naïve,” said Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzpatrick.

In interviews with more than 20 panhandlers, most agreed.

“You can always find food,” said one. “The only problem is knowing what the schedule is.”

People who ask for money on downtown streets are seeking to meet personal needs.

Their motives have little to do with the food insecurity that afflicts many families who are stretched thin by low wages and high costs (see sidebar).

Those who ask passers-by for money on the street overwhelmingly told The Commons that they just want money, and they want to be able to spend it how they want - often for necessities like soap and deodorant, which are not covered by government programs. And the reality is that some are also raising funds for cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs.

* * *

Peter was standing next to the ticket machine in the Harmony Lot on a late winter day as it was going on toward dusk. His sign said that he was homeless, willing to work, and would appreciate any help.

He was worn and haggard, but still with the build of a man in his late 30s or early 40s. He looked like he knew how to take care of himself.

Peter was happy to talk. He said he had been in pretty good shape, with a wife and a good job working carpentry and construction. But then his wife left him, and he began drinking heavily. Still, he was working until he was injured on a job and messed up his hip and leg.

The medical and household situations knocked him out of the life he had been living, and it took about eight months for him to heal. By the time he was well enough to work, his finances had fallen apart.

At that point, he did not care so much about anything.

Peter said that his drinking went out of control. He wound up without a home.

He shifts around from crashing on the couches of friends - as he said he would do that night - and sleeping outside. In cold weather, he stays at the seasonal overnight shelter.

Peter said that he was willing to work but that holding a regular job felt beyond him. One of his big issues was getting his legal identification back together. He said he was getting help with that hurdle from local social services.

He said that sometimes he would get a painting or carpentry job, but not enough to amount to a sustainable living. Worse, he said that customers have sometimes ripped him off - because they could, and they knew it. He said that he wanted to be able to find work, at least on a day basis, but there was no really good way to do so.

Asked about how he took care of himself, he said that you can always get food in Brattleboro - you just have to know the schedules, which aren't always easy to find.

* * *

With three interstate exits just over the Massachusetts border, ski areas north and west, and summer homes strewn throughout Windham County, downtown businesses and restaurants rely to some extent on tourist business, and the town is a gateway to Vermont from places like Boston and the New York metropolitan area. The quaint, artsy town is a center for the arts in southern Vermont.

The downtown area depends on tourist trade, with many of the stores and restaurants catering to people with means - or at the very least depending on them being a substantial part of their clientele.

Advocating for and supporting the businesses and the well-being of the commercial and community environment in the downtown is the nonprofit Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.

As part of the town's participation in the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development's Designated Downtown program, the DBA is the official designated downtown organization for Brattleboro. As such, it is funded by downtown landlords and business owners, and other business organizations through a special property tax assessment. With the help of the DBA and volunteers, the town is well-decorated and inviting, with flowers and holiday lights.

Hundreds of people work in downtown spaces like banks and hardware stores and so on, and the property and sales taxes that come into the town help fund essential services.

The voices of downtown business owners have been strong in the complex discussion that takes places within the town's various public forums, including Selectboard meetings and the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook page.

From the perspective of those who rely on downtown businesses, the present situation in Brattleboro needs to be improved.

Dick DeGray has been a strong voice for downtown business owners. DeGray is a former selectboard member, and his wife, Missy Galanes, owns a tourist-oriented shop on Main Street, selling items like Vermont apparel, memorabilia, and goods.

Last fall, DeGray asked that the Brattleboro Police Department provide more of a presence downtown. In the months following the meeting, the department did so, assigning more patrols and also having police park downtown sometimes while doing paperwork. DeGray noted the improvement in a following Selectboard meeting.

DeGray told The Commons that the impact of panhandling on business downtown is hard to gauge, and he said that the increased police presence was beneficial.

“There is a difference between homelessness and panhandling,” he said. “What there is, is an uptick in aggressive panhandling, and I have heard from several local people who are frustrated that when they were parking their car they were verbally harassed.”

“I am concerned for the town,” said DeGray, “and I am concerned for the homeless.”

* * *

Late last summer, Timothy said that he was homeless and would be staying in town for a while before moving along to a place where he had some friends and could spend the winter.

He said that he had come to Brattleboro because of its reputation as a good place to be when the weather was warm, with good resources and available food.

A man in his late 40s, Timothy had a good set of gear, including a new backpack and a tent. He said he had been without a permanent home for about 10 years.

He said that he had served three tours in the military, but had not seen combat. Timothy said that his own homelessness and traveling had nothing to do with being a veteran, though he said that along the way he had met other vets whose struggles stemmed directly from their experiences in war.

Timothy said that he had been doing well after he readjusted from his service. He was working a management job in the south, one connected to real estate and housing developments. He said he was making as much as $80,000 a year at one point. He had had a wife and daughter - and a home.

His life took a tragic turn when his daughter was killed in an accident when she was 11.

Timothy and his wife started to have troubles together. He started drinking. He fell apart enough that he lost his job.

His wife left him at about the same time, and the house went to her in the settlement.

Timothy said that he basically didn't care about much after that; he didn't try to put anything back together and be stable again.

He started traveling instead, trying to avoid places where it was cold.

He received government assistance - enough to get by, but not enough to live on.

He worked a bit from time to time. And he began panhandling when he needed to.

Timothy was stopping through Brattleboro, planning to spend a few weeks before it started to get colder.

On this day, he was sitting on a bench outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op, holding a sign, though he wasn't working it very hard.

Timothy talked about how he had traveled to a lot of places across the United States. It seemed like his plan was to keep doing so.

When asked on this warm afternoon where he planned to sleep, he said that he was all set up to camp out once he could find a safe and private place.

* * *

Sometimes in public discourse, the battle lines can seem drawn. After going through material from more than 60 interviews, hours of Selectboard meetings, and thousands of Facebook posts and comments, it is clear that Brattleboro is divided in complex ways on the topic.

Brattleboro is, by self-declaration, a “compassionate town.” It claims to enact a set of values and principles that are compassionate in their intent. It is clear that most people fall into a sort of middle ground - wanting to help but confused by the challenge of knowing how best to do so.

For some who believe fundamentally that no one should be poor or homeless, the real problem is the idea that the choice is between different forms of charity rather than a national discussion that begins with the presumption that everyone's basic needs should be met.

For many others, the question of personal responsibility comes into play. Many posters in Facebook groups question why able-bodied panhandlers can't simply get work in a town that has so many open jobs. A recent Voices pieces in The Commons talked at length about the writer's personal experience as someone who came from a large family without means, and had worked hard his whole life to accomplish what he had.

Sometimes the dividing lines between those who argue for support, services, and dignity, and those who express concerns that compassion becomes a term to justify coddling and enabling, seem as stark as the political lines that divide the nation.

For many, the central issue is how to assure that we see all people in humane ways and not marginalize, stigmatize, or categorize those whose lives have brought them to this place.

For some, the problem of panhandling cuts close to their sense of what it means to own property or run a business in Brattleboro.

* * *

In a post last winter in the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group, a local landlord put up a photograph of two people sleeping on the stoop of his building on Elliott Street. He expressed his dismay at the sight, when he came in to open his storefront, and said that he paid $45,000 per year in property taxes and expected better from the town.

The poster likened the sight to seeing two heaps of garbage - a quote that resonated with one commenter, who recalled how homeless people in Manhattan in the 1980s would disguise themselves as garbage within piles of trash bags in order not to be harassed while they slept.

The post was later taken down, but not before it elicited more than 100 comments and replies.

Most of the commentary was negative - but not all.

“There are two sides to every story,” said one commentator. “While I agree that his taxes are irrelevant to the problem and no one should be sleeping on the sidewalk, it is a problem for all sides.”

Another commentator said that he was homeless seven to eight months of the year, yet he sided with the property owner.

“There are a lot of places to sleep other than someone's business entrance,” he said. “Just because you are homeless does not mean that you stop respecting people and their property.”

Another said that “as long as you are looking at homelessness as a property owner's issue, then vulnerable people are going to get bull-dozed.”

* * *

Amid this controversy, the Selectboard has served as an uneasy clearinghouse for trying to move the issue forward - many times stymied by the Constitutional constraints of regulating self-expression on public property and the difficult balance between issues of compassion, public safety, public health, and property rights.

Little has emerged from efforts of various civic and business groups in recent years in their attempts to work with the board to produce signage and fliers to discourage panhandling.

“Our dialogue has been focused on compassion, and holistic solutions, including speaking with people who are panhandling, not seeking to use legal action to stop it, but rather, using humanity and creativity, and common sense to address root causes and treat people as humans,” Selectboard member Brandie Starr wrote in 2017.

One board meeting last fall pitted two speakers from the public.

The first described how she had felt “assaulted” by seeing someone defecating within the transportation center.

The second speaker questioned what it means to be assaulted and whether that example qualified.

“Is the problem that you saw someone defecating in the Transportation Center,” she asked, “or that it was the only place they could find some privacy to get their need met?”

Joshua Davis, the executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, said that the question of how to address poverty, homelessness, and panhandling in Brattleboro has become more polarized in the past two years.

“I am struck by how many communities are split down the middle,” Davis said. He likened the present situation in Brattleboro to what is happening across the United States and the current national political climate.

“The president has a strategy of othering, whether he's talking about police or people marching toward the borders,” Davis said. “It makes it a very charged conversation...and it plays out in the work we do.”

* * *

It is impossible not to see the same deep polarization within the context of a local issue that presents more problems and complexity than it offers solutions.

Amid the revitalized historic Industrial Revolution storefronts, in an area smaller than the campuses of most colleges, two versions of Brattleboro coexist with increasing tensions: a small city with metropolitan social problems and a quaint and quirky arts town that wants to charm the daylights out of day-trippers.

For some advocates for downtown business, the problem is the people who clutter the streets, whether holding up signs or just hanging out, sometimes drinking on the sly or cutting quick handshake exchanges of heroin or crack.

For others, the problem is that the problem itself is not clearly understood, and the focus on Brattleboro's tourist business masks deeper issues that are endemic to the town and spread across the nation.

For some people on the left who are not faced with the challenge of managing a business, and may not actually live downtown, the problem is the capitalist nature of businesses themselves.

For some, the challenge is simply how best to manage the challenges of the complex intersection between rural poverty, low-paying work, a lack of affordable housing, and the ways in which addiction to alcohol and drugs factor into the equation.

In some ways, the presence of people on the streets holding signs or just hanging out is simply the most visible sign of deeper and more pervasive issues.

* * *

“It's like a Venn diagram,” said Robert Oeser, an engaged member of the community who has spoken before the Selectboard on these questions.

For him, and for many others, what some might call the problem of panhandling in Brattleboro is just a symptom of a complex array of problems, with poverty, homelessness, and addiction as circles that overlap but are not one thing.

The panhandling puts a public face on this array of problems, making them visible but also oversimplifying and blurring them in the process.

Many people who are displaced from having secure housing do not panhandle. Some people who panhandle are also homeless, but others are not. The problem of addiction in Brattleboro cuts across boundaries of income and housing.

For some people on the street, addiction is an issue, but many people who suffer from substance-abuse disorders have housing, and many people on the street are not addicted, or had addiction only come into their lives within a larger constellation of problems, including physical injuries that led to addiction to prescription opiates.

For some people, the most important thing is to make sure that all voices are heard.

“I'm a little uncomfortable because I am representing a whole group of people who really need to have a voice in the conversation,” said Josh Davis. “These are people, they have feelings - they need support, there are gaps in our system. We often hear myths that because of Groundworks, everybody should be OK, everybody should get their needs met.”

The husband of a local shop owner described what it was like to have to get someone nodding off on the stoop of their boutique shop on Main Street when he came in to open it one morning.

Entirely supportive of every progressive way of dealing with the issue, he said that it “should not be like this, and I'm not going to have any sympathy for someone interfering with my wife's business.”

It is a truism that the first step in solving a problem is to identify it in a shared way that can lead to action. Brattleboro still has not achieved that goal, though it is clear that the will exists to do so.

When it comes to panhandling and all the issues that are under the surface, there are many challenges that face this community. The hardest challenge may be to define them.

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