Hidden costs at all levels of society

Poverty and struggle are devastating for the individuals — and discouraging to business. But with regard to public safety, those who panhandle are generally not the actual threat.

BRATTLEBORO — It is impossible to estimate the actual economic costs of addiction, homelessness, and panhandling in Brattleboro, but there is no question that they are considerable.

For police and other emergency services, problems related to addiction, such as petty crimes and overdoses, are a major focus, taking scores of hours each week from departments that are understaffed or stretched thin.

Costs to public safety and emergency services, and to nonprofit social services, can be measured in budgets. The hidden costs of having panhandlers and an active street life downtown are less clear, but for business owners, the question is a significant concern.

A recent open letter submitted to this newspaper anonymously by 23 people representing 18 local businesses spoke to the severity of the negative economic impact of the opioid crisis and associated problems.

The letter intended to create a framework for public discussion, laying out a series of statements about the current situation. These included the reality that the problems the town faces “are part of the larger opioid epidemic hammering all of New England and much of the nation,” and that overdose deaths have tripled in Brattleboro over the past two years.

The open letter was presented as a call to community action, and it noted several potential positive steps, including using art to invest in a “fun and creative atmosphere downtown,” and raising money for a variety of projects, including creating one or two positions for individuals to help keep the streets attractive and act as a liaison among various stakeholders, and developing a public relations campaign using “signage, ads, public service announcements, and educational materials” to help the community understand the goals of the work.

A main focus of the letter was on concerns about panhandling and the impact that people who ask for money on the street have on local businesses and the overall ambience of the town.

The letter urged people not to give to panhandlers. Instead, it suggested that people who want to give donations to local agencies such as Groundworks. It said that there was a plan in the works 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,” the letter said, “because they will say 'Give a Hand/Not a Handout.'”

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Although discourse has often been polarized in public forums, the open letter, along with interviews with local business owners, suggest a combination of significant concern with the situation on Brattleboro's downtown and an embrace of its value of being a “compassionate town.”

Many people who responded to the letter (some of them believing erroneously that reporters for The Commons were responsible for it) welcomed the expansive list of ways in which the downtown might be improved and agreed with the sentiment that giving money to panhandlers simply encouraged panhandling.

Others, several of whom responded to The Commons, criticized the anonymity of the letter and also questioned the ways in which the letter conflated the problem of addiction with the challenge of homelessness. Several Facebook threads framed the letter in the context of cruel and misplaced local priorities - sanitizing Brattleboro for tourists and commerce.

Nancy Braus, who owns Everyone's Books on Elliot Street, said that she was angered that the nature of anonymity might make readers think she had signed on to the letter.

“I'm really distressed that an anonymous group of business owners is being able to project their thinking,” she said. “It's possible that all of us business owners are being put into that particular basket [...] of a negative voice about people who are already struggling and feeling trauma.”

“We have many big problems in the country, and we can't solve a problem of this nature in one small town,” said Braus. “It's a national problem, and the idea that we can do something by being mean and rude to the homeless people here, it's just not something I want a part of.”

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The letter also references claims that have been made that carloads of panhandlers are sometimes dropped off downtown and that someone asking for money on the street can make as much as $450 in a good day when tourists are in town.

Nine months of reporting by The Commons could not verify these claims.

As the letter asserted, it is the case that sometimes people who panhandle are dropped off from cars downtown, and some sources acknowledged that in a few cases the cars might have out of state license plates.

But any idea that there was any orchestrated and organized activity involved in moving panhandlers into and out of town was dismissed by every source interviewed.

It is clear from discussions with more than 15 panhandlers that on sunny days, especially holidays or during tourist seasons, it is a good deal easier to make money than on days when the weather is bad, on weekdays, or in periods when tourists are not in town.

Two sources told The Commons that they could make as much as $100 on a good day. Most panhandlers said that $20 to $30 was an average daily take, and that on some days they would take in a good deal less than that.

Several panhandlers said that they panhandled for specific reasons - usually for money to buy alcohol or cigarettes - and that they would do so only as long as they had to.

No one we talked to panhandled for food, though some were appreciative when it was offered.

Few, if any, downtown businesses have a large profit margin, and many represent deep investments of sweat equity. Brattleboro's street community, which includes panhandlers as a small but significant element, is not good for business in a town that markets itself through the arts and through its quaint regional character.

The argument that the town's attractiveness as a regional hub is essential to its economic well-being, and that benefits are spread across the region, can't be refuted. The hidden economic costs of the current situation in Brattleboro are less quantifiable than the costs to various services, but they are real.

But public streets are public and for everybody, not just those who conform to a storybook ideal that bends to conform to economic marketing points. Aggressive panhandling by its nature creates involuntary interactivity, exposing people of means to an uncomfortable world of economic and social reality.

The question of whether panhandlers are a real threat came up often during The Commons' reporting. Most panhandlers stand placidly with their signs, at least during the many hours that reporters have spent on the street. Some stories have circulated widely about how a few panhandlers can be frenetic and seem threatening, but these appear to be incidents isolated to just a handful of individuals.

On the other hand, people who may be carrying weapons and peddling drugs on the street, or be drug-sick and desperate, pose actual threats to public safety. They are unlikely to be panhandling.

Most people would agree that if giving were to stop, then the panhandling activity in Brattleboro would diminish. Whether the approach suggested in the open letter will work is an open question.

But if panhandlers disappear from public life downtown, that still doesn't remove the underlying problems of people in economic peril engaging in behavior that can be deterring to shoppers - and far more importantly, dangerous to themselves and others.

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