BRATTLEBORO — Sometimes it feels like Brattleboro is under siege, but it's a siege that is hard to define.
Is it drug addiction? Is it homelessness? Is it panhandling? Is it theft? Is it a mental health issue? Is it all of the above? Just one or two of the above?
No one can say exactly what is happening, but it's a conundrum that exists all over the United States.
"Homelessness and other signs of disorder, like public drug use and disturbing behavior, are rising in cities across the United States with high housing costs, regardless of their drug policies," said The New York Times on Aug. 29.
Drugs are a huge problem all over the country; rural Brattleboro is no exception.
"The number of Vermonters dying by opioid overdose this year was higher in January, February, and April than in previous years," the Vermont Department of Health announced in its latest Monthly Opioid Morbidity and Mortality Report.
Windham County has had only 13 overdose deaths from January to May of this year, compared to 23 in Chittenden County. But that northwestern Vermont county, home to Burlington, the state's largest city, has a much higher population. Statistically, at 28.2 deaths per 100,000 Vermont residents, Windham County has the highest death rate by opioid overdose in the state.
Last month, The Commons sat down with Brattleboro Police Chief Norma Hardy to discuss homelessness, panhandling and, concurrently, the drug problem.
"We don't want to use a broad brush," Hardy said. "I've talked to people who are unhoused. And they work. And they're not addicted to drugs."
Hardy pointed to the well-documented housing crunch.
"There's a housing shortage, of course, in Vermont, just like there's a housing shortage everywhere. Brattleboro is no different," she said. "Prices are up, the upkeep of houses is up."
But Hardy emphasized that "it's very, very important to point out that every person who is homeless is not addicted to drugs, and is not committing crimes."
People experiencing homeless are not necessarily addicted to drugs, Hardy said. And, conversely, "we have many, many people in this town who are addicted to drugs who have homes."
"We are fighting the drug epidemic here," she continued, adding that "drug dealers don't really care if you're homeless or not as long as you you can buy their product."
"We have a major opioid epidemic right here in this town," Hardy said. "And that is what we are fighting against."
One Friday afternoon in Brattleboro
For a long time, Greg Worden has owned and operated Vermont Artisan Designs, at 106 Main St., since the late 1980s. The back of his store opens onto the Harmony Lot, which is beseiged by people asking for money, and the front windows open onto Main Street, giving him a panoramic view of downtown.
Business is fine, Worden said. But "customers come in and say, 'What's happening to Brattleboro?'" he said.
Worden's wife, Susan Worden, owns Kitchen Sync next door.
"I can't tell who is homeless and who is a drug addict," she said. "But I have great compassion for them. How do you help them?"
The homelessness problem manifests itself in Brattleboro in as many ways as there are people who have no shelter. It is easy to stereotype and stigmatize a diverse population of people who share in common the lack of one basic human need.
According to some downtown merchants, the behavior of some visibly homeless people in town has not, in general, been good for business.
On Main Street on a recent Friday afternoon, window shoppers sipping coffee were competing for sidewalk space with young parents, tourists, and locals shopping for art supplies, books, and hardware. Storekeepers were setting up for Gallery Walk. In the sunshine, the town seemed to be buzzing and booming.
Against this backdrop, pockets of homelessness were everywhere to be seen, from the now-infamous Transportation Center on Flat Street, the site of several deaths this summer, to the park outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op. At Pliny Park, a young homeless man blew his nose onto the sidewalk.
The police have posted serious signs at the parking garage prohibiting "intoxicating beverages," "illegal drugs," "public urination and defecation," "blocking the walkway or entrance," and "use of profane, loud, or abusive language."
Seven or eight people were sitting in a line on the sidewalk in front of the Transportation Center. Two buses came and left as the group stayed put, passing the time of day.
There was a strong smell of cigarette smoke there, but no sign - or smell - of any of the prohibited behaviors mentioned in the sign.
The town this year could not provide port-a-potties for the various parking areas. According to Town Manager John Potter, all of the potential vendors declined to bid on the contract.
The only public toilet in town now is the one provided courtesy of the Centre Congregational Church, on the lawn of its Main Street sanctuary, far from the transportation center.
'They don't want to be hassled'
According to Paul Faust of Trillium Home & Garden at 119 Main St., this has not been a good summer for business - but more because of rain than homelessness.
"The media made it sound as if the whole state of Vermont was underwater," Faust said. "We were getting calls asking if we were open and if they can get here. If people think the whole state is flooded, they won't come here. And we [ordinarily] get a lot of customers who stop off here on their way to a holiday somewhere else, and they're not coming at all."
Still, Faust says that the state of urgent need downtown is bad for business.
For one thing, he sees his regular customers in the supermarkets, and they apologize for not coming to the store any more.
"They say they don't go downtown any more," he said. "They don't want to be hassled."
Faust said that people eat dinner on his stoop and leave the bags and wrappings for him to clean up in the morning.
"Almost every day there is garbage," Faust said. "And I see it all over town. We have trash containers at the corners, but we also need them spaced along the middle of the street."
Trillium is one of many downtown stores that has been broken into; Faust puts a "No Cash Left Here" sign on the front window every night when he closes up. He and his husband, Chef Ken Flutie, also own and run the Blue Moose restaurant farther down the street. Business has been good there, Faust said, but the restaurant has also been robbed.
"There was no cash, so they took the cash register," Faust said. "And they took a vacuum cleaner. They didn't take any booze, and we had beer and wine. When they broke into A Vermont Table, they took booze. Maybe [those thieves] have a fancier palate."
Despite two high-profile vacancies, active storefronts
The good news is that in downtown Brattleboro, very few Main Street storefronts are empty - vacant storefronts are a sure sign of a decaying economy.
However, the two highest-profile Main Street storefronts are endangered.
On the corner of Main Street and Elliot Street, M&T Bank - which sports a sign that reads "Together we can move Brattleboro forward" - will close its downtown branch in mid-September. The building is not for sale because the Windham County State's Attorney has a lease for offices in the building that runs until 2026, according to the Brattleboro Reformer.
"Our decision to close the Main Street branch was influenced in part by our customers' preference for the Canal Street location and our ability to accommodate more customers there via abundant parking, multiple drive-through lanes, and an accessibility ramp for the mobility-impaired," said Frank Lentini, senior communication director for M&T in an email response to the Reformer.
And on the other corner of the block, at Main and High streets, another high-profile business, Tine, an upscale restaurant, has also closed its doors.
Jim Callaghan was sweeping up construction debris from his new store, Ray Gun Comics at 125 Main St., the former home of Delectable Mountain, which closed in 2019. At the shop, which he hopes to have ready to open by the end of October, he will sell comics, action figures, collectibles, board games, snacks, and soda. He will have have a gaming room in the back.
He does not think homelessness is an issue in opening a new business in downtown Brattleboro.
"I don't think that homeless people are inherently a problem," he said. "The conditions out there are the problem."
On his website, Callaghan writes, "We're looking forward to being a part of the vibrant downtown community and can't wait to welcome you to our new store."
A few display windows down the street, next to ZPots, a relatively new store that sells ceramic products crafted in Brookline, Logic Building Systems was busy building a new salesroom. The company offers a new way of simplifying home construction by merging kitchen, bathroom, and utility rooms in an off-site pod construction that can then be imported to home sites.
"The revolution in construction is here," the company says on its website. "Replace outdated building methods with Off-Site Fabrication feeding On-Site Assembly. Save money, time & frustration."
There really is no way to escape thinking about the housing shortage.
A right to free speech
Panhandling is a protected part of free speech, according to precedents decided in court cases filed mainly by the American Civil Liberties Union. Courts have decided that towns cannot create ordinances forbidding people from asking others for money on public property.
But for many, it has been an especially frustrating part of life on the street.
"The increasing presence of panhandlers on our streets has begun to impact the quality of life for both residents and visitors alike," the petition reads in part. "While it is important to acknowledge that some individuals may be facing difficult circumstances, allowing unrestricted panhandling poses significant challenges that cannot be ignored."
Faust said that his former customers tell him that they have been avoiding downtown because panhandlers stake out begging sites next to the parking pay-and-display machines in the Harmony Lot.
"If you're an older woman, for example, and you've got your wallet open to pay for parking, you feel vulnerable," he said.
Chief Hardy understands the problem.
"We're trying to at least come up with some ideas, to make it less stressful for people," she said. "Make it less stressful for the homeowners, the people that are shopping, the people that are trying to go downtown and walk in peace."
But, she added, "we still follow the rules and restrictions that have been put out for us."
"Basically, if it's more than someone saying, 'Hey, Buddy, can I have a dime?' If it's more aggressive than that, it becomes harrassment. We're working on that."
Hardy described a recent safety fair, where people talked about their concerns. "If they feel fearful, they won't go to the area anymore," she said.
Many downtown merchants describe the panhandling as organized. Faust described a scenario where those seeking money "are dropped off in the morning and when they're done with their shift they hand their cardboard sign to someone else."
Hardy said she had heard the rumors, too.
"But I could not in my position say that it's true at this time," she said. "We are looking into all the points that we get of this kind of activity."
In 2018, The Commons attempted to follow similar rumors and despite multiple merchants conveying that information, reporters could not find any evidence of such orchestrated activity.
"Clearly, there is a homeless problem in the U.S.," merchant Penelope Wurr said.
She described local shopkeepers like her as "bullied by the fact that there are a lot of itinerants on the street who are taking advantage of the lack of police and the length of time it takes to go through the courts."
"Crime might be a factor of the drug problem and not the homeless problem," Wurr acknowledged.
"But they are deterring our customers," she said. "These are two concurrent problems."
This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.