BRATTLEBORO — The unemployed, the unhoused, the people with mental health problems, the panhandlers, the drug users, the dealers, the travelers, the thieves - it is hard to tell the players on the street without a scorecard.
When I first thought about writing about homelessness in Brattleboro, I lumped all of the above together because homelessness has become an all-encompassing word. Yet it shouldn't be.
Brattleboro has problems, certainly. But why should this town be different from everywhere else in the country?
Our problems are historical, complex, and multifaceted. And at the moment - and let us face it - there are no solutions. Certainly no quick ones.
Many compassionate people and dedicated nonprofits are working on these entwined problems, but let me repeat: There are no easy fixes.
Let's pick it apart.
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First of all, not all homeless people are drug users, and not all drug users are homeless people. Don't automatically think drugs and say "homeless."
I've heard this said emphatically by everyone from Brattleboro's police chief, from Main Street store owners, from lecturers, and from reading eye-opening books such as Tracy Kidder's new Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O'Connell's Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People and the even-newer Homelessness Is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns, by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern.
We know from Colburn, who spoke at a statewide digital meeting a couple of months ago, that - as we reported in these pages - "California just came up with a huge study that demonstrated that 90% of their homeless population are people from California, and 75% of the people 'were actually in the exact same county that they had been when they were previously housed ["'We need more housing that's more affordable for people who need it,' News, Aug. 2].'"
That makes many of our unsheltered people also our long-established neighbors and co-workers.
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The unavailability of affordable housing here, for many, many reasons, is the problem. Colburn uses the analogy of the game of musical chairs: If you play with someone who needs crutches, it will take that person longer to get to a chair when the music stops. In the end, that person will be the loser of the game, but through no fault of their own.
During the pandemic, the state acted promptly to clear the streets - it put those without homes in hotels. And as the pandemic slowly wound down, remarkably, there was no clear plan for when the hotel money ran out. And it did run out. Emergency legislation had to be passed, and even that legislation comes with deadlines.
In the meantime, very little new building has broken ground, and the NIMBYs are out in force.
As I said, no quick fix is on the horizon.
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So, not all homeless people are entangled in the drug epidemic. That is why one street sign particularly enrages me.
When I first started writing about homelessness, someone sent me a story about this street sign in Manchester, New Hampshire, but I'm sure it appears in other towns as well. "Your generosity could lead to a fatality/Please donate to a local charity," it says, and then it lists three very worthwhile ones.
Of course, here we should be donating to Groundworks, to St. Brigid's Kitchen and Loaves and Fishes, to the Vermont Foodbank, to United Way of Windham County, to the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, to the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library, and/or the many other nonprofits working on the issue.
But on an individual level, who are we to judge?
If someone is standing in the pouring rain at a parking lot entrance holding a sign written on a flattened cardboard carton that says "Homeless, grateful for any help," and we have a few quarters or dollar bills - and a house and a car - why should we automatically feel superior? Why not offer some help?
So what if they use it to buy alcohol or drugs? We don't know the reasons behind their begging. If it helps them get a meal, then fine. Or maybe a motel room for the night. And if they need a fix, so what? That's tragic, that's not our business, and also it's another problem entirely.
Remember, so many of us - 59% of us nationwide live paycheck-to-paycheck, by one pre-pandemic measure - are perilously close to being homeless, one way or another. And living on the street - living your life in public, often in the worst weather- is a horrible, humbling fate.
Then there are the panhandlers; they can be homeless or addicted. Some of the panhandlers - and their dogs - are just traveling through, living off the kindness of strangers. Either give them some cash or ignore them.
Panhandling appears to be protected as free speech, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In 2018, "the ACLU of Vermont sent letters to six Vermont cities and towns, urging them to repeal anti-panhandling ordinances that infringe on the free speech rights of Vermonters in need," according to its website.
"The letters were part of a nationwide effort among 18 organizations in 12 states that targeted more than 240 similar outdated ordinances," the organization said in a news release, explaining that it "joined this effort because it should never be illegal to ask for help."
"In response, officials in Bennington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Rutland Town, and Winooski took decisive action to protect the constitutional rights of their residents by repealing their anti-panhandling ordinances," the news release continued.
Many people say they are refusing to go downtown any more because they feel threatened and frightened by panhandlers - particularly, they say, by "aggressive" panhandling. If someone becomes aggressive and harasses you while asking for money, the police can act on that.
But I have to say that I have walked on the streets of Brattleboro many times, passed many panhandlers, and never once have I felt threatened. Mostly, I only feel pity and sorrow. When I hand out a dollar in change while waiting for a light at the Hannaford shopping plaza, all I ever get is gratitude. And I can only think, "There but for the grace of God...."
Still, I think I'm in a minority here. More than 1,000 people have now signed an online petition to make panhandling once again illegal in Brattleboro.
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I'm no expert on mental health issues, but I recently learned that there has been an increase in mental health situations among the people who come to our hunger relief organizations. The volunteers who run these services need training, and luckily, it exists.
Recently, I was able to spend some time as part of an all-day training designed by the National Council for Behavioral Health. It was put on by the Richards Group at the request of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.
"I work for The Richards Group, and part of my job is to provide trainings and education to our business clients," the trainer, Shannon Prescott, told me.
Since 2019, she has been teaching Mental Health First Aid, a program through the National Council for Behavioral Health, which certifies instructors like her.
The goal is to train people to provide help to someone "experiencing a mental health challenge, mental disorder, or mental health crisis," the handbook says. "The first aid is given until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis is resolved."
After taking the course, a person will be able to recognize the common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and understand how to interact with a person in crisis, whether on the street, in the workplace, or even in the home.
It seems to me that these trainings should be made available town-wide.
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Drugs are a hideous problem, true. When I was growing up, we were warned about heroin. Now it appears to be the least of our problems. And the overdose rate is simply unacceptable.
Housed drug addicts are often on the street as well. It's the drugs that are the problem, independent of wherever those who use them are living. That's why the police sometimes have to sweep up needles, and why there are sharps boxes for used needles out on the street.
Brattleboro Police Chief Norma Hardy has some advice for those using drugs on the street, whether they're living there or just hanging out.
"If you're going to have needles, put them in these boxes," Hardy told me last month, The problem, she said, is that "people don't utilize them."
That puts everyone - children, dogs, people in the parks - at risk.
"We don't want people getting stuck," Hardy said.
The drug crisis, the chief said, goes way beyond the police.
"And sometimes, some avenues of the crisis have nothing to do with the police, even though the substances themselves are illegal," she said. "But it's the entire town that's involved and trying to come up with ways to lessen these effects of these drugs that are here."
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We read in the newspapers about bodies being found on the street, about people being shot for drugs, and we feel helpless. We despair for our little rural town.
We can go after the dealers, not those who use their product - but that becomes another problem. The police recently busted three drug houses, and the dealers were back on the street in days.
Selectboard member Peter "Fish" Case ran on a platform of dealing with the problems on our streets. He said that "being released on conditions" is a fundamental flaw in our legal system.
"A lot of these people that I consider to be acting in a predatory manner, when they do get caught they are often back out on the street the next day and returning to what they were doing with little or no interruption," Case told me.
But there may be money available to help.
"The town of Brattleboro has had funding set aside for close to three years following the Community Safety Review, which called for some alternative forms of policing, which I support to a degree," Case said. "But this money has sat for years with no action. It's time to take action and put this money to use."
He cited the need "to provide more funding right now to our current system - the police department."
"These people are trained and know who the aggressors are," Case continues. "They are trained - and I've seen it firsthand - to know the difference between someone who is vulnerable and someone who is acting in a nefarious manner. If we can simply tackle the latter, a lot could change."
Case knows - we all know - that the Brattleboro Police Department is understaffed. But it is currently recruiting more officers.
"I am just very proud of this department," Hardy told me. "And I just have to say, it's one of the best police departments I've ever seen. I like the fact that they just keep going. And I'm happy that I've been able to do a lot of recruitment for them."
The chief hopes that by next year, "we'll have all of the empty spots filled," a milestone that she calls "major."
She thinks the current members of the local force deserve a fully staffed department "because of how they've been holding it together for as long as they have."
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How can the police - how can we all - not be overwhelmed by the complexity of what we're seeing on the streets and roadways of Brattleboro? How can we not feel compassion?
"At the end of the day, all I really want - and I feel Brattleboro as a whole shares this ideal - is to reduce people's suffering," Case said.
The Selectboard member pointed out that we're dealing with humans who "are trying to survive, whether in business, getting to their next meal, off the streets, or getting clean from drugs."
"These are extremely complicated issues that will require some risk taking to resolve," Case observed. "I think that we need to take those risks as long as they smart."
Joyce Marcel, a longtime contributor to The Commons, has been covering state politics and the complexities of homelessness and the opioid epidemic in recent months.
This News column by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.