A person with a sign asking for money sits outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger.org
A person with a sign asking for money sits outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

Town brings municipal response to panhandling back to the table

Selectboard struggles to address complaints voiced in a 1,000-signature petition in the shadow of court rulings that asking for money on public property is constitutionally protected speech

BRATTLEBORO — As local leaders here tell it, residents who see people asking for spare change along downtown streets, parking lots, and traffic medians are expressing both sides of the coin.

"A highly sympathetic view might hold that panhandling is essential to a poor person's survival and should not be restricted or discouraged in any way," Town Manager John Potter wrote in a recent memorandum to the Selectboard.

"A less sympathetic view might see the behavior as contributing to chaos, community disorder and crime, as well as a postponement of attempts to address underlying problems," he wrote.

Brattleboro is one of at least seven Vermont communities that once ratified anti-solicitation ordinances - joining Barre City, Bennington, Burlington, Montpelier, Rutland Town, and Winooski - only to drop or stop enforcing them in light of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision against rules that curtail free speech protected by the First Amendment.

But that hasn't deterred residents from complaining.

"While it is important to acknowledge that some individuals may be facing difficult circumstances, allowing unrestricted panhandling poses significant challenges that cannot be ignored," said a recent Change.org petition directed to the public and signed by more than 1,000 people.

"The sight of individuals begging on street corners can create negative perceptions about Brattleboro's overall livability, potentially deterring potential residents or investors from choosing our town as their home or place of business," the petition continued.

In response, the Selectboard began talking at a Dec. 5 meeting about possible solutions - only to end nearly 90 minutes later with more questions than answers.

"I think we're all stuck on what to do," Selectboard member Daniel Quipp said.

Other towns look at the issue

The discussion comes as other Vermont cities and towns are contemplating their own conversations. In a recent speech about public safety, Rutland Mayor Mike Doenges noted the need for his municipality to talk about panhandling.

"I don't know that we have a fix," Doenges told the city Board of Aldermen. "Although not illegal, it does make many feel unsafe and at times even harassed or threatened."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is unaware of other communities debating the issue, although it has released an open letter reminding that "laws seeking to ban panhandling have consistently been struck down by state and federal courts," Communications Director Stephanie Gomory said.

Local officials note that for all the talk of a problem, they have little hard data to confirm or deny its prevalence.

The Brattleboro Police Department reports "frequent" calls about related disorderly conduct, traffic safety, and wellness checks, but doesn't track complaints about solicitation because it isn't a crime.

"Brattleboro Police are aware and supportive of protecting people's First Amendment rights," the department said in a statement released in advance of the Dec. 5 selectboard meeting.

Municipal leaders echo that sentiment.

"It is good to reflect on the likelihood that panhandlers are not down-and-out by choice; that asking people for money is probably a last resort for them; and it can negatively impact their sense of dignity and contribute to depression," Potter wrote in his memorandum. "Despite a wide range of social services available in Brattleboro, there are clearly unmet needs for cash that can be satisfied through direct donations requested by panhandling."

Deferring the deterring

But facing public complaints, the Selectboard reviewed - and ultimately rejected - several proposed deterrents.

The first suggestion was to revise the town's former anti-solicitation ordinance to prohibit "aggressive panhandling" that is "threatening, intimidating, or coercive."

"An ordinance specific to panhandling would be challenged," Potter told the board, "and would require further decisions regarding a legal strategy and associated expenses."

A second was to ban soliciting in designated "safety zones" such as busy intersections, medians, and other high-traffic areas - a suggestion the town manager said would also spark legal questions.

A third was to require a business license or permit for panhandling, although a 2021 federal ruling awarded $150,000 to a man who sued a Missouri county that called for a solicitation license.

Brattleboro leaders also weighed a public relations campaign to promote charities that address poverty.

"It could be the Selectboard's policy to exercise its own free speech, through signs on public property, that discourage people from giving money to panhandlers," said Potter, offering such examples as "say no to panhandling, say yes to helping agencies serving those in need."

But at the close of the meeting, the five-member board could only agree to tackle the larger issue of "safety" at a later date.

"We can walk out of here and pretend that the problem doesn't exist, pretend that we don't all receive emails, pretend that we're just going to sit here and operate from some higher moral ground and ignore what people are feeling," Selectboard member Peter Case said. "This board leaving this meeting tonight without some sort of plan in place to explore, come back with, and discuss is irresponsible."

In response, Quipp said taking no action was a statement in itself "because asking for money is not a crime."

Residents have voiced differing opinions on the issue. Petition signers attached comments saying they feel unsafe being solicited by strangers and fear donated money is paying for drugs. For their part, authors of several recent newspaper opinion pieces have called for more understanding and compassion.

"In a world of increasing uncertainty, climate chaos, and political polarization, we're shutting out the voices of the most vulnerable citizens of Brattleboro," resident Paula Melton wrote in a Viewpoint for The Commons ["'Safety'? For whom? 'Calm'? About what?," Voices, Aug. 16].

"Instead of listening to them, we are amplifying the voices of those who already enjoy the most resources, power, and privilege," Melton wrote.

Brattleboro writer David Blistein is chronicling the plight of those seeking money on a Substack site (davidblistein.substack.com). In one story, he recalled giving someone $5, only to see the recipient immediately hand it to a drug dealer. In another, he asks a second person on the street why that happened.

"You've got to stop the pain," Blistein quoted the man as saying.

Municipal leaders have yet to figure out how.

"Some people are OK with a certain level of disorder in urban areas, while others are genuinely scared of it and alter their lives accordingly, avoiding certain public spaces," Potter said. "All of which is to say that there are no easy solutions for the community as a whole in addressing the issue of panhandling."

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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