(This story is by Chris Mays of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it first appeared Sept. 6, 2017.)
BRATTLEBORO — Before Tuesday night’s Selectboard meeting, Michelle Simpson-Siegel grabbed a burger.
But the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance board president was shocked when she saw a sign from a panhandler she had earlier seen smoking marijuana with other men downtown.
“You are lucky I am not robbing you,” the sign read.
As the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance board president, Simpson-Siegel was scheduled to give a semi-annual update to the Selectboard. On the issue of panhandling, which was warned on the meeting agenda, she spoke as a resident.
Board member John Allen said he would feel threatened by the panhandler’s message. “That’s an awful sign to wave in somebody’s face,” he said. “I think at some point we have to draw the line in the sand and say, ‘This is what we have to do.'”
Panhandling is difficult to stop. But several initiatives are being looked at by the board, town staff, police and downtown groups.
A jobs program, like those in Portland, Maine, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, could see the town contracting with a management group. Issues around paperwork and liability could be “a challenge at best for the municipal government,” Town Manager Peter Elwell said. Vans are used to pick up those who would otherwise be panhandling, and they’re given tasks to complete.
“In both cases, they’ve seen a significant decline in folks out,” Elwell said, acknowledging that the cities are much bigger than Brattleboro.
About 60,000 people live in Portland and 600,000 live in Albuquerque, while Brattleboro has a population of about 12,000.
Donation boxes in spots downtown could be used to help fund the program. Portland received Community Development Block Grant funding and used money from the sale of a property, according to Elwell.
A survey is being developed to get input on panhandling in Brattleboro. And a task force has been assembled with police, social service providers and community members.
“It’s concerning when you find out what you don’t know,” Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said. “And that’s where we’re at — we don’t know.”
With guidance from representatives from the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative based Gloucester, Massachusetts, the hope is to expand community outreach.
Town staff will be reviewing a “service announcement” that Siegel-Simpson read at the meeting. The plan is to post fliers in spots where panhandling has been known to occur such as parking meters and ATMs. Input has come from the DBA, Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, police department and Groundworks Collaborative, which serves the homeless population.
“Panhandling becomes disorderly conduct and is illegal at parking stations, ATMs or when someone is entering or exiting a car,” the draft said. “If you are approached for money at one of these spots, please contact the police. For emergencies, call 911.”
Included in the draft is information on people’s constitutional rights to ask for money and hold up signs.
“Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean that we don’t want to do something,” Siegel-Simpson said.
Selectboard member Tim Wessel wanted to make sure the legality of panhandling was written as clearly as possible if the town will be posting the document.
Stephanie Bonin, co-owner of Duo Restaurant, said downtown business owners were excited to hear the fliers might be going up at “cash locations.” A merchants meeting had been held earlier Tuesday.
“I think it makes sense to have them at those locations,” said Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Brandie Starr.
Board Chairwoman Kate O’Connor called Brattleboro “a great community” with “a great downtown.”
“Does it have problems?” O’Connor said. “Just like everybody else. But I don’t want us to lose sight of that.”
The efforts underway, she added, are about improving the quality of life for everyone.
Board member David Schoales said mental health counselors and educational institutions should also be engaged to help.
“This is an opportunity to take a step,” he said. “The problem is poverty. The problem is lack of hope.”
Diana Bander said she is proud to be a resident. But she reported hearing from outsiders “how difficult it is to visit this town, to shop in this town, to be here.”
“We can do something,” she said. “We can start small and we can do some things.”
Fitzgerald said more surveillance and new tactics were introduced this summer due to an “overwhelming response from the community.” In 90 days, police have made 46 arrests, issued 17 trespassing violations and responded to eight overdoses in one area of particular concern, known as “The Wall.”
“To a degree, we are limited to what we can do because it is private property,” Fitzgerald said, noting that his department is working with various state agencies while allotting more overtime hours and staff for strict enforcement in the area. “This is a really good example of how law enforcement needs to, and we will continuously, collaborate with other agencies. We’re not going to arrest our way out of these problems.”
Fitzgerald believes many of the efforts in addressing the panhandling will have “a far-reaching effect to what we’re facing down at ‘The Wall.'”
Resident Hannah Neff said a lot of parents worry about the safety of their children as they leave the New England Youth Theatre or Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro. She reported seeing drug paraphernalia and inappropriate behavior nearby.
“I don’t think this is something we can do on our own,” she said. “But if we collaborate with other agencies, I’m hopeful we can come up with some solution.”
Neff asked the board to put “The Wall” on an upcoming meeting agenda. With more time, she said, she thinks she can get more parents to attend.