Our opinion: A problem with plenty of faces


"Sleeping in your car should not be a crime when it's all you have."

"Asking for help should not be illegal."

"Keep your coins, I want social change."

So read just a few of the signs being held by protesters in Bennington, Sunday afternoon.

The group had assembled to voice concerns over a recent amendment to the town's "Improper Use of Public Way and Abatement of Public Nuisances" ordinance. In short, town officials are attempting to curb panhandling on public property. The Bennington Selectboard drafted and voted on the change after Town Manager Stuart Hurd received complaints from the Better Bennington Corporation and the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.

And while the amendment goes into effect in about 60 days, many in the community are already voicing concern over a specific aspect of the law, which restricts people's ability to use a vehicle as housing -- something many homeless people are forced to do. In fact, some might almost consider a car a luxury, when the only other choice is a sleeping bag under a bridge.

Another sign that caught our attention: "Solve the problem, don't move it."

By some, this amendment is viewed as simply an effort to shift Bennington's homeless to other communities (Out of sight, out of mind?). Compounding that viewpoint, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette at last week's Selectboard meeting suggested those in need be referred to neighboring Brattleboro or Albany, N.Y.

Perhaps Bennington should, instead, focus on better support of the resources in its own community, like the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless.

Reality check: This is not a Bennington-exclusive issue. The resources in Brattleboro struggle greatly, as well. And surely we need not remind you of recent struggles in the Bellows Falls area, over the past several years, in simply locating a warming shelter.

The Greater Falls Warming Shelter opened for the season on Nov. 18, its second year in its new location in North Walpole, N.H. The shelter can serve, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week, up to 10 individuals without stable housing. (And, while we're on the topic, volunteers are being sought to staff the shelter every evening in shifts from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. and 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. For more information, e-mail gfwarmingshelter@gmail.com.)

Here in Brattleboro, we're heartened by the many efforts of the community to support these needed resources for those in need. This past October, Morningside Shelter held its third annual Hike for the Homeless fundraiser on Mount Wantastiquet in Hinsdale, N.H. Nearly 150 participants took part and helped Morningside raise nearly $20,000 in support of the Shelter's work.

"I am thrilled," Morningside Executive Director Joshua Davis said after the event. "Every dollar we raise is used to support our mission to create individualized solutions to homelessness in our region. We're the only year-round homeless shelter in southeastern Vermont, and our services are consistently in high demand, regardless of the season."

And this past November, members of Students Supporting Veterans at Brattleboro Union High School, after spending much of the year fundraising, presented a $500 check to Home At Last, a local nonprofit that provides mobile homes to veterans.

Or consider the annual Warm Hands effort, in which local faith communities collaborate in the collection of warm clothing and bedding for those in need. Items donated are distributed to the homeless and those at risk through Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center. Warm clothing, especially jackets and sweaters, hats, boots, socks and gloves are especially needed as are pillows, blankets and sleeping bags. (Want to take part? Drop off points are located at: Guilford Community Church; Centre Congregational Church; First Baptist Church; St. Michael's Episcopal Church; and the Putney Friends Meeting.)

Back to yesterday's protest in Bennington; One other sign we liked: "Brother can you spare some sense?"

We don't presume there's an easy answer or solution to solve the homelessness crisis. It's a widespread problem. But there are easy ways to help. If you can spare some money, however little, there are (local) organizations that can use it. Extra food? Unused clothing? There's a place for that, too. Even if all you have to offer is a little time, there are plenty of ways for volunteerism to be put to good use.

This is not a problem with no face. These are former friends, families, people who for whatever reason have fallen on hard times. They're part of our communities. And this time of year, as temperatures continue to drop, they need our help more than ever.

Far be it for us, from afar, to second-guess how Bennington chooses to look at its issues. But we believe treating the effort proactively, as opposed to shifting it, is the best policy. It's the neighborly choice.


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