'An unpleasant situation'

Downtown businesses grapple with homelessness, panhandling issues

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Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series. For Part 2, click here.

BRATTLEBORO — Just thinking about going into town to run some errands, get a coffee or grab a meal is enough to provoke anxiety in some people who fear they might be approached by a panhandler or might witness unpleasant behavior. Some people, concerned for their safety or who are uncomfortable with such situations, might choose not to go downtown at all.

"We have heard from a lot of people who say they feel uncomfortable," Sabine Rhyne, general manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, told the Reformer. "In the last six months, I've had very direct communication from folks that are choosing not to come in anymore due to some of the population's aggressive behavior."

Because of the co-op's proximity to the Whetstone Pathway, where congregate many people in need of money or who don't otherwise have a place to hang their hat, Rhyne sees on a daily basis how the implications are affecting the community and the co-op directly.

"Our sales are down," said Rhyne. "When I start getting emails, letters and phone calls from people that say I'm not coming back, I have to attribute it to that. It's not like we are closing tomorrow, but we are concerned. We are watching the trend and it's not a good thing. We've had to take some steps that are difficult, such as layoffs and cutting hours. I can't feel good about those things."

Gemma Champoli, the special projects coordinator for Experienced Goods and Brattleboro Area Hospice, which operates the thrift shop in the structure that houses the Brattleboro Parking Garage and Transportation Center, said things have gotten to the point where Hospice is considering not renewing its lease when it expires in a year.

"It's not a horribly unsafe situation, but it's an unpleasant situation," said Champoli, adding "The town has one year to do whatever is in its ability to do, so we can really assess if we can stay here."

Champoli noted she receives complaints from customers on a regular basis, but lets them know that Experienced Goods staff are trying to do the best they can within the limits of their lease and as members of the community. That includes asking for better lighting around the Transportation Center and participating in — with the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, Vermont Contemporary Photography, the Ask the River team of artists, Town Planner Sue Fillion and Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition — events that recently spruced up Alley Lane.

'There's no place for them to go'

While the town can do things such as install better lighting and keep a better eye on its property around the Transportation Center, said Champoli, "Asking those people to get off the sidewalk is not one of them. They are going to be there. They have the right to be there and until we have housing for homeless people, there's no place for them to go."

As it is now, as long as they're not engaging in tumultuous behavior or blocking the sidewalk, people can hang out there, and even camp there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We can ask for a no trespass order, and we do that, but it's only for inside the building," said Champoli.

In front of the Transportation Center, homeless people sometimes roll out their sleeping bags for the night and people congregate, shooting the breeze, smoking cigarettes and just hanging out. Champoli said the thrift store's employees wheel out two racks of clothes each morning to give customers an entry way that guides them into the store.

"We are creating a space for our shoppers to come in and trying to be compassionate and respectful at the same time," said Champoli. "Our goal is to create as safe an environment for our donors and shoppers as we can and for our staff, because there have been times when they felt unsafe. There are times when that is very difficult because we have other issues, such as mental health and addiction and some people don't have filters and social controls."

Champoli wanted to be clear that she has had no problems with at least two of the people who have been camping out virtually on her doorstep.

"It's not nice, but they're accommodating and have been respectful," she said. "That's not the population that's really disturbing. The population that's disturbing is the off-the-charts mental health, those struggling with addiction. And the drug dealing down here is unbelievable. I see it every day ... when somebody drives their Humvee into town and I see faces that aren't familiar."

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The limits of the law

Someone can be cited for disorderly conduct if, as the state statute details, that person engages in violent, threatening behavior; makes unreasonable noise; uses abusive or obscene language; disturbs any lawful assembly or meeting of persons; or obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic. As long as they are not committing a crime or creating a public nuisance, said Town Manager Peter Elwell, people have the constitutional right to hang out, or even roll out a sleeping bag, in any public space.

"If you don't have a shelter to which you can direct someone who is experiencing homelessness, you don't have a place to point them to where they can put their head on a pillow, then you have to allow them to be in virtually any public space," he said. "That ends up with all of the implications we've seen this year for both the individuals who are suffering in that situation and for our community. It would be better for everyone to have a shelter for those folks to go to."

And if people aren't causing a disturbance, police just can't roust them and force them to go somewhere else, said Elwell. "If we are going to just arbitrarily say that some people aren't going to be allowed to just stand on the sidewalk for five minutes at a time, that means nobody in the community is allowed to stand on the sidewalk for more than five minutes at a time. Obviously, that's not an enforceable regulation."

Groundworks at the front of the battle

Groundworks Collaborative is in the process of upgrading and expanding its footprint on South Main Street, which should relieve some of the pressure on public spaces in Brattleboro. But that project has yet to break ground.

Elwell said the Groundworks project is especially important for everyone in Brattleboro and he hopes people "are rallying generously around Groundworks' capital campaign."

Federal funding that is sent our way focuses on winter shelters "so that people don't freeze to death on the streets," said Elwell. "But there isn't money from those sources to be a 12-month shelter. If we can get the facility constructed and come up with other sources of funding ... having a 12-month shelter would mean in these summer months when we have situations that are hard for everyone involved, there would be a place, a proper indoor place for folks to sleep at night and get assistance, where they can have food."

Longer term, there needs to be more employment and independent housing in the community, said Elwell.

"There is much consternation about the state of our downtown and there has been for a while now," wrote Joshua Davis, the executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, in a message to the community. "I share that concern and agree that we should be extremely bothered by what we see happening: people camping at the Transportation Center, sleeping outside, suffering from the ravages of addiction."

However, wrote Davis, his anger is not directed at the people on the street, but at the systems that are broken and continue to produce homelessness, poverty and chronically escalating economic inequity.

"What we are experiencing in Brattleboro is not unique to this community — in regard to both the specter of poverty and the effects of addiction," wrote Davis. "Nor are the people struggling to meet their most basic needs the primary reason that our downtown is a precarious economic environment — that is a much too simplistic analysis of the economic struggles of small, rural communities nationwide."

Davis wrote that there are a number of reasons why the situation in Brattleboro has gotten to where it is. While the nation has generally recovered from the Great Recession in broad economic indicators, he wrote, a closer look shows that people at the bottom of our economy are faring worse than before the Recession. "In other words, the U.S.'s long standing problem of economic inequity is not only persisting but getting worse. Additionally, we are in the midst of a full blown health crisis — the opioid epidemic — that has been primarily facilitated by large pharmaceutical companies."

Davis insisted that it's unfair to blame those saddled with addiction and it's not enough to exercise compassion, politely watching "as people suffer and our streets become defacto refugee camps."

"[O]nly thoughtful, compassionate, and systemic interventions will help people get out of that space," wrote Davis. "Our policies must be laser-focused on fast-tracking housing, creative opioid overdose prevention and treatment options, employment and support. Only that approach will get people off of our streets. That is a vision of people no longer loitering on our streets that we can, and should, all get behind."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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