Response to homeless issue criticized

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BRATTLEBORO — The town's way of responding to homelessness has its critics in every corner.

"There's a divisiveness that's getting wider," former Select Board member Dick DeGray warned the current Select Board and town administration Tuesday, during a board meeting. "People are looking to you for leadership to bring the community together and it's getting pushed further apart."

DeGray, who wakes in the early hours and tends to flowers downtown, said he accidentally squirted someone sleeping in Plaza Park at about 3:10 a.m. Tuesday and the person later knocked over three boxes of flowers in response.

"This person showed no respect for what I do," he said. "I can't tell you how much work I do each day."

DeGray worries that the vandalism will continue. He urged the town to have police cite people for public drunkenness and have staff clean urine off park benches.

The board has received complaints at meetings over the years about drinking and drug use in public parks and panhandling throughout the downtown area. It has also heard people on the other end of the spectrum.

Matt Whalan, who lives in town and wrote a book about homelessness, is calling for an investigation to be conducted into all trespass citations involving public property and the process for doing so. He wants the Select Board and town attorney to look into all ordinances limiting access to public property at certain times of the day. And he has concerns about trespass orders involving Groundworks Collaborative, which provides shelter, warm spaces and services to the homeless community in Brattleboro.

Whalan helped organize a protest as part of a local movement called the "Homeless Revolution" at Plaza Park last month. Demands were made for housing, humane treatment and participation in the local political process.

The protest was inspired by an incident. James Douglas, a homeless man, said he was arrested after refusing to leave Plaza Park when it was closed unless police found him another place to sleep.

Whalan told the board he is disappointed and angered by the community's unwillingness to listen and respond with compassion to the homeless. But he thanked the town for recently funding the installation of Porta Potties in three locations downtown.

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"I'm glad we finally decided as a community, homeless people too have the right to go to the bathroom," he said. "It's an achievement that should be neither overstated nor understated."

Town Manager Peter Elwell announced last month that the Porta Potties would be coming. During that same meeting, the board agreed to contribute $65,000 to a "low-barrier" jobs program and $100,000 from funds from the Vermont Community Development Program to help Groundworks build a seasonal overflow shelter on South Main Street.

Whalan told the board he considers many homeless individuals in the community to be close friends. He said he has listened to their stories and shared his own.

"I held homeless people in my arms while they've cried," he said. "Homeless people have held me in their arms while I have cried. I've slept next to homeless people on hard empty floors. They have lost everything — their homes, their health, their most meaningful relationships. They've been abused as child and adults. They have no money and they're usually in debt."

After Whalan spoke, activists disrupted the meeting by standing in front of the board with a banner, calling for the town to adopt a resolution declaring a climate emergency. The board agreed to discuss the proposed article at its next meeting on Aug. 20. The demonstration lasted about 25 minutes.

"There is a decorum for these board meetings and we saw none of that tonight," DeGray told the board. "We just saw disruption. We have police officers here. Anything goes. That's not good for the community because we look to you for leadership."

Brooks Memorial Library staff member Julia Von Ranson addressed the board with concerns about pay following news of the jobs program that would provide participants with $15 an hour. That, she said, is more than she and others make at the library.

"I can see you have lots of demands and requests on you but here's another one," she told the board. "I'd like to ask for parity in pay for library staff. As we talk among ourselves and other town employees, we're seeing how much disparity there is for library staff and other town employees."

Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr said the issue can be looked at during budget sessions.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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