The Streets of Brattleboro: 'There is no silver bullet'

Businesses urge customers not to abandon downtown

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Editor's note: This is the third and final part of a three-part series.

BRATTLEBORO — Despite the discomfort of witnessing homelessness, panhandling and illegal activity, downtown business advocates urge people to travel downtown to shop, meet friends and engage in planned activities.

Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and co-owner, with her husband, Keith Arnold, of Duo Restaurant on Main Street, said it's important for people to keep supporting downtown businesses.

"There is no silver bullet," Bonin said. "But our work in the DBA is focused on always doing something and being in action, ... something toward that greater good of making sure the downtown stays vibrant and sustainable. A lot of the work of the DBA is focusing on positive fun and uplifting things to do in the downtown area. We put it out front ... what we are proud of and what we are known for."

Bonin said she is especially concerned when she hears from people who say they don't come into town anymore because of the panhandling and the perception that it's dangerous. She said when people stop shopping downtown, they are hurting the very businesses that are contributing to the agencies that are dealing with homelessness and addiction. Without those benefactors, said Bonin, those programs will falter.

"If you say you're not going downtown anymore, we are creating that as our reality," Bonin said. "I like to say I absolutely go downtown to meet my neighbor. It's up to us to make it welcoming. I want 10 more people to come downtown and put out into our community who they are. The danger is when people don't show up."

But Bonin also acknowledged that people do have a right to feel uncomfortable at times.

"Right now, there are some places in our town where a lot of people don't feel included or welcome," she said, including in the parking garage, where folks coming downtown might encounter other people hanging out, smoking and drinking or engaging in illegal activity. "That's not saying come over and buy your parking ticket at the kiosk. I hope we can all agree that everyone should feel welcome to walk up to the kiosk."

Rising above

our baser emotions

Sabine Rhyne, general manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, said folks that have "stepped over the bounds of respect and communal living" are hurting the majority of people who don't cause problems. And she said the people that are causing the problem are in the minority.

"Most panhandlers understand and are very respectful when people say no," she said. "They just want you to look them in the eye and say hello."

Rhyne, like others, hammered the point that it's not fair to paint everyone on the streets with a broad brush.

"It's a very diverse population that is living on the streets with a diverse set of needs," she said."Many of them are struggling with addiction of various kinds. When you are in that kind of situation, making good decisions is difficult."

Fitzgerald noted that not everyone who is homeless is suffering from substance use disorder or is causing trouble. "Nothing could be further from the truth. The same goes vice versa. Not every addict is a homeless person."

"We have to try hard not to scapegoat people," said Jon Potter, executive director of Latchis Arts and Latchis Corporation. "This whole situation is a call for us to rise above our baser reptilian response and work on it like grownups. This issue lives in me in a whole lot of places. From a moral perspective to interpersonal ethics, from a business perspective and from a person who loves his life in Brattleboro and a person who is witnessing what this is doing to people in our community. We didn't choose this situation, but it's one we have to deal with. I would love for us to be known as a community that did it well."

Potter gave credit to the many volunteers, agencies and non-profit organizations that are working on the issue.

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"When I've been to the community meetings, I have felt very strongly that the people we have working on this are the right people and are good people," said Potter. "However, the problem is ahead of the resources. Even if they opened the taps another 10 percent, the need is way beyond that."

More resources needed?

"As a community, we have to figure out how are we going to cope with this," said Gemma Champoli, special projects coordinator for Experienced Goods and Brattleboro Area Hospice. "We have to put more resources in. People are going to hate hearing that. But we have a culture where mental health hospitals have had to kick everyone out. The opioid epidemic is out of control and homelessness is an issue. It's the way it is. This is our reality."

When the town receives complaints from business owners or community members, said Town Manager Peter Elwell, "We offer explanations about the constraints of the laws and the things that are happening that may be less visible to the community so that people know that they're actually is a lot of work going on. Some things take time. Most of the people I've interacted with around this understand."

Though Elwell said he couldn't speak to how federal funds should be allocated, he and other town managers and the Vermont League of Cities & Towns have made their concerns well known to legislators in Montpelier.

"There's a broader agenda for municipalities in terms of making sure state law is written and state funds are shared in a way that addresses a whole number of different concerns," said Elwell. "A subarea of that discussion is about hub towns and the particular burden that is carried by communities that are the center of their area. These kinds of issues, alongside transportation issues, are probably the two most significant areas of concerns for hub towns."

Taxpayers in hub towns have a disproportionate burden because they are the center of their regions, said Elwell.

"But at the end of the day, we are responsible," said Elwell. "We deal as best we can with the things that are happening in our community, positive and negative. When that requires more resources, the first line of defense is Brattleboro taxpayers."

'In this together'

Potter said that while Brattleboro has its challenges, it's not worth giving up the fight.

"We are lucky to have a downtown that is still vibrant," said Potter. "It's not something we should take for granted."

Champoli agreed, urging people to continue to come downtown, to shop and meet each other, have a cup of coffee or sit for lunch.

"Don't let a handful of people who are struggling dictate how you maneuver through the world," said Champoli.

Elwell said that while some people are choosing to not come downtown, he also sees many people insisting on being in town and insisting on making a difference.

"We are rallying around downtown," he said. "We all need to keep working on this together."

"We're all in this together," said Bonin.

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


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