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Downtown Northampton survey gets strong response

  • James B Winston talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • James B Winston, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bud Neiswender, owner of Inspirit Crystals, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia Foods, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia Foods, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mikala Hammonds, owner of Thelo, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia Foods, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mikala Hammonds, owner of Thelo, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mikala Hammonds, owner of Thelo, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by Mayor Narkewicz. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mikala Hammonds, owner of Thelo, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Parker McQueeney, an employee at Pita Pockets, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by Mayor Narkewicz. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Parker McQueeney, an employee at Pita Pockets, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bud Neiswender, owner of Inspirit Crystals, talks Monday afternoon about the down town Northampton survey put out by the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group.



@BeraDunau
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — A new survey designed to gauge opinion about issues affecting downtown Northampton — sponsored by a panhandling group advising the mayor — is drawing a huge response just a few days after its release by the mayor’s office.

Some praise the survey as a way to learn about what people think about downtown issues, while others are critical of the way the questions are worded around panhandling.

The survey comes courtesy of Mayor David Narkewicz’s Panhandling Work Group. A link to the survey can be found on the working group’s page on the city’s website.

Although a number of the questions on the survey deal with panhandling, others deal with busking and soliciting money for groups or causes. Still others ask about people’s relationship with downtown, and their thoughts on other topics. But panhandling is a key theme in the survey, which includes a series of questions seeking reactions to hypothetical proposals on the practice.

The mayor said the survey is for information-gathering purposes, and that it’s not designed to precipitate a new law or a punitive crackdown on panhandlers.

“That’s part of what we’re trying to find out,” Narkewicz said, on what comes next.

On Friday, less than 48 hours after the survey’s launch, Narkewicz said some 2,500 people had taken the survey.

“This is an issue that people are really passionate about,” Narkewicz said.

Advisory group

The panhandling advisory group includes members from the police department, downtown businesses and nonprofits that work with the homeless, among others. Its written purpose is to “study the issue of panhandling, its underlying causes, and potential non-legislative/non-punitive ways of addressing it and the needs of at-risk populations downtown.”

The group has no members who are panhandlers. Narkewicz said it’s difficult to find a person who represents the varieties of experiences in the panhandling community, and that this voice was instead being collected through surveys of panhandlers.

Because it is an advisory group to the mayor, the working group’s meetings are not subject to the Open Meeting Law.

Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia Foods, serves on the panhandling advisory committee. He said the goal of the survey was to get as many people’s honest opinions as possible, and that it sought to present questions in an unbiased way.

“We were trying to be as unbiased as we possibly could,” Stockwell said.

One of the questions, for example, asks how supportive the responder would be of an ordinance banning panhandling.

Stockwell said this was included in the survey purely to measure people’s knowledge of the issue. In fact, the city can’t pass an ordinance banning panhandling because that would be unconstitutional.

Survey reaction

Although she had not taken the survey yet, Bud Neiswender, one of the owners of Inspirit Crystals on Main Street, shared it on her personal Facebook page. She expressed hope that a variety of people would fill out the survey.

“The more people who see it, and maybe take it, the better chance we have of getting some decent information,” Neiswender said.

She noted that people use downtown Northampton like a living space, and that she didn’t want that to be lost. She also felt that there’s a difference between the perception and reality of downtown — specifically that there is a large population in need without resources. There are resources available for people in need, she said, although she acknowledged that more could be done.

Not all responses to the survey have been positive, and it has inspired a number of angry reactions on social media.

Local advocacy journalism website The Shoestring denounced the survey in its coverage, and urged people to answer it. It also suggested that people take it “as many times as you want using different/private browsers.”

Parker McQueeney, who works at the Pita Pocket on Main Street, took the survey after seeing it posted on Facebook. He said he felt it had leading questions, and that it was looking to hear from people who come to Northampton to shop and aren’t comfortable with homeless people.

On the issue of busking, McQueeney noted that he has a number of friends who make good money at it. He also expressed sympathy for panhandlers.

“They have to live, too,” he said.

Renata Brito-Cherrin, who recently moved to Delaware after living in Northampton for two years, took the survey but didn’t like it.

“I think that the survey is misguided,” she said.

She said the issues with downtown are economic. She said many people who live in Northampton can’t afford to shop downtown, and that focusing on panhandling was looking at a cosmetic problem.

Brito-Cherrin also said that while she’s never been aggressively accosted by panhandlers, those collecting money for causes have been aggressive with her.

Stockwell also has found those who solicit money for causes to be more aggressive.

James Winston, an attorney whose office is in the Main Street building that he owns, took the survey after learning about it from and speaking to the Gazette.

“I think it’s a good survey,” he said, expressing appreciation for how it allowed people to register what they are happy and unhappy about downtown.

He also said that he liked the proposal floated in the survey for local business people to give panhandlers work, as well as another that would provide them with education. Additionally, he expressed opposition to graffiti downtown.

Mikala Hammonds, owner of Thelo, took the survey after speaking to the Gazette.

Thelo said that on the first warm day of 2018, which was in February, there were lots of panhandlers and fights between them.

“There was blood,” she said.

Saying that emergency personnel were called down three times that day, Hammonds said such a situation could have been contained if there was a single police officer walking the beat.

However, what Hammonds said had the most negative effect on her business were big public events, such as the Women’s March and the Holiday Stroll, which she said shuts down her business. Hammonds said she is a supporter of the march and the stroll.

Hammonds also said she had issues with people not being able to add extra money to on-street parking under the new parking system.

Because of the poor weather Monday, only one person was actively panhandling downtown. The person refused to speak to the Gazette on the record.

Stockwell said the survey is set to run for about three weeks. Narkewicz, meanwhile, said that there’s no clear deadline for the working group to act.

“This is a process,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazetttenet.com.