Panhandlers in Northampton say: 'We’re just trying to eat'
Front left, Raven Storm, back left, Shannon Thorn, back right, Erica Archambault, and Jimmy "Spyder" Erwin, pan handlers on Main Street Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Raven Storm, a pan handler on Main street in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Springfield native Sean Cooley said Northampton police advised him to make a sign so that his requests for spare change would be less bothersome to passersby. Cooley, who lives in Florence, said he is receiving help from Clinical and Support Options for his Tourette Syndrome. Purchase photo reprints »
Ben Boliver, who said he has been homeless for three years, is known to many on Main Street as a regular panhander. Boliver, who said he served in the Army National Guard, said he panhandles to raise money for his medications and for food. Purchase photo reprints »
Ben Boliver (right), who said he served in the Army National Guard and suffers from diabetes, has been homeless for three years and panhandling in downtown Northampton for two. He was chatting Thursday with his mother, Linda Boliver, who said she is also homeless. Purchase photo reprints »
Raven Storm, a pan handler on Main street in Northampton.
Purchase photo reprints »
A pan handlers sign on Main Street Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Raven Storm has a message for city residents put off by panhandlers on Main Street. “I’m not as bad as they think,” said Storm, 30, sitting on the lawn near the First Churches this week, collecting donations.
“Some of us are sweet, intelligent people,” added Storm, who said she’s been homeless for three years after escaping an abusive relationship in Amherst. “We just have bad circumstances.”
The issue of panhandling was part of the public debate over Mayor David J. Narkewicz’s decision to remove six benches in the heart of the city’s business district to discourage loitering.
Critics of the decision to pull the benches — an experiment Narkewicz announced Thursday he will reverse — argued the move was really aimed at keeping panhandlers and homeless people out of downtown.
Storm, who was holding a cardboard sign that read, “Outside, Hungry, Struggling,” said she doesn’t often use the benches on the many days she comes downtown to ask for change.
“I’m usually right here,” she said of the lawn and curbing near First Churches.
Storm was one of half a dozen people openly panhandling on Main Street interviewed by the Gazette this week and one of the few who agreed to give a full name.
Along with opinions about the benches, they shared stories about how they ended up on the sidewalks of the business district, seeking help from strangers. Mental illness, family strife and substance abuse were recurring themes. So was the generosity of Northampton citizens and the availability of social services in the city.
Many interviewees took pains to say they’d rather be earning a paycheck than asking people for spare change. Others wanted to distance themselves from the type of aggressive behavior the bench decision was meant to curb — behavior they say is displayed by a small minority of people on Main Street.
Several others declined to talk at all, made wary by the presence of TV cameras and reporters in the wake of the mayor’s decision to remove the benches.
A day’s take
Storm said she’s been struggling to make ends meet since graduating from Holyoke Community College in 2006 with an associate’s degree in business. At one point, she worked as a cashier in Hadley but said she’s now living on disability checks after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. She sees a therapist once a week in Northampton.
“The government check is not enough to survive on,” said Storm, whose blue eyes are set off by her dark hair. On a good day, she can make $20 or more from panhandling. On a slow day, she may make less than $5, she said.
At night, Storm said she and her common-law husband, James Erwin, 29, sleep in a tent pitched at a homemade campsite in some woods near downtown. They avoid homeless shelters, which usually have separate quarters for men and women.
Storm said she wouldn’t come downtown nearly every day to panhandle if she didn’t need the money. “I want to have a home, a place to live and settle down and a bed to sleep in,” she said.
A few blocks away, Sean Cooley was seated on Skera Gallery’s “peacock bench” holding a sign that read “Coffee $ Needed.”
Cooley, who said he lives in respite housing in Florence run by Clinical and Support Options, comes downtown mainly to be around people and activity.
“I don’t consider myself a panhandler,” he said. “I was told by law enforcement to get a sign because people feel offended” by verbal requests.
Cooley, 41, said he suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and has been unable to hold down a regular job. “I’m waiting till I get better,” he said.
He said he doesn’t see his mother, who lives in Worthington, or his two sisters in Springfield very often. He can’t remember when he first started coming to Northampton.
Cooley, who is husky with a strawberry-blond beard, said most passers-by are polite to him.
“I like being downtown because of all the people and the stores,” he said. “I usually stay until about 4 or 5 p.m. and then I take a bus back to Florence.”
Susan Mulholland, one of the gallery’s employee artists, said Cooley was sometimes loud and unapproachable when he started sitting on the bench outside the store some months ago. But after the store’s owners spoke with him about his behavior, “he has been happy and jolly. He even offers to share the bench with other people,” she said.
Around midday Thursday, as the temperature outside was climbing, 34-year-old Ben Boliver — who said he’s been homeless for three years — was sitting on a crate on the sidewalk near CVS with a sign and a cup.
His mom, Linda Boliver, 61 — who said she is also homeless — was chatting with him in a spot of shade.
Ben Boliver, who grew up in Florence, said he attended but did not graduate from Northampton High School. He said he served time in the Army National Guard after his junior year but his stint was not long enough to qualify for veterans benefits. So he panhandles to try and supplement his MassHealth coverage for medicine to treat his diabetes, as well as money for food and basic supplies.
Since he’s been coming to downtown Northampton for two years, Ben said he is a known quantity to many people he sees on the street.
“A lot of people know me and support me,” he said. “A lot of the police officers help out.”
“The merchants, too,” added his mom, who said she lost her job as a physical therapist’s assistant after an illness and is now living at ServiceNet’s Grove Street Inn shelter.
Ben said not all panhandlers downtown are honest about their situation and that makes it difficult for regulars such as himself.
“There’s a woman out here who is not a mom and doesn’t have three kids,” he said. “She’s doing this to support her coke habit.”
Still, Ben said that type of street activity “should be dealt with at the root” instead of a through a bench-removal policy “directed at everyone.”
Outside of Thornes, a man named Chris was also sitting on a crate holding a sign that said he was homeless and looking for work.
He said publicity over the benches had mixed results for people who live on the streets, producing sympathy about their situation but also a drop-off in donations. Chris declined to give his full name, citing problems he said he was having after losing his Social Security card and other identification.
Storm, who had no such reservations, said she doesn’t mind when people decline to give her money. What bothers her is when they make judgments about why she is on the street.
“They think everyone who does this does drugs and drinks,” she said. “But I’m sober. Coffee is my main addiction.”
While some passers-by “are really sweet and refer you to services,” others make comments about her smoking or the fact that she has a cellphone, Storm said.
What’s the most important thing people need to know about downtown panhandlers?
“We’re like everybody else,” Storm said. “We’re just trying to eat.”