Guest columnist Jalil Johnson: Bleeding hearts of Northampton and the beggars utopia

  • A man panhandling in downtown Northampton in 2016. gazette file photo

Published: 6/8/2021 3:20:41 PM

I moved to Northampton 11 years ago, specifically for the bustling progressive culture of the small city. In the short 10 years that I’ve lived in the Northampton area, I along with others, have noticed the infusion of people camped out on the sidewalks begging for spare change.

Recently, on an outing with my family and three small children, we noticed an abundance of people begging and asking for money. While walking on Main Street, we encountered a person begging for money every 40 or 50 feet. Some of these people were quite ominous and aggressive in their asks; others were quiet or dejected; and some seemed mentally ill, physically ill, or both.

The steps of City Hall were covered with trash, and can adequately be described as repulsive by any standard. The entire scene, which should have been a nice walk downtown, was quite sad.

I work in the cities south of Northampton — Holyoke and Springfield — and my experience is that the concentration of people begging for money on the sidewalks of Northampton is staggeringly higher than on the main streets in the larger cities of western Massachusetts. Some of the people begging for money on the streets of Northampton travel from Springfield and Holyoke, to Northampton, where they stand in front of the shops or restaurants and beg for money. I know this because I’ve treated them as patients.

Perhaps people congregate on Main Street in Northampton because the residents of this small city have more disposable income and are more willing to give to people who beg for money on the sidewalk. As a person of color, a person who once lived in abject poverty, and a person whose career is dedicated to helping marginalized people; I assure you, the people who beg for money on the streets of Northampton do not need, nor are their lives enriched in any way by offering them spare change.

I would go so far as to argue that it is not only unnecessary to give people spare change, the act also indirectly adds to the declining, unpleasant environment in downtown Northampton by reinforcing the begging behaviors. The begging culture is more than tolerated, it is seemingly welcomed by the social justice warriors and bleeding hearts, who encourage this endless stream of people who claim to need their pocket change in order to get by. The people begging for spare change may need help, but they certainly do not need anyone’s pocket change.

Massachusetts has great access to health care and safety net benefits for indigent people; and most indigent people are eligible for and receive SNAP benefits. There is no reason to give a person in Northampton money for food. A person can get a free meal in Northampton seven days per week, 365 days per year. Here are some places to get a free meal every day of the week in Northampton: Manna Soup Kitchen: free meals daily except Fridays, at St John’s Episcopal Church (413-584-1757) or Edwards Church (413-584-5500). Northampton Survival Center: Monday, Wednesday, Fridays. (413- 586-6564).

There are shelters throughout western Massachusetts. For people in Northampton they can access shelter services like Grove Street Inn. Domestic violence survivors may need help as well and may receive free help and resources at places like Safe Passage (413-586-5066), and South Middlesex Opportunity (508-872-4853). Indigent people may also be in need of employment assistance, and can find a plethora of resources at Hampshire County Resource Center (413- 587-7555).

Mental health and substance use treatment are also needed for some of the people we see begging for money in Northampton. Three well established community mental health providers offer mental health and substance use treatment services in Northampton: Clinical Support Options; Behavioral Health Network; and Center for Human Development.

We can solve this problem. We can return to a time when a family can spend time in the downtown Northampton area, without it being inundated with people begging for money. Importantly, we can help people access resources without giving them money directly.

Please help indigent people by donating money and or time to any of the service providers listed above; or do nothing at all. We know that giving spare change causes problems; but if we give to an organization, at least we will know our resources will go to those in need and won’t contribute to the current precarious problem of the beggars utopia.

Jalil Johnson is a resident of Northampton.
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