Northampton report puts panhandling in perspective

  • Colin Olmstead, on Main Street in Northampton, talks about his experience panhandling, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Colin Olmstead, on Main Street in Northampton, talks about his experience panhandling, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A man at Main and King streets who goes by the name of Tree, with his dog, Annie, talks Friday about panhandling in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A man who wished to go unidentified talks about panhandling on Main Street in Northampton on Friday.

  • Colin Olmstead, on Main Street in Northampton, talks about his experiences panhandling Friday. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A man on the corner of Main and King streets who goes by the name of Tree, with his dog, Annie, talks about his experience panhandling in Northampton, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Open-ended responses to the question, “What do you like to do when you’re downtown?” demonstrate that people who panhandle view Northampton as a safe or respectful place to ask for money or food and that many appreciate being able to “hang out,” according to the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling Study Report. COURTESY CITY OF NORTHAMPTON

Staff Writer
Published: 11/1/2019 5:35:40 PM

NORTHAMPTON — “I don’t like panhandling. It’s a need, not a want.”

That’s what one panhandler said when surveyed for the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group, which convened more than two years ago to research one of the more contentious issues in downtown life.

Now, the public is getting its first in-depth look at the findings with a 248-page report released Friday, titled, “A Downtown Northampton for Everyone: Residents, Visitors, Merchants, and People At-Risk.”

The report details interviews conducted with panhandlers, a survey for residents and visitors, and the group’s recommended, non-punitive solutions.

“Panhandling and the plight of at-risk individuals on our downtown streets and sidewalks has been a source of public concern, debate, and controversy in Northampton for decades,” the report reads, and it “has polarized public opinion for years.”

Mayor David Narkewicz said it’s an issue he has long heard residents talk about, even before he took office in 2011. While some residents worry about the effect panhandling has on business and tourism, others are more concerned with the well-being of the panhandlers themselves.

“A lot of people talk about this issue by anecdote or experience or, in some cases, a stereotype of what they think,” Narkewicz told the Gazette on Friday. “We wanted to go beyond that.”

The group, formed in 2017, includes Peg Keller, city housing and community development planner; Jody Kasper, chief of the Northampton Police Department; and other members who represent a wide swath of life in the city, from downtown businesses (the Downtown Northampton Association) to social service organizations (ServiceNet, Tapestry) to local churches (First Churches of Northampton).

No panhandlers were in the work group because “some members felt … that it might be stressful for only one or two individuals to be the voice of many,” the report says, adding that, instead, the group opted to include panhandlers’ perspectives through a survey.

Eighteen panhandlers — all but one of whom said they were homeless or housing insecure — were interviewed by a team including a Northampton Police officer, staff from ServiceNet and a pastor with the outdoor Christian community known as Cathedral in the Night, which “seeks to create a safe place for all people: the homeless, the housed, the church-less, the churched, the student and the resident,” according to its website. The respondents were each given a $10 downtown Northampton gift card. Later in the process, Narkewicz held a follow-up meeting with six panhandlers to get their feedback on recommendations made in a draft of the report.

Many interviewees spoke about “the dehumanizing nature of panhandling” and referenced disrespectful treatment from community members on Main Street, the report says.

One panhandler expressed frustration with “people not understanding that I exist,” while others said the hardest part of panhandling is “having to beg” and “making people on Main Street uncomfortable,” according to the study. “It’s tiring. I’d rather work,” said another.

“Societal and mental health issues” cause people to be on the streets, not a desire to be there, the report concludes: “There was little evidence to support the notion that some of those who ask for money on our sidewalks live in apartments in other communities and ‘commute’ to Northampton for their ‘jobs’ as ‘professional panhandlers.’”

A call for community support

Of the 18 interviewees, 78 percent said they think the city has more people panhandling than other places, and many said they do it in Northampton for a reason. “Respondents reported that they panhandle in Northampton more because of the kindness and generosity of Northampton’s people than because of the availability of services,” the report reads.

That is true for Colin Olmstead, who lives in Chicopee but comes to Northampton to panhandle because, in his city, “the cops will kick you out,” he said, sitting near CVS downtown Friday.

But despite the kindness and generosity of some passersby, others are uncomfortable with the presence of panhandlers downtown.

The report also includes the results of an online survey of more than 5,300 residents and 2,000 downtown visitors.

Panhandling was identified as the “single biggest issue facing downtown,” above vacant storefronts and high rents.

Although some critics have voiced concern about the study’s focus on panhandling and the very existence of the work group, Narkewicz said the issue can’t be ignored.

“We’re researching it because it’s a major issue on people’s minds,” he said.

Asked if panhandling is “detrimental” to downtown, respondents were split: 47 percent said it is, 39 percent said it is not and 14 percent said they are not sure.

The study found “two quite divergent narratives about the state of downtown,” it says. One group, which trends older, is concerned about panhandling, think people do it out of choice and advocate for an “aggressive” response to the issue. The other group is largely made up of younger people who are not concerned about panhandling, advocate for a “hands-off” approach and “tend to believe that societal issues can explain the presence of panhandling.”

“The work group concluded that neither of these views captures the reality of downtown, and that more nuanced approaches to understanding and dealing with the issue are warranted,” the report says, noting that most people fell somewhere on the spectrum between the two perspectives.

The report wraps up with a series of recommendations for “non-regulatory, non-punitive actions” to address panhandling that “would move the conversation away from ordinances and policing.”

Those recommendations include launching a public messaging campaign to educate the community about panhandling and to “impact solutions to reduce the need for people to panhandle,” creating a fund to provide more resources to at-risk populations, providing options for online giving, opening a community day center, increasing education opportunities, providing storage units for people living on the street, and creating low-threshold housing units for “chronically homeless individuals.”

The recommendations are potential initiatives to study, Narkewicz said. “This is not like, ‘These are the 10 things that we must do to address this issue,’” he said. The mayor urges people to read the report and send him feedback at mayor@northamptonma.gov or call 413-587-1249. The group plans to reassemble and develop an implementation plan after receiving input from the community through the end of the year.

“It’s clear if we’re going to try to advance any of these recommendations, there has to be community support and help,” he said. “Frankly, we’re going to need their help to be successful.”

Recommendations also include a flexible day labor program, an idea that 82 percent of the surveyed panhandlers supported.

Several people panhandling Friday in downtown Northampton liked the idea of the day labor program.

“It’s a good idea. It all depends on how you go about it,” said a man who goes by the name of Tree, sitting with his dog, Annie. He would also like to see more public restrooms downtown and the water fountain in Pulaski Park turned on. “Most stores don’t want to let you use their bathroom,” he said. Relieving oneself in an alley is uncomfortable, he added, and if he gets caught by police, there could be serious consequences.

Another panhandler, who said his name is Adam and declined to give his last name, also liked the day labor program idea but said he hoped it would include skills training. He would like to see downtown stores give him and other people who panhandle a few hours of work to do, such as picking up trash and sweeping the sidewalk.

Housing is one of the most pressing needs for people who panhandle, said Olmstead, who perked up at the idea of a job program. “I want to work, but there’s a bias against older employees,” he said.

He panhandles to get money for bus fare to go to job interviews, he said. “Believe me, once I get a job, I ain’t going to come back here,” Olmstead said. “This is not a recommended career path.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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