Columnist John Paradis: Panhandlers and downtown shoppers alike deserve respect

  • Downtown Northampton on Main Street. File Photo

Friday, August 11, 2017

It started with a simple message to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz on social media from one of my neighbors on a recent Sunday afternoon.

“Hi Mayor, I hope you’re enjoying this splendid Sunday!” she wrote. “Although we’re friends on Facebook, not sure you know how much I LOVE my town! This is where I started my family, and where I still call home!”

She then went on to explain that a family member was downtown during last month’s sidewalk sales and was harassed by panhandlers on the street.

Northampton police were called and they instructed the panhandlers to move, but they didn’t budge.

She then appealed to the mayor to address the issue that, she said, is getting more and more out of hand.

“I can’t be alone in becoming very unhappy about the increasingly new scene in downtown Noho,” she wrote. “And, it’s just a matter of time before those out of towners who come for our shops, restaurants and bike paths stop coming. It’s also a matter of time, before the shop owners and downtown business community leave for other areas.”

Some hours later the mayor responded and explained the city had formed a panhandling working group, which was reviewing best practices from other cities and was seeking solutions toward a comprehensive plan.

He admitted the issue was “complicated and multi-faceted.” More information, he said, would be forthcoming when the group completes its work and issues its recommendations.

“In the meantime, our city has zero tolerance for harassing or abusive behavior downtown or anywhere and encourage residents or visitors who experience such behavior to call the police immediately,” wrote the mayor.

The mayor is right, of course. The panhandling issue is about as complex an issue as you will find and it’s one that isn’t just a challenge here in Northampton. I recently was in Bloomington, Indiana, another progressive, college town and found similar concerns voiced by city residents there.

And I also agree with my neighbor. If you’ve walked up and down Main Street on either side of the street, you’ve experienced no doubt what we’ve all experienced — panhandlers who cuss out people or worse.

I’ve been on the receiving end several times over the years, and while I choose to ignore the moment and walk on, or around, it’s still upsetting.

So what do you do when it happens to one of your kids or you see a confrontation occur before your very eyes? After a while, you don’t feel much like going downtown.

Those who know people who panhandle will tell you that many have serious behavioral health issues. But what I found is a general disagreement over what to do should you be approached by someone asking for money.

Some will tell you that you should never give money to a panhandler. Panhandling for drugs and alcohol is common and giving panhandlers cash they can use to feed their habit is tantamount to putting a gun to their heads. Instead, contribute money to agencies and organizations that are available to help them, they say.

“Feed the frog and feed the hungry” says a friend who works for the city of Northampton, referring to the bronze statue of the happy frog that’s in front of First Churches of Northampton with a donation slot for spare change or cash. That way you know the money is being used responsibly.

Others tell me that panhandlers use the money you give them for food and clothing and you can’t stereotype every person asking for money as having an illness or an addiction. They choose to live the way they do and that’s their right to ask others for money, they say.

If you can spare some change, why not help them, then? Being poor is not a sin and helping the poor with something as simple as a few quarters or a couple of dollar bills, is what a compassionate fellow human being does, right?

And that’s where we are. When you ignore a panhandler are you callous? When you give them money are you just being a good person or are you worsening an existing mental illness or aiding and abetting a substance abuser?

The issue runs even deeper, though, and I’ve had discussions with friends over what this means in the context of social privilege and rising economic inequality. As someone wrote on the Facebook discussion with the mayor, there’s a lot of underlying meaning when you address the problem.

“I have participated in online discussions about the issue of panhandling on Main St., and those discussions often became ugly,” wrote the person. “People’s values were called into question, and accusations of entitlement were made. Opposing viewpoints were often expressed via ad hominem attacks, and while I did find some comments enlightening and thought-provoking, I generally felt that the conversations were counterproductive.”

Whatever is decided with the city’s forthcoming plan, I hope we can find some common ground. While we’re all entitled to space, visitors and residents alike should be able to freely move around Main Street without feeling unsafe and no one should be intimidated or harassed.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System.