Northampton mayor convenes business owners to discuss panhandling

  • Mayor David Narkewicz leads a meeting with Northampton business owners about the panhandling report recently released. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Annie Lytle-Rich, owner of Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters and Tart Baking Co. in Northampton, speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aimee Francaes, co-owner of Belly of The Beast in Northampton, speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Annie Lytle-Rich, an owner of Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters and Tart Baking Co. in Northampton, speaks Wednesday at a business owners meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mayor David Narkewicz leads a meeting with Northampton business owners about the panhandling report recently released. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alan Wolf, chief of staff for the mayor, speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Janna Ugone speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jay Martin, owner of Northampton Olive Oil in Northampton, speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jesse Hassinger, co-owner of Belly of The Beast in Northampton, speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jesse Hassinger, co-owner of Belly of The Beast in Northampton, speaks at a meeting Wednesday with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rod Everson, a member of the church community in Northampton, speaks at a meeting with Mayor David Narkewicz about the recently released report on panhandling and its effects on businesses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2019 9:05:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — According to Richard Madowitz, owner and property manager at Thornes Marketplace, the question of whether panhandling is affecting business isn’t really a question.

“It’s absolutely affecting business,” he said adamantly, addressing business leaders convened by the mayor Wednesday morning. “The question is, how do we address the issue?”

That was the heart of the conversation at Mayor David Narkewicz’s meeting at Forbes Library, where around 50 business owners from around the city, along with some members of the city’s Panhandling Work Group, gathered in the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum.

Narkewicz began the meeting by summarizing some of the findings of the group’s 248-page report released earlier this month, titled “A Downtown Northampton for Everyone: Residents, Visitors, Merchants, and People At-Risk.”

The study features a survey of around 5,300 residents and visitors regarding their thoughts on the downtown business climate; interviews with panhandlers; and a list of the group’s non-punitive, recommended solutions. Wednesday’s meeting is just one of many planned sessions with specific groups to collect feedback on the report, Narkewicz said.

“We sort of had people at the far extremes in terms of what they thought the solutions were,” Narkewicz told the group, noting some said to leave the panhandling issue alone, while others sought to address it head-on. “What we really believe is that the solution is in the middle and that we need to figure out a way to bring people together.”

The morning’s discussion centered around the long- and short-term recommendations that “stood out” to the work group, Narkewicz said. Among these recommendations: a clear public messaging campaign; a giving fund; a multidisciplinary, de-escalation team to assist those living on the streets; a community day center; a day labor program; and a code of ethics for givers and receivers.

“There’s no monolithic person who is on the street panhandling,” Narkewicz said, adding that there are people living downtown who are both helpful and disruptive. “There’s definitely concerns among people who are on the street about their own safety and security.”

Annie Lytle-Rich, an owner of Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters and Tart Baking Co. downtown, said her staff, who are primarily younger women, as well as her women customers, often feel as though they are being harassed by male panhandlers. Lytle-Rich said she was surprised that the report failed to discuss gender and harassment in general, adding that there were no recommendations in the report regarding increased police support in the downtown area.

“That’s been my primary concern, the safety … for most of my employees,” Lytle-Rich said, adding that she believes there is a cultural expectation for women to talk to male panhandlers that they do not know.

The problem, she added later, is about boundaries and personal space. “To me, it’s not catcalling. It’s saying ‘hi’ every single day, it’s saying ‘good morning’ every single day, to a person you don’t know.”

Narkewicz told Lytle-Rich that the Police Department has dedicated downtown patrol officers, and the city encourages anyone to report any type of harassment.

Aimee Francaes, a co-owner of the restaurant Belly of the Beast, said there are some interactions that a person needs to learn how to navigate, even if they don’t necessarily want to have them.

“I totally can understand the societal pressure on women,” she said, “but, also, there’s a point where you just have to find your way in the world.”

Peter Whalen, owner of Whalen Insurance Agency, said he thought the community day center for people living on the streets was a good idea, suggesting that perhaps existing shelters, such as the one at 43 Center St., could have extended hours.

Peg Keller, director of Community Development Block Grant and a volunteer at the Center Street shelter, said that previous attempts to expand the space have been financially difficult — and that similar budgetary issues currently affect hours of operations for shelters around the city.

“There’s still a need for, as the folks on the street describe it, ‘a place to be,’” Keller said. “We just still have this gap in the system that we need to figure out.”

Janna Ugone, owner of Janna Ugone & Co. in Easthampton, who is married to Whalen, introduced the idea of a redeemable token or voucher that a person could buy from a social service organization that could be given to a participating business in exchange for food.

Judy Doele, marketing director at Thornes Marketplace, said the community has to commit its energy to the problem of panhandling to solve it because it is “the right thing to do as human beings.”

“It’s time to stop being in our corners,” Doele said.

Another suggestion brought up to the group was a temporary work agency where business owners could hire people living on the streets for odd jobs.

Madowitz made the point that if any recommendation made by the work group were to be implemented, the city would require a significant amount of money. Any upcoming Proposition 2½ override, he said, should include a line-item that clearly funds each particular program.

“A lot of the citizens of Northampton, and I think a lot of the business owners, would support a specific allocation of funds to solve the problem, and I think ultimately that’s got to be the solution,” he added later. “Everything else is sort of half-baked.”

Narkewicz said all of the ideas and concerns brought up to the group will be taken into account after these listening sessions are completed.

“Out of all of these various meetings, I think the idea is for the work group to come back together and analyze all of the feedback that we’ve received,” Narkewicz said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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