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Editorial: Northampton’s panhandling study is compassionate, if imperfect


Published: 11/8/2019 3:12:19 PM

On Nov. 1, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz released the city’s long-awaited panhandling report — a project almost as controversial as the issue of panhandling downtown itself — and predictably it became something of a hot topic on social media.

“A lot of downtowns attract panhandling, which prompts local debates if officials should prevent it or respect free speech,” tweeted Bill Scher, a contributing editor to Politico who happens to be married to city councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra. “Not every downtown surveys panhandlers to get their perspective.”

Before long, Scher was retweeted by the online publication The Shoestring: “Right, a task force appointed by the mayor which studies a population in secret meetings, closed to the public, and which includes 0 representatives from the population being studied is totally forgiven by asking 18 people invasive questions in exchange for a $10 gift card.”

The exchange distills a lot of the conversation around the issue — both the public’s cautious interest in the study, as well as the suspicion of it. One camp is glad the issue is finally being thoughtfully researched and discussed, while the other is offended by the very idea of a group “studying” panhandling — a practice that is protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment — especially behind closed doors.

It’s true that the panhandling study group was convened and met privately, starting in 2017. It’s also true that, unwisely, it did not include a single person from the population being studied. Rather, it was made up of city officials, including the police chief, as well as members representing downtown businesses, social service organizations and local churches. It is not true, according to the mayor, that the group formed to police or punish panhandlers for just trying to survive, though we reserve some skepticism about the motivation for studying any one group, especially a marginalized one that has been scapegoated by many for the ills of downtown life. 

Still, when the Gazette reached out to the city for documents about the panhandling work group through a public records request, we received what we asked for. And last Friday, the mayor released the final report, “A Downtown Northampton for Everyone: Residents, Visitors, Merchants, and People At-Risk,” which details interviews conducted with 18 panhandlers and the results of a broad online survey about the culture of downtown taken by 5,300 residents and 2,000 visitors.

Reading the report, we were moved by the voices of the panhandlers interviewed, all but one of whom said they were experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity at the time. One person said panhandling made them “feel like I’m the bottom of a shoe,” while another said the hardest part of panhandling is “asking working people for money.” Asked what type of work they used to do, the interviewees gave a range of responses: drywall finisher, registered nurse, cook, stay-at-home mom, to name a few. They worry most about housing, money, medical care, stability and pending legal action, according to the study, which verges on advocacy. “The pain of the experience is evident,” the authors write. “The feeling of being dehumanized and marginalized by the community, the struggles of not being able to find work and permanent housing, and the overlaying feelings of insecurity and not feeling safe are important threads the community should keep in mind as it considers potential approaches.”

While the online survey did ask respondents about two measures to limit panhandling — passing a law to prohibit or restrict the practice and increasing police intervention — a disclaimer in the report notes that they were never on the table as actual approaches to be considered by the city, but rather “to understand how many people in the survey felt that either of these solutions represent the answer.” As it turns out, nearly one-in-three of respondents “still believe it’s possible to pass a law,” despite the fact that, historically, such attempts have been struck down. “Those with an interest in any approach to help people who panhandle should plan on spending some time explaining the futility of calling for new laws to about a third of the room,” the report states. As for more police enforcement, it continues, the mayor, police chief and work group have said that “they believe this approach is inconsistent with the culture and values” of the city.

Instead, the work group’s proposed ideas include launching a public messaging campaign to educate people about available services and giving options; crafting a panhandling code of ethics for both panhandlers and passersby to ensure mutual respect; creating a day labor program for those searching for work; and opening a centralized community day center to assist people needing access to housing, medical care and social services. We think many of these ideas have promise, and we’re eager to see which ones gain momentum. 

We do take issue with the work group’s decision not to include a person who panhandles in the group because, as the report states, “some members felt … that it might be stressful for only one or two individuals to be the voice of many.” Why not ask and let the individual make that call? 

But overall, we were struck by the compassionate tone of the report, which, far from dehumanizing people who panhandle, appeals for empathy over animosity.

Of course, that’s not as fun to tweet about.

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