Homelessness, Panhandling And Addiction: Brattleboro Tackles 'Severe' Challenges

Sep 26, 2019

Over the summer, the town of Brattleboro has made efforts to address homelessness by adding porta-potties to its downtown and supporting a jobs program. But some residents and business owners are pushing community leaders to do more.  

Brattleboro town manager Peter Elwell says issues around homelessness aren't new there but have reached a different level of intensity.

“The impacts this particular summer of some of the same kinds of issues we’ve been dealing with for the last several years have been more severe,” Elwell said. “That means more severe personal impacts for individuals that are affected by homelessness and poverty, but also broader and more significant impacts to the community.”

The town is paying $1,000 a month for three porta-potties after the police found human waste in the streets.

Brattleboro pays $1,000 per month to have these porta-potties in the downtown area after human waste was discovered in public spaces earlier this summer.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The selectboard also voted to support a jobs program that would pay people who are experiencing homelessness $15 an hour for day labor.

Employees at the public library protested the latter decision, saying that’s more than they make.

“We know that there are people who think the town ought to be addressing some aspects of this differently,” Elwell said. “To those people what I would say is, stay in the conversation with us. Let us know when you’re thinking that we ought to be changing up some of how we’re addressing this. Because the work’s not done. It’s not going to be done. These are going to be issues that are going to be with us for a long time.”

"We know that there are people who think the town ought to be addressing some aspects of this differently. To those people what I would say is, stay in the conversation with us." — Peter Elwell, Brattleboro Town Manager

The director of Brattleboro's homeless shelter and food shelf, Josh Davis, says because the town is trying to address not only homelessness but panhandling and opioid addiction, it opens up uncomfortable conversations.

“There’s frustration by some parts of the community about seeing people on the street, asking for money,” Davis said.

Some shop owners say people are tired of being asked for money whenever they park downtown. At public forums, business owners and employees tell stories of shoplifting and finding people doing drugs in their bathrooms.

Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce Director Kate O’Connor says there’s been pushback against business owners who want their voices heard.

“You fear if you stand up and ask a question or speak your mind, you will be deemed a person without compassion,” O’Connor said. “But unless we all listen to each other and really hear what we have to say, that to me is the most important thing.”

"You fear if you stand up and ask a question or speak your mind, you will be deemed a person without compassion. But unless we all listen to each other and really hear what we have to say, that to me is the most important thing." — Kate O'Connor, Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce

Davis, the homeless shelter director, pointed out there’s more than one side of the conversation to be heard.

“There’s … the people that are on the street are saying, ‘Hey, we have nowhere to go,’” he said.

Mike Coty is one of the people who spends his days in downtown Brattleboro, asking people for money.

Coty says there is a perception that some of the people panhandling are using their money to buy drugs. But he says he's just trying to survive.

Mike Coty said there is a perception that people like himself panhandle for drug money, but in reality, he's just trying to survive.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

“I do think one thing that could help the homeless situation here is building more houses,” Coty said. “See, my wife only gets $750 a month. And the cheapest apartment around is $890, something like that. And if we maybe had some affordable housing, we might be able to get off the street.”

Anthony Rivera is also experiencing homelessness. He says the people on the street have nowhere else to go.

Rivera says he's been applying for jobs, but he knows business owners don't want to take a chance on someone like him.

"Nobody wakes up and say, 'I want to be homeless. This is my dream.' You know, some people are forced to it." — Anthony Rivera, Brattleboro

”A lot of homeless are out here because they were heartbroken, or they were the black sheep of the family,” Rivera said. “Nobody wakes up and say, 'I want to be homeless. This is my dream.’ You know, some people are forced to it.”

Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald says when it comes to addressing issues surrounding homelessness in the community, it’s important to actually speak to one another.

“Once you start knowing their names, it's personalized, you know, you're humanizing the situation,” Fitzgerald said. “Where before, there's this big barrier, and you're on one side and they're on the other.”

Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald said community perceptions about homelessness being linked to some kind of criminality are just that: perceptions.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Fitzgerald says the police aren't giving out tickets to people who are sleeping on the sidewalks. And panhandling is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

As for opioid addiction, he says Brattleboro police are arresting drug dealers, but trying to get people who are just using drugs into rehab.

Fitzgerald says when he stops to talk with people who are uncomfortable with what they’re seeing on downtown streets, it’s often hard to pin it onto criminal activity.

“And I understand the perception, but that’s exactly what it is, it’s the perception,” he said. “And if you’re fearful because they look different from you, they’re louder than you ... how am I going to address that as a police chief, or a law enforcement officer? We’re not criminalizing poverty. We’re not criminalizing mental health issues.”