Councilors Issue Scathing Objection to Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group

They say his Downtown Survey is “unscientific” and “misguided,” and that the mayor “subvert[ed their] intent”


The Shoestring

This evening, Tuesday, May 8, City Councilors Alisa Klein (Ward 7) and Maureen Carney (Ward 1) released a public statement entitled “On Mayor Narkewicz’s ‘Panhandling Work Group’ and its recently released ‘Downtown Northampton Survey.’” In the strongly worded statement, Klein and Carney refute the interpretation of the Committee on Community Resources [CCR] report in 2016 to which they contributed to, saying that their intent was subverted. The councilors state Never did we agree as a committee to ask the Mayor to study the issue of panhandling as the Mayor’s webpage states.”

In an effort to compromise with a dissenting voice on the committee who adamantly argued for a study on panhandling, they suggested the formation of a group that should instead “address the needs of downtown at-risk populations” rather than panhandling itself. “During contentious discussion amongst CCR members in late 2016, we argued that we did not want to address panhandling, nor did we wish to recommend that the Mayor do so.” Instead, they suggested the group address the needs of at-risk populations and also include them in the decision making process.

In the statement, Klein and Carney divulge that Councilor Bidwell, also a member of the CCR, was opposed to the inclusion of people who ask for money on Main street to be part of the work group. They question whether their input was even given to the Mayor. “It is unclear if, as the committee member assigned to liaise with the Mayor’s office about this aspect of the report, Councilor Bidwell ever brought our recommendation forward to the Mayor.”

They go on to clarify that they argued in CCR meetings that houseless people, people who ask for money, and at-risk members be represented in any body formed that addresses issues relating to these populations. “For example,” they suggest, “would the City ever form a work group to study and propose policy for members of LGBTQ communities without including members of those communities?; would the City create a work group on issues facing seniors without the inclusion of seniors on it?”

The councilors also oppose the presence of law enforcement on the Work Group saying, “The CCR recommendation to the Mayor did not call for the inclusion of the NPD in the work group and the language calling for ‘additional resources’ for the NPD was removed. Nonetheless, the NPD has been included in the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group.”

Last month, Mayor Narkewicz, the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Northampton Association and the NPD, all members of the Work Group, promoted a public survey created by the Work Group. Though it was entitled “Opinions on Downtown,” 20 out of 42 questions focused on panhandling and the survey floated options that included criminalizing panhandling, such as a “greater [police] presence” to “actively discourage panhandling.” In addition, though it may have been well intentioned (unlike the rest of the survey), it also requested that transgender community members identify as ‘transgender’ and not as a man or woman or as a transgender man or transgender woman.

 

In response to the Work Group’s survey on “Opinions on Downtown,” the Councilors say,

“This unscientific method of gathering public opinion, the language used in the survey to discuss people who ask for money on our streets, and what appears to us to be the survey’s not-so-hidden agenda, all have the effect of placing the blame for political, social, and economic problems on the vulnerable, rather than calling on those of us with resources and power to shift the societal inequities that cause poverty, houselessness, and other related issues. We are interested in tackling social issues using restorative and transformative justice approaches focused on building relationships and repairing harm; harm reduction philosophy that is non-judgmental and believes in, trusts, and respects people no matter where they are in their lives; and a lens of social, economic, and racial justice analysis that understands how oppression, poverty, racism, gender, and other inequities shape individuals’ and whole communities’ choices in life, and lack thereof. We have no interest in recommending or endorsing activities and surveys that offer paternalistic pseudo-solutions to deep societal issues. The “Downtown Northampton Survey” should be more accurately and honestly entitled “What Should We Do with Panhandlers in Northampton?,” for that is the issue with which the survey and its leading questions really want to engage.”

The Shoestring has reached out to Mayor Narkewicz and Dennis Bidwell for comment.

Read the full statement below.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Public Statement by Northampton City Councilors Alisa Klein and Maureen Carney on Mayor Narkewicz’s “Panhandling Work Group” and Its Recently-Released “Downtown Northampton Survey”

May 8, 2018

Contacts:

City Councilor Alisa Klein, (413) 586-9123, aklein@northamptonma.gov

City Councilor Maureen Carney, (413) 478-7615, mcarney@northamptonma.gov

NORTHAMPTON – We are releasing this statement to publicly share our objections to Mayor Narkewicz’s Panhandling Work Group and its recently-issued “Downtown Northampton Survey,” and to correct misinformation regarding the formation of the Work Group. According to its webpage (http://northamptonma.gov/1861/Mayors-Panhandling-Work-Group):

The Panhandling Work Group was formed by Mayor Narkewicz to study the issue of panhandling, it’s underlying causes, and potential non-legislative/non-punitive ways of addressing it and the needs of at-risk populations downtown. The group was formed last year following a January 2017 study on the local economy by the City Council’s Committee on Community Resources that recommended the Mayor study the issue. [emphasis ours].

As members of the Committee on Community Resources (CCR) that purportedly “recommended the Mayor study the issue,” we wish to correct a subversion of the intent of the Committee on Community Resources. A final report issued by the CCR (found here: https://www.northamptonma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/6727) does not, in fact, recommend that the Mayor study panhandling. During contentious discussion amongst CCR members in late 2016, we argued that we did not want to address panhandling, nor did we wish to recommend that the Mayor do so. In fact, we explained in multiple meetings of the CCR that it would be counter to our values to objectify members of our community in that way and that doing so would be to ignore an analysis of the structural inequities and racism in our society that create poverty, addiction, and houselessness, among other social issues. Because one member of the CCR remained adamant about addressing panhandling, other members of the committee negotiated a compromise of sorts and allowed the final report to include a recommendation that the Mayor:

convene a task force of City employees, representatives from social service, housing and advocacy organizations, and downtown stakeholders, to explore non-ordinance and non-punitive ways of addressing the needs of downtown at-risk populations [emphasis mine] and ways that expanded resources can be directed towards the agencies and organizations doing direct work with our at-risk populations.

It was our intention with this language that we look at ways to provide compassionate assistance to people in need who wished to receive it. Never did we agree as a committee to ask the Mayor to study the issue of panhandling as the Mayor’s webpage states. Further, in at least one meeting of the CCR, we argued that individuals who ask for money on the streets of Northampton, people who are houseless, and others who may be at risk, be part of the work group so that they can contribute their own experience and make recommendations. Our assertion was that never would the City form a work group to conduct research on and consider policies and actions regarding a particular community of people without their participation. For example, would the City ever form a work group to study and propose policy for members of LGBTQ communities without including members of those communities?; would the City create a work group on issues facing seniors without the inclusion of seniors on it? Councilor Dennis Bidwell stated that he would not be in favor of including people who ask for money in the work group. It is unclear if, as the committee member assigned to liaise with the Mayor’s office about this aspect of the report, Councilor Bidwell ever brought our recommendation forward to the Mayor. And indeed, the Work Group does not include members who are houseless, ask for money, or who may be at risk in some way.

Further, in the Committee on Community Resources meeting in December, 2016, we made a strong statement against including representatives from the Northampton Police Department (NPD) in a work group to figure out how the City can assist people in need in our downtown. We also called for removal from our recommendation to the Mayor language that called for “Additional resources for NPD Community Outreach Officers.” In feedback to a draft of the recommendation written by Councilor Bidwell, Alisa wrote and argued that this language identifies the police “as a City resource for interacting with at-risk folks, implying [that] there is, de-facto, a management role for police management [when]…‘at-risk’ should refer to the wellbeing of the folks on the street, not focus on potential for criminal or disruptive behaviors and actions that would require police intervention.” As a result of this advocacy, the CCR recommendation to the Mayor did not call for the inclusion of the NPD in the work group and the language calling for “additional resources” for the NPD was removed. Nonetheless, the NPD has been included in the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group.

Ultimately, the recommendation the CCR sent to the Mayor’s office was written to call for exploration of ways to provide resources and services to people in need. It called for a work group to explore the following possibilities:

  • Coordinating services to at-risk populations
  • [Providing] additional resources for social service outreach professionals to increase their current work connecting personally with potentially at-risk individuals downtown.
  • Finding effective ways to facilitate contributions to agencies and organizations providing services to at-risk populations
    • Effective messaging
    • Use of new technologies
    • Alternative donation locations
  • [Examining] what…the City Council and other City offices, committees, and commissions [can] do to be of additional help.

It was only after a number of Committee meetings and considerable changes to the framing and language of the recommendation that we conceded that the above language be sent forward to the Mayor’s office. As this language attests, the CCR recommendation to the Mayor did not call for examination of or attention to panhandling. And to reiterate, it was never our desire or intention for the Mayor to convene a work group to design policy for members of our community who are not even included in the work group’s activities.

In mid-April, the Mayor’s office publicly released the “Downtown Northampton Survey” constructed by the Panhandling Work Group. This unscientific method of gathering public opinion, the language used in the survey to discuss people who ask for money on our streets, and what appears to us to be the survey’s not-so-hidden agenda, all have the effect of placing the blame for political, social, and economic problems on the vulnerable, rather than calling on those of us with resources and power to shift the societal inequities that cause poverty, houselessness, and other related issues. We are interested in tackling social issues using restorative and transformative justice approaches focused on building relationships and repairing harm; harm reduction philosophy that is non-judgmental and believes in, trusts, and respects people no matter where they are in their lives; and a lens of social, economic, and racial justice analysis that understands how oppression, poverty, racism, gender, and other inequities shape individuals’ and whole communities’ choices in life, and lack thereof. We have no interest in recommending or endorsing activities and surveys that offer paternalistic pseudo-solutions to deep societal issues. The “Downtown Northampton Survey” should be more accurately and honestly entitled “What Should We Do with Panhandlers in Northampton?,” for that is the issue with which the survey and its leading questions really want to engage.

The survey appears to be designed with the hope that the responses to it will justify the actions and activities that the Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group seems to want to implement, not least of which is the removal of panhandlers from the streets of downtown Northampton. The survey asks for opinions on, among other misguided ideas, work programs that are not real solutions to the issues with which people who ask for money are dealing, but that are a way to keep people off the street when shoppers are traversing Northampton’s sidewalks; establishing a “code of ethics” for panhandlers as an attempt to control their behavior when others with power and money in our society who perpetrate far more destructive behavior than asking for spare change are not expected to adhere to particular ethical standards and practices; and having police “discourage panhandling…with a greater presence” when asking for money is not a criminal activity, thus stigmatizing and criminalizing poverty using the power of uniformed and armed law enforcement personnel.

Five years ago, the City Council adopted the Resolution to Support Vibrant Sidewalks (http://www.northamptonma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/6742/15357-Resolution-to-support-Vibrant-Sidewalks). In this resolution, the Northampton City Council affirmed that among the purposes of our downtown streets are movement, encounter (spontaneous and planned street fairs and festivities), and free expression such as protests, demonstrations, and sit-ins. The resolution acknowledges that for some people the sidewalk is “home” and the only place where they may be able to carry out the ordinary activities of daily life (e.g. eating and sleeping) that the rest of us more commonly do indoors. Of central relevance to this public statement was the resolution’s declaration that sidewalks are also where some people – such as people who panhandle, street vendors, or day laborers — go to earn a living, and its final resolution that the City Council envisions Northampton’s sidewalks as spaces that can accommodate all of these activities.

We stand by the language of the Vibrant Sidewalks Resolution. It is our belief that we, as a community and as a society, need to be able to look at and see the struggles of others and face our responsibility to address social inequity with compassion and grace. Creating policy to make “go away” what makes some people uncomfortable is not responsible governance. We will not abide by discriminatory practices against panhandlers and others in need that allows those with privilege, comfort, and money to attempt to further disenfranchise the people to whom our society grants little social, political, and economic power. Instead of sinking time and resources into controlling how people exist in our public spaces, we commit to and call upon all of our community leaders and members to participate in, efforts to address racism and the root causes of poverty, mental illness, addiction, and interpersonal harm. Instead of creating bad policies and practices, we must focus on providing affordable housing and leveraging resources to support people in economic distress. We need to care for children and families so they can be healthy in body and spirit. This takes real political sophistication, compassionate problem-solving, and dedicated commitment at a much deeper level than attempting to remove from our streets the people who ask for money in our downtown. Please join us in celebrating all of the people in our community and working towards positive and compassionate solutions to the social and economic issues we face.


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