A History of the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling

 


JULES MARSH

When Mayor Narkewicz recently released the ‘Opinions on Downtown’ survey on his Facebook and Twitter accounts on April 11, he did not include the fact that it was produced by his Work Group on Panhandling. Since the release of the survey and its subsequent backlash, he has begun to publicly speak about his work group.

Narkewicz has stated that he formed the group in accordance with a recommendation made by  a committee of four City Councilors, the Committee on Community Resources (CCR), in an economic report they issued in 2016. However, three of the four City Councilors on that committee have, since the inception of the Work Group on Panhandling in 2017, contested Narkewicz’ claim that they recommended he create a group to study panhandling. Most recently, Councilors Alisa Klein and Maureen Carney issued a public statement denouncing the group and its recent survey. Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra also voiced her concerns about the focus of the group in a CCR meeting in 2017 and reiterated those concerns recently to The Shoestring.

In a recent statement that appeared in both The Gazette and MassLive, Mayor Narkewicz responded to the statement issued by Klein and Carney saying,

“I am somewhat puzzled by the timing of these concerns given that my work group has been meeting for over a year and includes a member of the City Council committee that conducted the local economy hearings and issued the report.”

Yet, as multiple city records and statements released by city officials will show, the concerns of the Councilors and their objections to the formation of the group are by no means new. And according to Klein, the group has never issued an official progress report to the Council, leaving the ‘Opinions on Downtown’ survey to be the first and only indication of the group’s activities. The Shoestring asked the Mayor if the group has ever issued any progress reports or updates to the CCR or City Council in general. He did not respond.

Though the Mayor has begun publicly commenting on the group only recently, it has existed since early 2017 and according to an email The Shoestring received from his office on April 7, it has met 10 times since it formed. It may have held a meeting since we received the Mayor’s email, but no one would know except members of the group. This is because the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling does not hold open meetings nor does it list the record of its meetings on the city calendar.

The Shoestring has been investigating the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling since late last year, when we learned about it at a City Council meeting. (Councilor Bidwell mentioned it offhandedly in a comment he made while opposing the Ordinance to Restrict Surveillance Cameras.) As we tried to find out more, co-editor Harrison Greene and I experienced a strange reluctance by city officials to share any information. Bidwell, a member of the group, assured us, during a town hall style meeting hosted by City Council President Ryan O’Donnell, that the group was doing good work but could not share any more than that. Peg Keller, the city’s Housing and Community Development Planner, (who we later found out is a member of the group and facilitates its meetings), lied to our faces in front of a room full of local social service professionals at a Next Step Collaborative meeting we attended at City Hall. When I asked her whether the group was working with the Chamber of Commerce (it is), she said that she had no idea what I was talking about and told me to, “talk to the Mayor about that.” The Shoestring reached out to Keller for comment on this event. We did not hear back.

In an attempt to shed light on a secretive group that will soon issue policy recommendations concerning a population that it defined and ‘studied’ without the inclusion of members of that population, I have compiled a history of the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling.  In the place of transcripts, videos, and meeting minutes of the group, which don’t exist because as I will show, Mayor Narkewicz did not want them to, our sources include transcripts of Committee on Community Resources (CCR) meetings, CCR meeting notes as recorded by the city clerk, statements by city officials in past Gazette, Western Mass News, and MassLive articles, and statements The Shoestring was able to obtain by reaching out to city officials.

January 2017

The first mention of a work group on panhandling can be traced back to The Gazette’s coverage of a report issued by the CCR in early 2017. The CCR is comprised of four members. In 2017, those members were Councilors Bidwell, Carney, Sciarra, and Klein.

On January 17, 2017, the CCR released an economic report in which it stated,

“The Committee recommends that the Mayor convene a task force of city employees, representatives from social service, housing and advocacy organizations, downtown stakeholders, and a member of this committee, to explore non-ordinance and non-punitive ways of addressing the needs of downtown at-risk populations and ways that expanded resources can be directed towards the agencies and organizations doing direct work with our at-risk populations.”

On Jan 23, 2017 The Gazette published an article titled, “City Council Committee Recommends Forming Panhandling Task Force.”  (The print version of the article had a different title, “City set to look at begging.”) In the article, The Gazette reports,

“A task force to look at the perennial issue of panhandling, and what the city can do to alleviate concerns around it, is one of the proposals to arise out of last year’s community forums on the city’s economy.”

The piece quotes Councilor Sciarra, a member of the CCR and one of the authors of the report.  In the article, she stressed the report’s focus on services, “We were focused more on the needs of the individuals and how to better channel resources to them, and figure out if there’s work that can be done that will be compassionate and helpful.” Sciarra never mentions panhandling. Despite this fact, The Gazette published its headline claiming that a task force on panhandling was to be formed.

On Jan 24, 2017, the day after The Gazette article, Sciarra wrote an op-ed criticizing the headline of the piece she was quoted in the day before. Her op-ed was titled, “Gina-Louise Sciarra: Criticizes headlines for misrepresenting facts.” In it she states that The Gazette’s headlines,

“misrepresented the content and tenor of the recommendation made by the City Council Committee on Community Resources.” She goes on to say that the CCR’s recommendations, “are not focused on targeting or further marginalizing those in our community who are already vulnerable. Headlines that are meant to grab attention — but inaccurately summarize content — obfuscate the facts and fail to inform readers.”

Though Councilor Sciarra is criticizing The Gazette, not the Mayor in her op-ed, her concerns about the possibility of a work group focused on panhandling are clear. We recently reached out to Sciarra for comment on the CCR’s economic report. She told us, “The wording in the report was chosen carefully, and we wanted it to be clear that the recommendation was not focused on panhandling, though we acknowledged that it was a topic we heard about in the public forums.”

February 2017

The following month the group was mentioned for the first time in a City Council committee meeting. On February 21, 2017, the first mention of Narkewicz’s work group occurred in the Council Chambers at a CCR meeting. As of this meeting, the group had not yet formed. According to meeting notes,

“Councilor Bidwell reported that he had a recent discussion with the Mayor                          concerning the panhandling/at-risk population in downtown. Mayor Narkewicz                reports that he is doing some work on this internally.”

April 2017

On April 13, 2017, the group was again mentioned during a CCR meeting. Bidwell confirmed the group had been created and reported back to the committee with its statistical findings.  According to meeting notes,

“Councilor Bidwell also reports that the Mayor has established a Panhandling Advisory Group, as had been recommended by the committee.” The notes continue, “The focus of the [group’s] next meeting will be to share data about who is out on the streets and why.”

Klein inquired about whether or not the group’s meetings would be open to the public and stressed the need for transparency.

“Councilor Klein asked whether the Mayor’s ad-hoc committee was subject to open meeting laws. Councilor Bidwell believes that the Mayor’s ad-hoc committees are not subject to open meeting law because members are not elected officials. Councilor Klein suggested that this is a crucial issue that people have very strong feelings about and the kind of conversation that a lot of people would like to have access to.”

May 2017

On May 17, 2017, in the following CCR meeting, Councilor Bidwell reported back on the group’s progress. He shared that something that everyone in the Mayor’s work group agrees on is that there are those who are deserving of compassion and those who are not. The members of the committee engaged in a long discussion about Mayor Narkewicz’s group.  The Shoestring transcribed this meeting [watch the full exchange here].

In response to Councilor Klein’s question regarding the group’s stance on panhandling, Councilor Bidwell replied,

“I have been impressed with one common ingredient in what everyone [members of the Work Group on Panhandling] has had to say is that there is a desire to distinguish between folks who are in need of services and who are worthy of the community’s compassion and assistance in the variety of forms we express them and there are folks who totally legally within their rights, who are nevertheless kind of gaming the system by coming into town representing themselves as either a veteran when they are not or as homeless when they are not or expecting a child when they are not. They are totally within their rights to do so, but there is a sense that they are kind of gaming the system and are here just to take advantage of the good will of folks who really want to support those who are in need. So figuring that out, if there is a way to really focus the community’s compassion and services and dollars on truly needy and at risk populations as opposed to folks who are gaming the system. I think there is a desire to figure out a way to do that.”

During the discussion, Councilors Sciarra, Klein, and Carney all expressed their concern with the focus of the group. All three of them recommended that people who panhandle be given access to be members of the group.

Councilor Carney asked if panhandlers would be able to participate in the Mayor’s Work Group,

“And would there be panhandlers welcome? Because in some ways, there is an underlying, even though we are talking about not having ordinance or regulatory ways to approach, there is an underlying premise that we have a problem with panhandling in the city. Maybe some panhandlers themselves would…not consider themselves to be a problem or a detriment.”

She continued,

“Its called ‘mayor’s panhandling advisory group’ not ‘at-risk population.’ It is really about the panhandling.”

Councilor Bidwell replied to this saying, “I’d be glad to take it to the Mayor as a recommendation. He was deliberative and wanted it to be his group. I can tell him that there has been a recommendation.”

Councilor Klein also stressed the need for transparency,

“I feel like we need to have people in the city know that this is going on, so it’s not just a kind of, behind closed doors, task force that nobody knows about that is coming up with ideas and recommendations and collecting data without there being a more of a public knowledge and scrutiny of the process. I think it could be really a trust breaking kind of practice if this group comes up with recommendations when people in Northampton didn’t know it was happening in the first place.” She continued, “There is so many kind of social and ethical issues are related to the way it is being shared here.”

Councilor Sciarra pointed out that the committee did not recommend a group to study panhandling,

“Part of the challenge, and it is absolutely his right to do this, but the suggestion that we made was framed differently than how this advisory group was made, just by the virtue of its name, is not how we presented our recommendation, so sort of off the bat, there sort of a disconnect.”

Councilor Bidwell stressed the Mayor’s desire for an internal group, stating that they wanted this group to not be scrutinized by, say, “a reporter in the room”:

“I am sympathetic to the Mayor’s desire, given that is is such a political hot button to keep it a little, at least for some initial conversation, to have it be the sort of group that is able to talk openly and frankly with one another without a reporter in the room. I am sympathetic to a working group, well at least initially if it’s just a group that goes public with its conclusions later. I don’t know, I don’t pretend to be speaking on the mayor’s behalf, but I know it has been his desire to just keep it an internal quiet group initially.”

In response, Councilor Klein remarked,

“Imagine if the Mayor created a task force on transgender folks and nobody was asked to be there as a voice, it is unthinkable. This is an indicator of who we already marginalize, folks who panhandle, and we imagine they don’t have anything legitimate to say or share.”

June 2017

On June 19, 2017, at the following CCR meeting, Councilor Bidwell did not attend, but responded to the meetings previous recommendations via a written statement. According to meeting notes,

“Councilor Bidwell stated that the Panhandling Advisory Group meetings are not subject to open meeting law because they are meetings called by the Mayor. It is not a governmental body subject to open meeting law. He also stated that there was another conversation about bringing a panhandler into the group; there was a consensus that this would not be the best way to get input about the panhandling population. Rather, a sub-group is working on a survey instrument that will be used to gather input from the various members of the downtown on-the-streets community.”

* Ten months pass * During this time, there are no reports issued to the CCR, to the City Council as a whole, or to the public on the activity of the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling.

April 2018

On April 9,   2018, The Shoestring published a confidential report by the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling. The Group’s report detailed the findings of  “A Survey of Northampton’s Panhandling and Busking Population,” which was given to houseless people and people who panhandle downtown. In direct opposition to the recommendations made by the CCR, the report states,

“The survey was intentionally designed to be narrow in scope in relation to panhandling activity downtown, rather than being an in-depth look at the underlying causes, effects, or levels of service adoption by panhandlers.”

Two days later, on April 11, 2018, Mayor Narkewicz, the NPD, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Northampton Association began promoting a survey titled ‘Opinions on Downtown.” The same survey was called the “Online public survey on panhandling” on a city webpage about the Mayor’s Work Group. It was not communicated in any of the the social media promotions shared by these organizations, that the survey was created by the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling. (View the edit history of the NPD’s post to see its original omission of the group. The updated version of the post includes a link to the work group).  Of the survey’s 40 questions, 20 asked about panhandling/panhandlers and it included a question that asked participants if they thought panhandling should be criminalized. The content of the survey created public outcry. In response, Mayor Narkewicz began to speak to the local press, responding to the criticisms of his group and the survey.

On April 17, 2018, in a Gazette article, Narkewicz responded to the critique that the group does not include people who engage in panhandling. He is paraphrased as saying,“It’s difficult to find a person who represents the varieties of experiences in the panhandling community, and that this voice was instead being collected through surveys of panhandlers.”

In the same article, work group member Bud Stockwell, who owns Cornucopia and represents the Chamber of Commerce on the group, implied that the question regarding the criminalization of panhandling is a trick question of sorts,

“One of the questions, for example, asks how supportive the responder would be of an ordinance banning panhandling.” Stockwell said. “This was included in the survey purely to measure people’s knowledge of the issue. In fact, the city can’t pass an ordinance banning panhandling because that would be unconstitutional.”

On April 14, 2018, Narkewicz echoes the sentiment that the survey was purposely filled with questions that were not applicable to actual policy in his comment to Western Mass News, saying, “Some people think it’s a good study. Some people think its the worst study they’ve ever seen and I think that’s exactly what we wanted. We tried to write it in a general way and some of the questions are provocative, but they’re meant to be that way.”

May 2018

On May 8, 2018, Councilor Klein and Councilor Carney issued a public statement in which they objected to the focus of the group and the ‘Opinions on Downtown’ survey. (On the Work Group’s webpage, Narkewicz had stated that he created the group based on a recommendation in the CCR’s economic report.) Klein and Carney stated,

“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.”

At some point since Carney and Klein’s statement, the text referring to the CCR recommendation has been removed from the work group’s webpage. The Shoestring asked the Mayor when the Work Group’s webpage was originally published. He did not respond.

They also made known their opposition to the NPD being a member of the group, and they criticized the content of the public survey released by the Mayor,

“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.”

In place of the criminalization of poverty, they endorsed restorative justice and reaffirmed their support of the “Vibrant Sidewalks” resolution passed in 2013 which envisioned sidewalks as spaces that could accommodate street vendors, day laborers, and people who panhandle.

They also question whether their fellow committee member, Councilor Bidwell, reported their recommendations 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.”

On May 9, 2018, as mentioned in the introduction of this article, Narkewicz responded to the timing of Klein and Carney’s statement in both The Gazette and MassLive, saying,

“I am somewhat puzzled by the timing of these concerns given that my work group has been meeting for over a year and includes a member of the City Council committee that conducted the local economy hearings and issued the report.”

He continues, offering to no longer reference the CCR’s report. He does not respond to the substance of their concerns, and instead suggests the work group could continue without Councilor Bidwell if the committee so desired.

“If the council would like me to refrain from referencing its report and withdraw its representative from the work group, I will certainly respect and honor its decision.”

On May 26, 2018, in response to Klein and Carney’s accusation that their recommendations may have never been shared with the Mayor, Councilor Bidwell wrote an op-ed in the Gazette. He referenced the meeting notes of the aforementioned June 2017 CCR meeting as proof that he brought their recommendations to the Mayor. He also, like the Mayor, questioned the timing of Councilor Carney and Klein’s objections in his op-ed,

“What I don’t understand is why, 16 months after the committee issued its report (with the support of councilors Carney and Klein), they would resurrect their old objections, this time using inaccurate information to do so.”

He goes on to say,

“Going forward, I would hope for more accuracy and more open-mindedness regarding the important work of this group and the carefully considered recommendations the Mayor will announce in the weeks and months to come.”

At Present

The Shoestring asked Mayor Narkewicz what actions he has taken to address the concerns and recommendations first voiced by Councilors Klein, Carney, and Sciarra in early 2017. He did not respond.

Councilor Sciarra made us aware that Narkewicz removed the text from the work group’s webpage in response to the Councilors’ concerns. She shared, “I do appreciate that Mayor Narkewicz has removed the reference to the CCR recommendation on the webpage for the ‘Mayor’s Panhandling Work Group,’ as I have made it clear that I don’t feel like the recommendation has been followed.”

Both Councilor Bidwell and Mayor Narkewicz have publicly stated that they are puzzled by the objections of City Councilors at this point in time. What is more puzzling, and even sinister, is their attempt to erase the historical objections, concerns, and recommendations of three City Councilors to the Work Group on Panhandling and to do so as if this secret group has been sharing its activities all this time. If our Mayor is willing to try to rewrite the history of city government in order to legitimize his actions, what can the public expect in response to their concerns?

According to the Mayor, his work group will be issuing policy recommendations in the form of a report sometime this summer.

Below is a list of the members of the Mayor’s Work Group on Panhandling:

  • Mayor Narkewicz
  • Police Chief Kasper
  • Councilor Bidwell
  • Alan Wolf, a local business owner representing Downtown Northampton Association
  • Bud Stockwell, owner of Cornucopia and a representative of the Greater Northampton

Chamber of Commerce

  • Sue Stubbs representing Service Net
  • Jay Levy representing Department of Mental Health & Eliot Community Homeless

Services

  • Todd Weir, Sr. Pastor at First Churches, a member of Housing Partnership, and on theBoard of Friends of Hampshire County Homeless
  • Cherry Sullivan, Director of Hampshire Hope Coalition
  • Joel Shanahan representing Tapestry Health
  • Peg Keller, Northampton’s Housing and Community Development Planner (Ms. Keller is the meeting facilitator for the group)

 


Jules Marsh is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Northampton, MA. 

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! Please donate to The Shoestring on Patreon.