Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Panhandling Ordinance Public Meeting

This is a one draft post. I may revise it but I have to get back to work and I figure why not throw it out there while it's hot. I suspect that some may be inclined to attack me with sarcasm and cast dispersions on my character, a frequent result to expressing some of these ideas. Have at me, but this is my current philosophy: "The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts." - John Keats

Last night's meeting was odd in many ways. The self-appointed defenders of this belief or that, regardless of its relevance to the ordinance, dominated the meeting and may have given the council the impression that they represent the population at large, though they are far from a cross-section.

I felt on the defensive, disdained, and judged as an oppressor in my support for some of the goals of the ordinance, as did my friend who owns a store downtown. I am no conservative, and honestly, I'm annoyed by the rudeness and arrogance of the people that lay like carpets across the sidewalk all day, not the people who simply sit and ask for money. I know and like many of the people I'm complaining about, but don't have the courage or even really the inclination to say anything to them, especially in large groups.

The survival of most of these stores and businesses is jeopardized by economic realities, now and even before the crisis, and every sale is important. If people have to (or choose to) walk out and around cars to get by, they miss some store entrances completely. The groups of people are sometimes benign but they are omnipresent squatters, monopolizing a bench or area that is not designed to be an encampment. They often scream (sing), curse, and belch etc. Okay, sure, toughen up shoppers, this is the REAL world, but when store owners ask them to please at least tone it down. They don't. "Fuck her, ha ha!" It's a poorly thought-out "fuck you elitist ruling class capitalist" kind of relationship that many have with this issue and the town in general.

Even the more eloquent of the anti-ordinance speakers failed for the most part to concede that any of the concerns the ordinance tries to address were legitimate. This meeting was about the content of the ordinance and suggestions as to how it might be revised to please both "sides," yet many anti-ordinance attendees spoke in all or nothing language. The pooh-poohing of the ordinance and its goals was helped by the stacked make-up of the room and sloganeering. It bordered on insulting, as Judith Fine, owner of Gazebo pointed out. How dare anyone accuse merchants of trying to rid the town of the "homeless" or "poor." There is no disdain for the "panhandlers," just a goal of surviving as a business and having reasonable behavior by people outside the door. How dare we dismiss outright the concerns of the merchants who have come forward with valid claims. Merchants who DO speak to the problem of poverty with their wallets. So many speakers tonight referenced "kicking the panhandlers out of town." Their posters have absurd police state/martial law images. Did they really read the ordinance? No one's suggesting kicking anybody out of town or off the streets.

Maybe it's self-righteous but I have to say, having been an addict, I'm bothered by the people I know are still junkies "struggling with their disease." Victim is as victim does. The truly needy folks with real disabilities and insurmoutable problems are easy to distinguish and I help them out often with far more than spare change.

So maybe this particular ordinance isn't the solution but the sweeping claims of poverty being criminalized and stealth gentrification agendas are silly and unfounded. I guess you can't legislate manners and compromise, though it would be wonderful if people would be more tuned in to how their behavior affects others. This ordinance wouldn't change much. But I haven't seen the sugar sticks kids or the school camp/feed a family guy for a while, perhaps because of the rumored implementation of the ordinance?

So what is the answer? If it's seen by the "street people" as class warfare, us and them, then there is not going to be a willingness to compromise on their part. The cops are all pigs. Anyone striving to survive via retail is "the man." Their customers are " Connecticut tourists in SUV's." These are all generalizations and stereotypes of the people one might encounter downtown. We are all on a continuum, not on opposite sides. These are ultimately "boutique protests" and "boutique ordinances" in our precious little paradise of, for the most part, extreme tolerance.

I don't "support the ordinance" per se but it's all that's on the table right now to provoke discussion; discussion that needs to take place. I find myself more troubled by the mentality of the protestors than everything else lately, and that's interesting. I don't know what to make of it entirely except my frustration that certain people feel the need to scream platitudes, rabble rouse, and march than approach it in a more professional manner. The town has not driven them to resort to protest. They have a say and a voice if they choose to exercise it. Sure it helps publicize their viewpoint quite well given ample local media coverage, but it also diminishes credibilty, hampers a less confrontational approach. It also drowns out what might be a very different point of view held by people who are busy with their lives and supporting families or even just themselves that aren't in a position to stage a protest or a campaign to make their views heard.

I think the cops are just trying to answer to the complaints from constituents who have invested their money and lives into downtown Noho; investors who are not owners of stock in a company, but in a town; of real businesses and real risk. These are people who help define downtown which is, like it or not, first and foremost an area of commerce. This is what "Main Street" is in this country. Without commerce, there would be no downtown. Parks and human services alone do not constitute a thriving interesting downtown. The business owners are looking for a little wiggle room from the people who provide little to the town but their bottomless needs, endless demands, and cries of injustice. What have YOU done for your town lately?


Joey B said...

You know what's irritating? Barely making ends meet working downtown, slogging to work each day... and dealing with openly hostile panhandlers camped out in front of the place. There are the people who get it... like Steve and some of the other musicians. But the jackasses that just sprawl themselves on the sidewalk (or worse, in the doorway of your business) make it hard to feel compassion.

The sad part is when business owners are afraid to say anything lest they be branded heartless fascists, when a lot of them are just a couple bad months away from panhandling themselves.

Jesus Leyva said...

there are people who have already decided that they are boycotting downtown businesses as a result of the ordinance. It was a mistake for them to be so concerned with the possibility that the presence of a pandhandler outside of their store might drive away a sale and that by putting forth or supporting the ordinance that they were possibly creating a greater deterrent. One born of the image and association with the corporate world.

I myself am strongly resolved to only shop at and support local businesses, and this ordinance makes me question the notion that a local business is more community friendly. Still hoping that local businesses that were in support of this are a minority and that this doesn't represent our local business community as a whole. It's more expensive to shop locally and a lot less convienent, but I still do anyway, because it's important to me that a local business is getting my money rather than a corporate store

Whatever the ordinance itself says does really matter as much as the image that it presents of the local business community and our town

Some people think protesters and activists downtown are also a nuisance. I know I have been avoid while passing out flyers downtown. These activities could also be seen as deterring consumers from spending time downtown. are we going to restrict these activities and prioritize consumerism over the expression of the values of our community?

During legal proceedings people cite previously established laws. Case law determines alot of what is acceptable or not. The existence of this ordinance gives any group of people an opportunity to remove any group of undesirable people from selected places in downtown if there is the perception that there presence in these places interferes with the daily conduct of people.

It is really not a far conclusion that future ordinances could be drafted to limit and restrict the activities of people who disagree with local public policy

Joey B said...

Jesus... I could be way off base, but I doubt that any downtown businesses would miss your economic contribution.

Good luck with your boycotting.

Jesus said...

You might be right

jesus said...

but that is missing the point

Jesus said...

and I am not the one who expressed a decision to boycott downtown businesses. It is something I heard other people express. I am still thinking that the ordinance is not supported or opposed by the majority of business owners downtown

Jon_McGee said...

I was at the meeting as well; your assessment is pretty much spot on. Frustrating, and incredibly depressing. The utter disconnect on display by some in the activist community is staggering. 'It's all the BID! The BID is going to kick poor people outta Northampton!'

What?! Really - what?

I understand that some folks may disagree with setting up regulations on solicitation. So be it. But to label downtown business in support of this ordinance as 'evil', or to be told 'we're making the problem up and should just grow a pair'...

This issue desperately needs a new dialogue that focuses on solutions and not on rhetoric. Not on 'panhandling scum', not on 'evil capitalist greed', but on 'how do we identify, understand, and solve this problem'.

Jesus Leyva said...

many of the protesters are college kids, who do not live in northampton or even go to school in northampton. I had met with some of them once and spoken to some of them individually

I am opposed to the ordinance for some of the reasons I had outlined earlier, but the people protesting it are an entirely different group who are unaware of reality. I remember bring up the idea of volunteering at the homeless shelter to the group of them, but few of them are interested in community support services for underprivileged people as they are in protesting the ordinance.

Pass or fail, there is still a greater problem of class, sustainability, and public policy of which I see very few of them who are prepared to engage in that future conversation.

I wish the people who were protesting the ordinance were dedicated to being a part of long term constructive community efforts rather than propagandizing the ordinance debate, making nonconstructive negative criticism of our city's social service programs and branding or labeling people. It hurting not helping

Jim Neill said...

Well put Jesus. It's so frustrating the levels of complexity that are layered into an issue to the point that it's not recognizable any more. I admire you taking the initiative to talk to some of them.

Sheehan said...

These people are protesting an ordinance they haven't even read. Noone's being "kicked out" or even told to stop "panhandling" but to respect people shopping or walking downtown and/or going to and from work. I actually get embarrassed when my Mother comes to visit and along our 10 min. walk from Market St. to Starbucks she's approached for "handouts" at least 4-5 times. I feel the responsibility to step in and tell whoever's "hitting" my Mom "up for cash" that "Hey Man, this is my Mother, leave her alone". It's annoying and my Mom feels the need to give money to every poor person that asks. Luckily I can tell her that I was worse off at one time than most of these people and I never begged and to not give them a penny. That may seem harsh but I chose to live here, work here, support local music and businesses and pay an expensive amount of rent while earning a wage that allows me just to get by because I love this town. The only thing that does annoy me is the people out front of Haymarket who've taken a "stand" against soap and cleansing products and the guys under the bridge who ask me everyday for change or smokes. After 3 yrs of me saying "sorry man, I'm broke" you'd think they'd stop asking me. The protesters should go to Washington and protest a real cause, get up and do something, anything, just clear a path in front of Haymarket so I can get a real coffee at Starbucks.