Sunday, November 16, 2008

Letter to the Editor "Voices of homeless too often unheard"

Voices of homelVoices of homeless too often unheard
I'm surprised by the bias exposed in the story about efforts to curb panhandling in downtown Northampton (The Republican, Oct. 27).
The reporter interviewed only one source against the ordinance, while citing three sources for it. The reporter didn't even speak to members of Poverty Is Not A Crime, a loosely affiliated organization of street people, community organizers, city citizens, local business owners and student activists, supported by the Freedom Center, Arise for Social Justice, and the Northampton chapter of Food Not Bomb, that are allied against the ordinance - despite our sending a press release. We've spoken out at the last three City Council meetings, held a protest that involved 50 people or more right before the last meeting and have handed out information to the public almost daily, motivating many to sign our petition or call their city councilors urging them to vote against the ordinance.
Many of us do social service work, and we know that while there are a few proverbial bad apples, most people on the street are exactly what they say they are: homeless and/or poverty ridden and in need. Statements by Mayor Clare Higgins and other city officials that most or many panhandlers are not needy is specious and insulting. Our work in local social justice organizations proves it's not so.
For the vast majority, it still takes desperation to submit to the humiliation of begging. Despite what Northampton does for the poor, a great many of them are forced into this humiliation, because it's just not enough. There's a huge dearth of low-income housing in this city, the Grove Street shelter only has 16 beds, only four for women, and the winter shelter won't even double this number, while the need is much, much larger - and funding has been cut yet again to the shelters this year. Welfare doesn't cover the cost of living for more than a week out of a month in a place like Northampton, and in this economy, there are very, very few jobs available, especially for unskilled laborers. There are no job-training programs available to low income people here. Food is incredibly expensive for the homeless, as they have no place to store, refrigerate or cook it, forcing them to buy expensive pre-prepared foodsand there are only a few free meals available a week, while the Survival Center is little advertised, far away and out of the way from Main Street. The story also doesn't mention the fact that, despite the rhetoric, this ordinance wouldn't regulate panhandling, it would outlaw it. Just look at the language of the legislation. Can you think of a place where there's foot traffic, where it's possible to panhandle that's 5 feet away from the entrance to any building, 15 feet away from any parking meter, parking pay box, ATM, bank, pay phone, etc., not on a bench, not under any overpass? And the list goes on.
As for "aggressive" panhandling, there are already laws on the books against harassment - there's no need for a class-specific law. And despite the self-conscious addition of charity solicitation to the legislation, make no mistake, it's a class-specific law.
As for fears of violence from panhandlers, most homeless/poor people are much more likely to be victims of violence, while middle/upper class people in Northampton are much more likely to suffer violence at the hands of someone in their own class, especially in a domestic violence context.
Poverty Is Not A Crime
Arise for Social Justice and the Free
Northampton ess too often unheard Print Friendly and PDF

Thursday, November 6, 2008