Northampton councilors chide mayor over lack of transparency in panhandling group

Northampton City Councilors Alisa Klein and Maureen Carney released a joint statement on May 9 that’s critical of Mayor David Narkewicz’s Panhandling Work Group for the lack of representative from panhandlers in the group and a recent online study regarding panhandling in the city.

In the co-statement, Klein and Carney, who are members of the City Council’s Committee on Community Resources, (CCR) stated they object to the recently issued “Downtown Northampton Survey.”  

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,” the statement reads.

Klein and Carney said they have no interest in recommending or endorsing surveys that offer “paternalistic pseudo-solutions to deep societal issues.”

Klein said the survey doesn’t include a true cross section of city residents and included questions about whether panhandlers should sign a code of ethics regarding behavior that should found to be ugly.

“People who go downtown don’t have to sign a code of ethics,” she said. “People who own stores downtown don’t have to sign a code of ethics. It’s singling out, what feels to me, a paternalistic way that essentially has the potential to violate the civil rights of individuals.”

Narkewicz told the Valley Advocate the online study was released for four weeks and by analyzing the study, the working group would develop recommendations to help panhandlers, not stigmatize or create punitive policies surrounding panhandling.

He said he understands that panhandling is protected as a constitutional right and doesn’t plan on trying to ban the practice.  

“We’ve gone out and are working with local social service agencies and have sat down and met with panhandlers to survey them personally about themselves and their background and about what are the issues that they struggle with and what services would be helpful for them,” Narkewicz said. “And then we’ve done this broader survey to the public, which seems to be specifically referenced by the two city councilors … We were just trying to gather information from the public about their views and their thoughts and in some cases, their misconceptions about the issue.”

 

He said there is no deadline for the working group to release its recommendation, but anticipates he could receive a recommendation from the group in the summer or fall. One example the group might propose could be the creation of a job program for panhandlers, he said.

Amy Lebel, a 28-year-old resident of Northampton who has been homeless since October and frequently panhandles, said she thinks a job program may work for some people, but not all. She said she’s partially disabled and a job program wouldn’t work for her.

“There’s not much pride in [panhandling], but I take pride in the fact that I’m not stealing,” said Lebel, who is a recovering heroin addict. “For me, it was better than that.”

She said most of the people who end up homeless have dealt with substance abuse and granting leniency for drug users working in any potential job program should be part of the city’s approach.

Lebel said Northampton has a reputation for having the most resources for the homeless population in western Massachusetts and thinks it’s far better than other communities in the Pioneer Valley, but still could do better.

“The fact is, only one day a week [in Northampton] there’s not a free meal and that’s Friday … So, as far as towns go, the fact that they allow you to panhandle, the fact that they provide food, shelters, housing, all sorts of stuff, they are doing so much better than the other towns,” she said. “If other towns could follow this town’s lead, especially if this town goes further and does more, I think it could open up the doorways for other towns too.”

The Advocate has written about some other communities’ less favorable response to panhandlers, including in Holyoke, where during the past winter some panhandlers looked for a loophole in the city’s ordinance that would fine panhandlers.

Klein said she doesn’t support the idea of a job program, noting that she views it “as a simplified solution.”

“Using concepts of restorative justice and using concepts of harm reduction mean that you work with people with deep respect for who they are, what they bring to the table,” she said. “You’re not meeting without them and figuring out solutions to what their lives need.”

On the city’s website, it stated that the group was formed in January 2017 following a study on the local economy by the City Council’s Committee on Community Resources (CCR)  that recommended that the mayor study the issue. Klein and Carney disputed that the committee recommended Narkewicz 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.”

Narkewicz agreed that the statement online was false and any mention of the committee recommended that he study panhandling has been removed online.  

“There was basically one reference to it on the website that just kind of gave the background of my putting together this working group … I have removed the reference to the study of the City Council,” he said.

In the final report to the mayor, the CCR recommended that Narkewicz convene a task force of city employees, representatives from social service, housing, and advocacy organizations to coordinate services to at risk populations.

Carney and Klein also stated that CCR recommended that panhandlers or people who are homeless should be included in discussions, but none were appointed to the mayor’s working group.

Lebel said she thinks people who are panhandlers or who have panhandled in the past should be given a voice within the mayor’s group.

“I’ve met people who have been here, but they’re now in a much better position,” she said. “Some of them actually advocate for us out here on the streets. Some of them fight for our rights because they’ve been there … Those people are actually the best people you could have on the committee or giving ideas to the committee.”

Narkewicz said he thinks Klein and Carney could have taken their concerns to him first before issuing a public statement.

Klein told the Valley Advocate the lack of transparency regarding the mayor’s working group led to the decision to release their statement publicly.

“When people don’t like the content and the substance of what is being said they will criticize the method by which it’s being presented,” she said. “And so, I think there might be some of that happening with the mayor’s comments about how Maurine Carney and I chose to approach this. We felt strongly that because the Panhandling Work Group was not a transparent body nor process that we wanted to bring some light to it. We wanted the City of Northampton, the community, to know how it came about kind of under false messaging and what its activities have been, including the survey that we found fault with.”

She said Narkewicz isn’t subject to Open Meeting Law the same way in which the City Council is and has the ability to have meetings with advisory groups without those meetings being subject to Open Meeting Law.

“To my mind this is such a controversial topic to have a work group that is actually addressing panhandling in our city, it felt to me like there needs to be transparency in regards to what our city is doing with panhandling,” Klein said.

City Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who serves as chair of the CRC, said there’s not enough transparency regarding who’s been appointed to serve on the mayor’s working group.

“I think part of the problem is it’s not clear who this group is,” she said.

When asked if the issues should have been brought to Narkewicz directly, Sciarra replied, “I’m always in favor of direct communication and trying to work out differences of opinion directly instead of through the press. I can understand why he might feel that way.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@valleyadvocate.com.

Author: Chris Goudreau

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