Montpelier: small, quaint, friendly, tiny. We pride ourselves on our warm hearted small town, but did you know that a local landlord asked the Montpelier city council to make panhandling illegal because of the huge threat panhandlers were posing to businesses? Did you know that 1,291 Vermonters were found to be homeless on a winter night, a 5% increase from 2017? Did you know that a small business owner said that panhandlers are, “probably one of our biggest challenges with opening new businesses in Montpelier right now”?

Last June, a local landlord in Montpelier went to city council asking for them to make panhandling illegal. City council denied his request because they believed that it would be a violation of the panhandler’s civil rights. From this event sprung a homelessness task force, but the issue of the growing population of homeless people has not gone away. 

Many businesses in Montpelier, specifically on State Street, have seen a dramatic increase in the homeless population over the summer. Business owners perceive that panhandlers, who set up shop in the inlets of stores or in front of branded windows and beg for money, are hurting business. 

“Anyone should have the right to ask for what they want and need,” said Jess Turner, the owner of Capital Kitchen, “but the problem of homeless people did reach levels this summer where we thought it was impacting business and we had moments of, ‘what are we going to find when we come in in the morning?’” The question has to be asked: should homeless people have to comply with a business owner’s request to leave their storefront, even if they are on public property?

To clarify, the inlets that lead to the door of buildings are privately owned, so business owners can ask people to leave freely. However, the sidewalks are public property, so sitting in front of a branded window on the sidewalk is perfectly legal. If panhandlers are acting out or behaving in an inappropriate way, business owners can ask people to leave and they will have to comply, or at least stop their behavior.

If panhandlers are just sitting on the sidewalk (public property) however, they may still be driving away business and merchants may want to ask them to leave, despite the fact that they are not violating any law.

Jess Turner feels especially torn around this issue. “It’s a tough one because I’m an empathetic person. I want to know that people have access to the services they need, but I’m very emotional about my family, this store does my part to put food on the table at my house. I’m very protective of that.” 

This brings up the heart of this issue: panhandlers aren’t doing anything wrong: it is a first amendment right to ask for donations publicly, as long as it is done on public property. However, it is also a first amendment right to own a business. It is undoubtedly hard to be a homeless person, but it is hard to own a business in Montpelier.. Lauren Andrews, the owner of Aromeds and a psychiatric nurse, states that,  “the reality is that small business is the lifeblood of any town. You have to really protect the interests of businesses because it’s a slippery slope, once businesses start leaving, or having these types of issues, any town that has empty storefronts, particularly if its the result of social issues that are happening. Barre is a really good example of that.”

She goes on to explain how the vitality of downtown businesses brings in tourists, raises property values, and generally improves the quality of the town. In other words, small businesses are beneficial to all of us. 

The interests of the business owners and the panhandlers are the same: they want to make money to feed and care for themselves and their families, and yet they are in conflict. Generally in our society we favor the people that benefit the general population (business owners) and not the people who are acting in self interest (panhandlers), but also, having empathy towards people in need is a value in our community that has always been important. 

Some would say that everybody should be able to do what they want with their body, granted it’s on public property. Libertarian philosophy says people have the right to any method of making money – to life, liberty, and property – but what if it hinders on someone else’s ability to do that? There is a definite gray area in our society for when people’s individual freedoms conflict with society’s priorities at large. 

Of the three interviews I conducted of business owners on State Street, each were conflicted. Although they are compassionate people and each volunteered their time to help homeless people in some form, they feel acting in self interest is important. Some had to tell homeless people to leave their storefront, even if they were on the sidewalk (public property). They said that most of the time the people were compliant, polite, and apologetic. Occasionally they were rude or refused when on the sidewalk, but overall the business owners got the impression that these people were nice and down on their luck. 

The growing homeless population is an indication of our lack of attentiveness and advocacy for these people. If such limited resources are available to them, what right do we have to make their lives harder?

There are currently two day shelters and the Good Samaritan Haven (a recently opened overnight shelter) in Montpelier. There are mental health services, such as Washington County Mental Health, and access to food like the Montpelier Food Pantry and lunch-ins at several churches. However, there are not enough beds to house the growing population of homeless people. Also, many choose to opt out of these services. Even with a more healthy variety of resources and access to care, some would choose not to use them, because for some, panhandling is a choice. “For a lot of folks this is a way to make a living. It’s a choice. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would make that choice but clearly it is a choice,” says Lauren Andrews. In some cases, people are making up to $100 a day. 

It is true, some homeless people are making a conscious choice to live on the streets, so even if we have more access to homeless shelters and food, this problem will not go away. Panhandling will still happen, and business may still be affected. 

Whether it is always a choice to be homeless is unclear, along with whether all homeless people have good intentions when they panhandle. This makes it harder to say whether panhandlers should have to comply to business owner’s request, because it is hard to know a homeless person’s motives and history. Despite the disagreements between the business owners, all three said that the best and most humane way to solve this issue is to try to get homeless people the resources they need. Lauren Andrews says, “The compassionate and appropriate thing to do is to steer people away from the streets and into resources and treatment. As a business owner and a psychiatric nurse, that is the right thing to do.” They all agreed that giving money directly to panhandlers often enables substance abuse issues, which keeps people on the streets, even if donations are well intentioned. Also, giving money to panhandlers can brings more panhandlers in. Jess Turner says, “What happened this summer and what may continue to happen is that Montpelier gains a reputation as a place where homeless people will get money when they are out panhandling, and so it was almost like the word is out, this is the place to go because you can get money.” 

So what do we do? Montpelier is a tiny city, even if business owners ask panhandlers to leave their storefronts, they will probably just set up shop in front of another business. Lauren Andrews says, “what I would like to see is to have Montpelier police working with Washington County Mental Health, and Washington County Mental Health social workers actively working with our street folks, I think that would be a fantastic use of time.” Jess Turner said, “more beds for people is what I think it comes down to. More shelters and more beds within those shelters and food.” They both agreed that there needs to be more effective methods of collecting money that drive people away from donating directly to people, as that enables substance abuse issues. Burlington has done with a mailbox setup on Church Street that encourages donations to food shelves and shelters. 

They also all agreed that awareness around the issue of homelessness in Montpelier must increase in order to be able to solve this issue as a community. Jess Turner said, “I feel like the discussions about all of this finally started happening this summer which is very good because there was a lack of clarity as to what our rights even were.” Although she did not agree with the landlord who went to city council to make panhandling illegal, she acknowledged that his actions brought the awareness that we need in order for our community to make an informed choice. 

 

Questions:

What do you think is more beneficial to our community in the long term: making sure that underprivileged people have rights or businesses are protected? 

 

What’s the responsibility in providing care for the homeless population? 

 

Is homelessness a choice? How does that affect your stance on this issue?