It's not too hard to pretend that poverty doesn't exist in Northampton, MA, if that's what you want to do. Street kids tend to blend in with college kids, the housing projects are tucked far away from downtown; and a scattering of tents by the railroad tracks aren't visible from the highway. Just about the only time poverty and homelessness is really in your face is when you're approached by a panhandler.
Thus the City of Northampton is getting ready to pass an anti-panhandling law which, while not banning panhandling outright, prohibits asking for money while sitting on a park bench or standing on a corner, or asking anyone while they are waiting in a line, or within fifteen feet of a public telephone, bus stop, bank or ATM. You also can't be within five feet of a building entrance or fifteen feet of a parking meter or overpass. What's left, you might ask? Not much. And if you break this restrictive law, you can be fined from $50 to $300. This makes a lot of sense-- you don't have money so you are fined-- and if you don't pay the fine, then what? More unnecessary criminalization. The Daily Collegian covered this story well earlier in the week.
Why ban panhandling? I can hear the downtown business people talking about how panhandling drives away businesses. Beyond that, many people are uncomfortable when asked for spare change. Well, then, just say no!
My own rule is, one person a day. I live too close to the margins myself to do more than that. But as tight as my own budget it, at least I have an income.
Arise member Caty Simon has formed a group in Northampton called Poverty is Not A Crime. That group, plus the Freedom Center, the ACLU and Social Change in Mind are all fighting this ordinance. If you live or shop in Northampton, call Mayor Claire Higgins at 413.587.1249 and let her know: help homeless people, don't criminalize them. Leave panhandlers alone!
Photo by Emily Grund/Collegian