The recent column and news stories about the newly adopted amendments to the Improper Use of Public Ways Ordinance require a response. The ordinance amendment deals with soliciting on public ways and includes a prohibition against using a vehicle for living purposes on publicly owned property.
There have been a number of mischaracterizations by those opposed. A recent Banner article included several inaccurate statements that indicate the ordinance amendments made sleeping in your car a "crime" and that solicitation in all instances was prohibited. Neither statement accurately characterizes the amendment. Living in a car on public property after police have asked the owner to move along is a civil violation, not a crime. In addition, acts of aggressive solicitation on public property are considered civil violations, not crimes. The ordinance is a municipal ordinance. Penalties proscribed are not criminal penalties; they are civil penalties. The police cannot arrest someone for a violation of the ordinance.
One purpose of the amendment is to decriminalize activity that one individual suggested be dealt with by a variety of criminal statutes. The town does not seek to force persons who violate this ordinance into the criminal justice system. The goal is to provide a tool for the police to use in dealing with the person who solicits in a manner others find aggressive or intimidating. It allows the police to move these aggressive "panhandlers" along and offers an opportunity to educate them regarding the law and resources that are available to assist them. As stated at a public hearing, the police always provide information to those who are homeless or stranded while passing through town.
The Town of Bennington and its citizens, through the annual budget process, have been very generous over the years to the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless. It is disingenuous now to argue that the town is not doing enough. Remember, the town placed the coalition on the ballot last year even though it failed to gain the necessary signatures and failed to file its funding request in a timely manner.
Finally, blaming those who suggested the amendment to the board for the regional news coverage is unfair and inaccurate. Any time there are varying viewpoints that generate local discourse, public disagreements and local news coverage, there is the possibility that the news will be picked up by regional news organizations.
Let me pose a question: Does it really benefit those in need to argue that sleeping in one’s vehicle is an appropriate or acceptable remedy to homelessness? As I understand it, it is the mission of the coalition to assist persons who are homeless. The town has always been, and continues to be, willing to work with the coalition to assist those in need. Perhaps it is time for the coalition to build relationships with the towns it serves and other organizations and businesses to help it fulfill its mission without appearing to support actions that subject the residents of and visitors to Bennington to intimidation and unhealthy, unsanitary situations.
Stuart A. Hurd is Bennington’s town manager.