BENNINGTON -- Efforts are underway to appeal the recent "panhandling" amendment, which while receiving support from many has also drawn the ire of others, some who take particular exception to restrictions on sleeping in cars.
The amendment, which was approved Monday by the Select Board, does not take effect for another two months, the waiting period being there to give the opportunity for an appeal. Mary Gerisch, secretary for the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, said she is in the process of composing a petition to be circulated among registered voters in Bennington and North Bennington. She said the form has to follow state law and be worded correctly.
Gerisch said the petition will ask voters whether or not they want the amendment, which applies to an existing bylaw, "Article 17 Improper use of public way and abatement of public nuisances." The ordinance prohibits "aggressive" soliciting and restricts soliciting, commonly called panhandling. It defines both types of soliciting. A copy of it can be viewed on the town's website.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said in an interview that the petition needs signatures from 5 percent of registered voters, which is about 500 people currently. Once it is submitted to the Town Clerk's Office for signature verification, it goes before the board which places it up for a vote. Given the timing, Hurd said it would likely be set for the annual town meeting in March.
Hurd said there would be a short window between the ordinance going into effect and the town meeting vote, however Gerisch disputed this.
She said she finds the entire amendment to be broadly constructed and open for abuse, perhaps not by those currently in charge of enforcement but maybe by those in the future. The real issue for her and others involved with the coalition are the restrictions on sleeping in cars. Gerisch said using a car for a living space is far from ideal, but for roughly 10 to 20 people on any given night it's the only choice they have.
Gerisch said it's not just individuals living out of their cars, but families. Some have vans and campers, but many get by in sedans and trucks. They park on a mix of public and private properties. How long they live in their cars varies. For some it's less than a week, for others it's longer.
For some, it's because they've fallen through the cracks in the system. In an interview with the Banner, she related the story of a family of three, two parents and an adult child with a developmental disability. One of the parents was also disabled. They were evicted from their apartment and then applied for Social Security Disability benefits, however they were homeless for the time it took their application to be approved. Gerisch said they lived out of their car for three days before the coalition found a vacant apartment for them, something it is not able to do for many.
Those who argue for the ban on living in a car cite sanitation concerns and health risks from carbon monoxide. Gerisch said those using their cars for overnight shelter have access to bathroom facilities through the coalition's shelter on North Street, or they can use bathrooms at local gas stations. As for carbon monoxide, their vehicles do not idle continuously over night. The practice for most is to turn the car on periodically to get the chill out, as they can not afford gas for extended idling.
She said hotel vouchers are also not as easy to come by as some may think, and the option of directing these people to shelters in other towns is questionable as those shelters are calling Bennington to ask if there is room for their own people.
In warmer months, the coalition provides people with tents, and now in the cold it tries to at least get them sleeping bags. Again, this is not ideal, said Gerisch, but when the shelters are typically full there is little choice.
Gerisch said town officials claim police will only act on the ordinance when they receive a complaint or witness a violation. While she hopes police turn a blind eye, she fears they will not and many people relying on their cars for housing will face an added difficulty. Gerisch said she has issues with this approach overall, as it could lead to uneven enforcement.
While the car issue has mobilized the coalition, others have taken issue with the amendment for other reasons. Joel Lentzner, owner of Fiddlehead at Four Corners, an art gallery at the corner of Main and North Streets, protested the amendment by panhandling on the steps of his business Friday. He held a sign saying he was panhandling in protest and donating the money to the homeless coalition.
Lentzner said he has been in Bennington many years and not witnessed a great deal of panhandling. He said the media attention this issue has drawn has made it appear to be a much larger issue than it truly is, which has done more damage to the town's reputation than the panhandlers themselves.
Those who have publicly supported the amendment have largely been connected to downtown businesses and spoken at board meetings. They say they have witnessed panhandlers frighten off tourists, and made them feel uncomfortable in their own stores. The amendment itself came about after the Better Bennington Corporation and the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce informed Hurd of complaints they had received from tourists about panhandlers, who they say are not using the money they get for necessities but things like tobacco, lottery tickets, and alcohol. It's their position that those in need of food have access to it through local food shelves.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.