Panhandling in the Granite State
In Manchester, recently installed signs discourage giving money to people on the streets, warning that cash could be used to buy drugs. Other communities around the state have tried a variety of approaches, as they grapple with the overlapping problems of addiction, homelessness, and mental illness.
- John Burns - Director of the SOS Recovery Community Organization in Strafford County, with recovery centers in Dover, Rochester, and Durham. John is in long-term recovery and has a daughter who has struggled with substance misuse. He is the founder of Families Hoping and Coping, a support group for families members and loved ones of those struggling with substance misuse, and serves on the advisory board for the NH Harm Reduction Coalition.
- Persephanie Lesperance - Recovery coach with SOS. She became addicted to prescription narcotics and then heroin and spent time in jail. She has been sober for two years.
- Robert Waters - Outreach worker with Southwestern Community Services. He is a recovery coach, and works with the homeless in Claremont, Newport, and Keene.
- Nick Willard - Police Chief of Manchester.
Manchester Police put up signs encouraging would-be donors to panhandlers to give their money to community service locations in the city instead. Why do this?
The drug crisis has pretty much exploded. I think we all know that, and that has also caused an increase in panhandling on a lot of our traffic islands, sidewalks, when people are dining downtown... So I was getting a lot of complaints from my city politicians as well as the city residents... This is a social issue, not a law enforcement issue, and yet that's what people want it to be.
So my approach, essentially, was let's educate the community... I had 26 known panhandlers in our city. Six of whom have died [of overdose]. You know what that means. We need to take action...We can direct a panhandler into services, as opposed to giving them $5 and that $5 leading ultimately or potentially to their death.
What is the connection between panhandling and substance misuse?
I think saying [ all panhandlers are misusing drugs] paints a broad brush, and I think it creates a disconnection with individuals who need connection. And I think it's important to ask people what they need... Most individuals [panhandling] are out there because they're struggling with a substance misuse disorder, or because they're homeless, or because of mental health.
I agree that not every homeless person or somebody who is experiencing homelessness is an addict, and every addict is homeless... You have the Manchester Police [and] the public looks at them like "What are you doing?" And they can only do so mich. It's as people forget that. They go out every single day and they're saving people's lives, we forget about that sometimes, and so easily hate breeds hate.
[These new signs] are encouraging connection, they're encouraging those conversations that I believe are not being held on those street corners, at a stoplight. I believe those conversations are being had when you're volunteering at the soup kitchen or at the recovery centers... I believe that encouraging citizens to try to help themselves, to step up and take the next step, I don't see anything wrong with that.
How do you balance having panhandlers and also protecting safe public spaces?
In Keene, a photo surfaced of a man appearing passed out or asleep at a public park, which sparked conversation about protecting public spaces from panhandlers, drug users, and the homeless. Read more of this coverage by the Keene Sentinel.
The substance use epidemic statewide just seems to progressively get worse as time goes on, even though we have a lot of great organizations that are coming up to try to help. You know, I still think some people feel maybe like they're disconnected from services in my area. A lot of people that are experiencing homelessness are in recovery. So very seldom do I encounter somebody that's an active user aside from alcohol abuse. On those rare occasions, in the past, most of the people that are suffering from drugs and severe substance misuse, heroin, stuff like that, they're housed.
But as far as the parks go, public places, my stance on that would be if you see something going on that's not okay, call the authorities, get them over there.
I think it's a real challenge, and I don't think there's any easy answer to it. I mean, you should be able to bring your kids safely to a park, and you shouldn't have to shut down parks because of this. But again, I think it points to a bigger problem, and that this is a symptom of the problem. As communities, we need to mobilize to fix the problem, and not just fix the symptoms, or not try to push people further away from the parks. But instead, let's come up with some solutions for them.
Check out three organizations in the Manchester area that are helping the homeless and those recovering with substance misuse: Families in Transition, Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, and New Horizons.