By ELLEN ZOPPO-SASSU
The long Labor Day weekend signals the end of summer. For some in our community, however, it is just an extra day without food. In Bristol, covid-19 has forced some of our social service safety net programs to change the way in which they provide services. At the same time, reduced capacity at shelters, in order to maintain social distancing, has kept many from the homeless population outside. There has also been an increase in panhandling reported at intersections.
Our residents’ level of discomfort with panhandling is high. There have been many calls to my office and to the Police Department. First, every person has First Amendment rights to free speech and is entitled to hold a sign in a public place. It does not matter if the sign says “Black Lives Matter” as we saw during the summer’s peaceful protests; “I support the Bristol Police” as shown by the gentlemen who stands at the corner of Route 229 and Cross Street may afternoons; or a cardboard sign that reads “Homeless and in need of help.”
The first rule is to not give money. We strongly suggest donations be made to one of the many organizations that are working to house people or provide other services. Panhandlers can be arrested if they are aggressive or are on private property and won’t leave when asked to. People are encouraged to call the police non-emergency number at 860-584-3011 to report aggressive panhandlers. It is important for people and business owners to be willing to make a statement and an official complaint. Businesses should also post their property for “No Loitering” or “No Trespassing” and be willing to prosecute. The Police Department also has a template on their website for businesses to use as well, giving the police authority to enforce the law on their property.
Some have observed that there appears to be “organized panhandling” with shifts and transportation provided. This may be true, and we would welcome people being observant and looking for the make and model of these cars with license plates if possible, as well as the times and locations you see it. This information may be called into the Police Department, which is currently engaged in its own investigation of these claims.
Another important distinction is not all those who are homeless are suffering from substance misuse issues. Some situations are due to family or relationship conflict, housing instability, financial credit issues or one bad relationship. For those that are suffering from substance misuse, the police and Bristol Health have collaborated for the City of Bristol Recovery Alliance (C.O.B.R.A.), which gives police officers discretion for arrests if the person chooses treatment. They are then brought to the Bristol Health Emergency Department, where they are evaluated and seen by a recovery coach to go over options. Recently, potential arrests for simple trespass and another for possession resulted in C.O.B.R.A. referrals. And to be clear, ANYONE can walk into Bristol Health or the Police Department lobby, or any officer on the street, and request assistance.
The stress of covid-19, reduced employment and financial issues weighs heavy on many. For those already struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues, it can be the tipping point. Medications and drugs and alcohol don’t mix well and can lead to additional mental health problems. Add in social isolation, and we have dozens of residents in crisis, especially the elderly. The Code Enforcement team is dealing with several excessive hoarding issues and is working with several agencies and various criminal, housing and health codes and state laws to create solutions. This is a very difficult balance among the factors of personal property rights, quality of life in neighborhoods, as well as ensuring safe and sanitary housing conditions for all residents and eliminating potential risks for first responders who may have to gain entry.
So what can a community do to create positive results?
You may direct donations to the agencies that are on the front lines such as the United Way, St. Vincent DePaul, The Agape House, Brian’s Angels, Meals for Neighbors and Salvation Army, to name a few.
Residents and business owners that have external surveillance cameras can help by registering their cameras with the Police Department’s Community Watch Team which can be found on the website. Video surveillance is a valuable tool in the detection, identification, apprehension and conviction of those who engage in criminal acts. A shout out to Rory Ghio, who sits on the Police Commission, and has been actively monitoring Dunkin Donuts cameras for information on the activity of panhandlers in the area of his stores and drive-thrus.
Be a good neighbor - and reach out to those seniors who are living independently in your neighborhood to ensure that all is well. If necessary, call the Bristol All Heart Hotline if they need to be connected to services. Recently, Troop 6 helped a senior citizen who has medical issues with storm clean up. We also have several residents still shopping for seniors who called the hotline back in March amidst the beginning of the covid-19 shutdown.
In the meantime, city departments will continue to work together to help as many citizens as we can with the wealth of services and programs available. Bristol is All Heart and we are all in this together.
Ellen Zoppo-Sassu is the mayor of Bristol.