I drive past the homeless and the needy sometimes, on my way here or there. There’s the one who stands in sun and rain outside the Shop Rite plaza and another person on the I-91 off-ramp, just to name a few of the most visible. Sometimes I hand them a dollar or two. Other times I look away. But they are here. They exist.
If my suburban town of Enfield has its way, though, we’ll push them out of sight or even lock them up. We need to reconsider. No amount of heartless laws will solve the growing problem of homelessness in suburban America.
Homelessness and poverty outside the cities isn’t a new thing, but it is something we’ve recently become more aware of. This is partly a legacy of the financial crash and recession — a lot of families lost their homes during that time. A number of people in my street had their homes taken by the banks because they couldn’t meet the mortgage payments.
Where did these people go? Some left for other towns, or went to stay with families. But others had nowhere to go. Maybe they lived out of their cars. Maybe they lived down near the river. Maybe they just dropped off the radar entirely.
Nobody kept track, really. Why would they? Wasn’t homelessness and poverty something that happened in places like Hartford and New Haven? It couldn’t possibly be happening in the suburbs.
It is, though, and always has been. We just didn’t talk about it. When I was growing up in Newington, some families lived week-to-week in the seedy motels along the Berlin Turnpike. It’s nothing new.
But now wealth is beginning to move back to the cities, meaning that the ancient trend of a rich inner core surrounded by poor suburbs and outskirts is slowly re-establishing itself. There are now more people in poverty living outside cities than inside, and suburban poverty is growing faster than urban.
This can be a nightmare for the poor in these places, because suburbs are notoriously bad at providing services. There’s little to no public transit, few shelters or food banks, and governments and other residents are more often than not openly hostile.
Panhandlers, who are actually asking for money in some way, are the target now. The proposed ordinance in Enfield would fine them $90 if they were caught being “aggressive” or, in some cases, standing too close to a public road.
Residents say they’re afraid for their children: one woman who lives near an intersection where panhandlers often stand said she “can see these actions going on from our backyard . . . It’s uncomfortable having the kids out there playing.”
Another worried about property values, while yet another resident suggested that not only should panhandlers be fined, but so should the people who give money to them.
“I think it’s something the town wants to address before it becomes a catastrophic issue,” the town manager, Matthew Coppler, said to WFSB-TV.
Catastrophic? What exactly do people think is going to happen?
And, more importantly, is this really a problem? Enfield’s police chief Carl Sferrazza says he hasn’t actually received any complaints of panhandlers being “aggressive,” and that seems to be true. I’ve yet to see anyone in Enfield follow people around or get in someone’s face.
Here’s the thing: nobody in a town that likes thinking of itself as peaceful, quiet, safe, and even affluent at times wants to be reminded of the fact that the problems they thought they were isolated from actually exist here, too. This isn’t about actual dangers so much as it’s about the anxieties of suburbanites.
So what are the very poor and the homeless supposed to do? Most suburbs would rather they vanish. But that’s not likely to happen as suburban poverty rises, therefore towns are going to have to start facing reality.
The government in Enfield is actually doing more than most, which is why the idea of this anti-panhandling ordinance is so disappointing. Enfield has a public bus system called Magic Carpet (carpets used to be made here), a food bank, and some social services.
Other towns have none of this, however, and many see the poor and the homeless as nothing but an unwanted burden.
The suburbs must wake up to the fact that there are homeless here, and both governments and residents should start reacting with compassion instead of suspicion and fear. In that spirit, I hope the Enfield council will reject this overly broad and cruel anti-panhandling law.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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