City Hall Memo: Panhandling a symptom of bigger problem
Much has been written about the epidemic of panhandling on the streets and sidewalks of Concord. Next month the city council will consider an ordinance that would restrict panhandling on public roadways.
This ordinance is a revised attempt to address panhandling while at the same time protecting First Amendment rights. Restrictions would be made to the physical acts of both receiving and issuing of materials while in a public roadway.
There are some common-sense exceptions, such as allowing police officers to request and receive material from drivers.
The matter is being addressed as a matter of public safety, not one of restricting free speech.
This is far from a solution, but it is a good first step in addressing what most believe to be a quality-of-life issue for the people and visitors of Concord.
But how did we get here? When and why has Concord become a destination city for those in need of social services?
The panhandling issue is but a symptom of a larger problem that we can thank the state of New Hampshire for. Most of the folks we encounter on the streets panhandling are in need of mental health or substance abuse treatment, often both, but the state commitment in these areas is lacking.
During the recent recession the state downshifted many costs onto local communities across the state. Revenue sharing evaporated, employee retirement cost increased and school building aid was terminated.
Additionally, because Concord is home to both New Hampshire Hospital and the men’s prison (women’s prison coming soon!), Concord has a distinct burden unlike any other community in the state.
Patients from across the state are sent to the hospital and released back into Concord after evaluation and treatment.
Inmates from across the state are incarcerated in the prison and then released back into Concord after serving their sentence.
These folks are sometimes released with only the shirts on their backs. They are then expected to survive with little or no help and subjected to the very challenges that caused them to be evaluated or incarcerated.
There is a vacuum of state aid in the areas of substance abuse and mental health, and Concord is seeing the result. The lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment opportunities is the broader problem; panhandling is but one of its symptoms.
Our community has stepped up and provides an array of services for this group, such as the Friendly Kitchen, the McKenna House and the cold weather shelters, among many.
The mission of these charitable organizations is not to solve the underlying problems that contributed to their hardship, but to simply house, feed and clothe those in need.
Until the state sufficiently addresses its responsibility to adequately fund mental health and substance abuse treatment, particularly to those injected into our community by way of state institutions, we can expect a continuation and expansion of many of the negative social effects over recent years.
(Fred Keach is a Concord city councilor.)