NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (WWLP) - It's been two weeks since Northampton's mayor ordered the removal of six city benches. And the city council is now stepping in.
City Council President Bill Dwight told 22News council members are drafting an ordinance to bring back the benches. But it could take months.
The recent removal of six city benches has prompted protests and stirred controversy. The mayor ordered them gone because of a panhandling problem in Northampton.
"There have always been people panhandling. It's a little bit like free speech, you can't arrest them" said Ed Hogan of Northampton.
Hogan wants the benches back. So does Steven Savage. "I'm older, I got COPD, I spend money in town, so I'd like to able to sit somewhere when I walk through," said Savage in front of City Hall on Wednesday.
In Massachusetts, soliciting is a protected right. It's a right Ben Boliver knows too much about; he's been homeless for three years. "I sit out there with my sign, I've served in the army national guard. So I'm a veteran, and the only income I get is whatever people give me," said Boliver.
Boliver says he's a severe diabetic and his medical conditions don't allow him to work. When asking for money, he sits on his blankets and not on the benches; much like Jimmy Erwin, who also panhandles to make extra cash. Erwin told 22News trouble at home drove him to live on the streets.
"Some of them [panhandlers] do it for drugs, some do it of alcohol. But then there's a couple who are legit. Me and my wife, we get the money, we eat, we get coffee and we stay out of trouble. But I think honestly this doesn't just affect the panhandlers though," said Jimmy Erwin.
Northampton City Council President Bill Dwight agrees, saying it affects the entire city. He and other councilors are working on drafting an ordinance that will bring back the benches.
"There's too many people that's not a problem. Most cities don't argue about that. They want as many people as they can. And that means, everybody, a full spectrum of people," said Dwight.
If the ordinance is passed, it will only bring back the six benches. But Dwight says he does support adding more public furniture on Main Street.
"We start social engineering people by removing benches in the hopes that it will discourage certain people from sitting there; that will somehow help the very stressed retailers? I think it was an interesting idea, I don't think it was very well thought out," Dwight said.
Many merchants support the measure, saying aggressive panhandlers are driving visitors away. Meanwhile, Dwight says it's that perception of danger and harm that informs people. He added that Northampton is one of the safest cities in the Commonwealth; with its per capita crime rate being much smaller than anywhere else.
"We can't make laws that make people feel comfortable. We can make laws that will protect people from actual harm," said Dwight.
Dwight plans to debate the issue during the next city council meeting. For the rest of the summer, city council meetings will only happen once a month; with the next one being Thursday, June 6th.
Dwight says the measure will need to go through at least three subcommittees before a final vote takes place.