NB Politicus

Stewart’s New Policy: Criminalizing The Homeless, Jeopardizing Building Hope Together

Posted in city politics and government, downtown, Poverty by nbpoliticus on May 1, 2016

By John McNamara

The common council meeting of April 27th began on a hopeful note for a community that has been dubbed the “city for all people.”

Ward 4 Alderman Bobby Smedley moved a unanimous resolution to adopt a Compassion Charter, having New Britain join with other cities and countries around the world affirming a belief “to honour (sic) the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

The commitment to a compassionate city, however, was short-lived.

Within minutes  Smedley and the Common Council voted 10 to 5  to adopt an ordinance to prohibit aggressive panhandling,   imposing a $99 fine for “aggressive” begging or lying to obtain money.

The move — hastily pushed by the Stewart administration — is intended to more quickly sweep indigent and homeless persons from  Central Park and the downtown area now  that the refurbished, brick-laid park has been made safe for food vendor trucks.

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A controversial ordinance to impose $99 fines for aggressive panhandling that criminalizes the homeless was adopted April 27th. It may make Central Park safe for food trucks but could jeopardize federal funds and invite legal challenges.

The controversial penalty drew near unanimous opposition in public testimony over three meetings at City Hall from the homeless, formerly homeless, advocates and city residents.  Ward 3 Alderman Manny Sanchez called the ordinance a “poor judgment” by the Council, opposing the measure as”loosely written, likely unenforceable and probably inconsistently enforced from officer to officer.”

The Council majority, adhering to Mayor Stewart’s demand for a quick vote, insist that the $99 fine for “aggressive” panhandling is not “criminalizing” the homeless at all. It just gives the Police Department another “tool” in their “tool box” to crack down on individuals soliciting money in ways that threaten others.

But Police Chief James Wardwell, addressing the issue at an April 26th Consolidated Committee meeting, was diplomatically neutral when Republican aldermen, including Ward 2’s Kristian  Rosado, unsuccessfully went fishing for an official endorsement by the Chief.  They didn’t get one. Wardwell indicated his officers use an array of existing laws already on the books, issuing warnings before they escalate situations into arrests.  The criminal code includes a range of enforcement options for menacing behavior including disorderly conduct, threatening or even robbery that would appear to cover the definition of “aggression” that would result in a $99 fine and no criminal action.  For true hustlers and bad actors that would amount to a slap on the wrist when the full weight of the law should come down on them. That makes the new ordinance at best redundant and at worst an official policy to target and criminalize the homeless.

For Wardwell and some members of the Council the larger issue for public safety is that NBPD may need more than one cop walking the beat downtown as the best antidote to “aggressive” behavior that , as defined in the ordinance, infringes on the rights of others in public places.

New Britain has  now joined other communities which have inserted the word “aggressive” into ordinances to skirt constitutional issues. Courts have routinely thrown out anti-panhandling ordinances because they “impinge on protected speech and behavior.”

A recent study No_Safe_Place (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty) found the adoption of ordinances such as New Britain’s as counterproductive to both public safety and combating homelessness.

Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. Misusing police power to arrest homeless people is only a temporary intervention, as most people are arrested and incarcerated for short periods of time. Ultimately, arrested homeless people return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now laden with financial obligations, such as court fees, that they cannot pay. Moreover, criminal convictions – even for minor crimes – can create barriers to obtaining critical public benefits, employment, or housing, thus making homelessness more difficult to escape.

The new ordinance directly contradicts the city’s workplan on homelessness — Building Hope Together — posted on the city’s web site.  First adopted in 2007 by former Mayor Timothy Stewart and promoted by Erin Stewart in her 2015 campaign for re-election, the plan with city government and agencies working together is committed to supportive housing, eviction prevention, employment and access to mental health and wellness services for the homeless population.

Passage of the ordinance has potential to deny New Britain federal funds to continue to implement the goals of the plan to reduce homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides $1.9 billion in federal funds to local Continuums of Care, now requires cities and their partners to “describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness.”  In the very competitive process for these funds New Britain could become a loser because of an ordinance that targets homeless persons intentionally or not with fines they will not be able to pay.

Unfortunately the Stewart Administration’s push for the ordinance fits a pattern of taking resources away from those who are most in need in a cash strapped city with high pockets of poverty.  That has been painfully evident  over the last three years in the elimination of Community Development Block Grant funds for food pantries and other aspects of the city’s social safety net relied upon by low-income families  and homeless persons. Instead,  those federal funds have been put back into the municipal development bureaucracy or remain unused in addressing community needs.

 

The Mayor and the Council majority would do well to read the “Compassion Charter” they so enthusiastically embraced on April 27th “to treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”  Following that principle would require reversing an unnecessary, costly and punitive measure against the least among us.

 

It May Be A "Magic Bus" After All: NB As The Center Of Rapid Transit

Posted in downtown, environment, Hard Hittin' New Britain, transportation by nbpoliticus on January 26, 2014

CT Fastraks — called the “magic bus” to critics such as former Governor John Rowland — will start rolling 12 months from now (February 2015) on the 9.3-mile rail right of way from New Britain to Hartford.

The New Britain Herald’s Scott Whipple previews the potential of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for New Britain folks using the bus to get to Hartford’s theater and cultural institutions in a Sunday story.

At drive time I’ve listened to WTIC’s Rowland carp about a project (ironically) launched during his time in the Governor’s office.

But next winter I am counting on it to get to the job in Hartford instead of sitting in stalled traffic on I-84.  It just so happens that the I-84 trek that intersects with I-91in Hartford has the most traffic volume anywhere in the nation. Not surprising given the limits and difficulty of what CT Transit busses currently offer.

New Britain’s Terminal Takes Shape (CT DOT)

Right now, if the work day in downtown Hartford takes me past 5:30 pm, I’ll miss the last departure for the “2” Express to the commuter lot at Brittany Farms.  I am left to get home some other way.  The CT Fastraks — BRT or Bus Rapid Transit is a better name — will keep going well into the night for the same regular bus fares we pay now.

For New Britain  the BRT system means a lot more than getting back and forth from Hartford for work, school or seeing the sites. The  terminal being built at the old Greenfield’s site is the only stop with a significant amount of parking.  The two large municipal garages are expected to be utilized in an a yet to be defined arrangement between the city and the state Department of Transportation.

With ample parking and unused, long vacant commercial property in the center of New Britain,  BRT  is setting downtown up for  transit-oriented developments in retail, housing and new businesses. A small-scale renaissance is possible bringing people and commerce back after they left for the malls and the burbs a generation ago. Not exactly the “magic bus” Rowland and the naysayers are predicting.

Critics like Rowland linger. They predict low ridership will turn the region’s first real stab at rapid transit into a boondoggle.   But more knowledgeable opponents who favored rail over a BRT system are resigned to making the project work as part of a network inclusive of rail or other options that will reduce traffic on the deteriorating I-84/I-91 corridor and connect communities for work, school and just getting around.

Twelve months and counting.

Virtual Busway Tour Starting At New Britain Station

Posted in downtown, transportation by nbpoliticus on July 29, 2013

A special section in The Hartford Courant has an interactive tour of the the New Britain to Hartford rapid bus transit system a/k/a “CTfastrak”  as provided by the CT  Department of Transportation at its project website www.ctfastrak.com

The state Bond Commission this month allocated $500,000 for transit-oriented development in the downtown district. The busses of the long-awaited and much-debated busway are scheduled to start running in early 2015.

Desperation from Busway Opponents?

Posted in downtown, transportation by nbpoliticus on February 15, 2010

The arguments of opponents to the the New Britain-Hartford busway have a ring of obstructionism and desperation  in this Courant story by Don Stacom.  

With news of $45 million in federal money for a busway to leverage other funds,  the project may finally see a  light at the end-of-the-tunnel. It’s a little specious to oppose public transit because it will deny the DOT funds for highway and bridge repair.  It would seem some extra recovery money might be found to keep the bridges safe and the roads paved. And it’s not at all clear the busway will kill off the more ambitious, regional rail concepts that are only concepts at this point. 

Blocking the busway now might doom this part of Connecticut to just  more autos along the I-84 corridor for the foreseeable future.  However limited putting a lane alongside the railroad bed is, the busway has reached a tipping point as a realistic way to move public transit forward in central Connecticut.

And not to be parochial but New Britain has suffered too much from the 9/72 highway that cut the center of the city in two in the early 70s.  The busway is a start at making amends for that disaster and the highway mentality that brought it about.


Commuter Question: Rail Over Busway

Posted in downtown, economic development, transportation by nbpoliticus on January 3, 2009

Today’s Courant story by Don Stacom reports on a brewing change in legislative thinking on public transit in the area led by State Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford.

McCluskey, disturbed over the lack of progress by the Department of Transportation on the New Britain busway, recently called for dumping the New Britain/Hartford busway as too limited for emerging needs. This would sink New Britain’s terminal station planned for the former Greenfield’s property and force a change in thinking for downtown development.

From Don Stacom’s story:

“The busway was supposed to be a way to keep from building another lane on I-84, but I don’t have much faith that people are going to drive into New Britain to take a bus to Hartford,” McCluskey said. “But would people in Bristol and Plainville and New Britain use a train to Hartford? And would people in West Hartford welcome a way to get to New York? I think so.”

With last summer’s gas prices a harbinger of things to come and a surge in demand for rail service (even in Connecticut), McCluskey has a point. Investment in rail on existing tracks may be where we should have started 10 years ago. It’s another indication that Connecticut has had more of a highway department than a true Department of Transportation through the years.

Related: Rep. McCluskey’s blog frequently reports on transit conferences and meetings at http://ctprogressivedemocrat.blogspot.com/

Downtown’s Future: A Place To Live Within Walking Distance of Public Transit

Posted in city politics and government, community development, downtown by nbpoliticus on December 2, 2007

Downtown New Britain is no longer a “downtown,” if that word means anything. But if it’s no longer the city’s commercial or business center, then what is it?

from NBBlogs

The revitalization of downtown New Britain was not much of an issue during the 2007 municipal campaign. The welcome news of Carvel Corporation’s move to the long vacant Smart Park (the former Stanley Works factory parcel)and a meaningless flare up over the location of a new police station were about the only headlines drawing attention to the city’s vital center this year.

Downtown is ripe for new investment and development that needs to be managed wisely by city and state officials over the next five years. One of the big challenges of putting a viable downtown New Britain back together has to do with Route 9, the highway that connects I-84 to I-91 and shore points. New Britain is not unique among U.S. cities in having a four-lane roadway built 40 or 50 years ago that hastened decline of the central business district. The major task now is to undo that public works and public policy fiasco that cut the city in two.

As Pat Thibodeau observes in a recent post on his blog about New Britain, there’s no bringing back a downtown full of big retailers and big stores that people pouring out of factories patronized in the middle of the 20th century.

Thibodeau sees the opening of C-Town — an urban grocer that people walk to — as a harbinger of downtown’s future. “Downtown New Britain isn’t so much the place to be (the old city slogan), as it is a place to live. It has the potential to become an interesting and lively neighborhood,” he says. He goes on:

Downtown housing is likely to be occupied by single adults or couples who want to be in walking distance to essential services and stores. I also believe that, more and more, people will be interested in living without having to own a car, even in Connecticut. (I just paid about $25 for 8 gallons of gas at the Sunoco near West Farms. What happens when gas hits $4 a gallon?)

Thibodeau’s analysis needs to be heeded as key pieces of real estate (the old police station, the Herald building and the New-Brite shopping plaza) enter the development picture in the immediate or near future. Above all, officials at the local level need to be ready to take full advantage of the New Britain-to-Hartford busway that will turn the old Greenfield’s property into a transit hub and instantly make the land and buildings around it more attractive for private investment. These investments will have little need (nor should they) for abatements and public subsidies for business that desperate cities often use to boost their grand lists. Like third world countries fighting poverty, distressed U.S. cities are engaged in a “race to the bottom” because of the property tax.

Last July experts, lawyers and developers were at New Britain City Hall to outline some exciting plans for a downtown in dire need of good ideas and new public/private investment. Careful listeners to a study prepared by Harrall-Michalowski Associates wouldn’t be wrong in thinking they may have already heard much of what is being proposed. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: “It was deja vu all over again.”

If you flashback two years to the 2005 campaign, Jason Jakubowski, the Democratic mayoral nominee, unveiled a plan called “Project Hope” that represented a comprehensive and very ambitious agenda to bring downtown back. Jakubowski, reviving some older proposals dating back to the DeFronzo administration and raising the new ones, defined “hope” for downtown with a nine-point plan that included a new police station and the conversion of New-Brite into a collegiate sports and conference center multi-plex. He urged an expanded role for Central CT State and Charter Oak State downtown and proposed an arts and entertainment district built around the city’s existing assets. To correct the highway mistake of the 70’s, a mini platform idea was floated again to bridge the divide between East Main Street and Columbus Boulevard.

Jakubowski’s “Project Hope” and the master plan to come from consultants hired by the city this year are based on the same essential component: the federally funded busway planned to run aside the railroad tracks from New Britain through Newington and onto downtown Hartford.

While the busway is still five years away at best, the city and state — working together — could begin to put into place elements of a plan that will make downtown “interesting and lively” for visitors and residents who are ready to consider the center of the city a place to live if convenient public transit exists.

An interim step that could happen within a year is to upgrade the existing downtown bus stop. “One thing New Britain should try to get the state to do is improve the downtown bus hub,” states Thibodeau. “The bus pick-up location at West Main and Main Streets is dismal and unattractive. It actually looks dangerous. It needs an extreme makeover to encourage new riders.” A cosmetic makeover next to the municipal garage would invite greater use of public transit before the busway arrives.

And what would be wrong with a commuter bus direct from downtown New Britain into Hartford? There is a commuter Express near Corbin’s Corner with limited services now. It should be expanded to downtown given the thousands of New Britain residents — not to mention people from adjoining towns — who trek into downtown Hartford to work every day. More local service — a university downtown shuttle and a route up to the West Main Street business area — would get people to work and shop without using a car at $3.30 a gallon.

It’s time to implement a transit-based economic development strategy now and not wait for the first ride on the busway some of us plan to take circa 2012.