“Mercy” is defined in The Oxford Learners Dictionary as “a kind or forgiving attitude towards somebody that you have the power to harm or right to punish.”

It would be fair to say that mercy is not what the city had in mind when it recently redesigned the Belgian blocks at a busy intersection in downtown New Bedford for the second time in three years.

What the city had in mind was shutting down the panhandlers who have taken to heavily working that intersection, and perhaps one panhandler in particular who has worked it religiously over the last year or so.

Three years ago, Mayor Jon Mitchell had city workers tear out what are commonly referred to as cobblestones from the intersection and re-install them with their sharp right angles pointing upward. The goal? To make it difficult for the panhandlers to walk on the traffic island where they hold signs saying they are homeless. 

City councilors and wags on local talk radio — the ones who weren’t egging the mayor on — told Mitchell that the scheme was unlikely to work as a discouragement to street begging but his honor persisted.

The wags, however, were evidently right and a 43-year-old lanky guy named “Scottie B.” has been at this off ramp at the intersection with Pleasant Street nearly every day for the past year. Scottie walks along those Belgian blocks with the agility of a gymnast, never missing a sure step as he travels by the long lines of traffic coming off the Fairhaven bridge.

So just three years after they went in, the DPI last week took out all the angled blocks and reinstalled them so that they are pointing straight up. But this time they’ve been staggered at different heights and close together, so no one but the spryest could stand or walk on them. Scottie B. has risen to the occasion, but it looks much more dangerous than before as he now tries to negotiate the island.

Workers rearrange the cobblestones at “the octopus” traffic island. Photo by Jack Spillane

It would be more than accurate to describe the resulting appearance of these ominous-looking granite blocks, smack at the gateway to New Bedford from those arriving on the interstate, as looking like something out of the Middle Ages. Welcome to New Bedford.

At the intersection, Scottie ambles slowly along the long lines of traffic coming off the bridge, quietly holding his sign, only making eye contact and talking to those who engage him. He explains it’s safer to walk while the cars are stopped than to wait for the cars to stop for him.

Scottie is not alone. There is another group of panhandlers who work the other sides of the same intersection. And another whole group of them who work the intersection of Rockdale Avenue and Route 18 in the South End. The panhandlers at the intersection of Routes 140 and 6 in the West End seem to have gone away for the time being, as have the ones at the entrance to Market Basket in the North End.

For some reason, panhandlers go right up the back of a lot of people. Forget the fact that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and his group don’t pay a dime in taxes, the thought of a single New Bedford resident having their hand out for free money drives some people to utter distraction.  

The Mitchell administration has heard them. It has installed the Belgians with their angles pointing upward in all four locations mentioned above.

Stones across the city

All told the city has spent $44,000 installing the “don’t you dare” stones. Chief of Staff Neil Mello argues that that amount is a tiny fraction of the $10 million the city annually spends on road and sidewalk repair, the vast majority of which is funded by the state and federal governments.

What the city has spent rebuilding cobblestones at intersections

07/19/2017Octopus at Kempton & Purchase Streets$2,933.04
12/5/2018Sawyer & Coggeshall Streets$4,188.88
05/2/2018Pleasant Street & Fish Island$6,937.76
04/22/2019Rockdale Avenue & Cove Road$6,867.76
05/08/2019Repaired Pleasant Street & Fish Island$1,494.44
07/08/2019Kempton Street & Brownell Avenue$9,062.32
03/31/2020Route 6-140 (Kempton Street side)$6,548.48
08/09/2021Pleasant Street & Fish Island$6,025.64
Total$44,058.32
Source: City of New Bedford

When it comes to panhandling, however, the intersections may be the smallest part of the problem in the city. It is impossible, particularly in good weather, to walk very long on the sidewalks of the downtown without being hit up by occasional street beggars. Definitely the same thing in Fall River or Brockton or Boston, or any American city of a certain size.

It’s part of urban life. In fact, the traffic intersection panhandling, which is almost entirely non-verbal, is actually less accosting in some ways than the commonplace panhandling on city streets and sidewalks.

It may be that Mitchell actually intends to make the menacing-looking blocks — imagine accidentally driving a car or motorcycle over them — a theme throughout New Bedford. He defends their installation as necessary to ensure safety.

The mayor declined an interview for this story but Mello included this sentence in a prepared statement: “If other dangerous intersections can be made safer, the city will not hesitate to continue to undertake necessary improvements.”

Mello and the mayor actually cast the whole redesign and reconstruction of the Octopus island as simply the latest repairs and upgrades to city intersections.

“I see panhandling as a mode of survival.” Photo by Jack Spillane

Scottie, who doesn’t display any overt signs of either substance abuse or mental illness, says he doesn’t make a whole lot of money at his spot but it’s evidently enough to keep him going. Maybe $60 on a good day. His main goal, he said, is to avoid what he sees as unfair child support payments that garnish most of his paycheck if he works on the books. He had been doing different kinds of under-the-table blue-collar work around town before he lost the temporary work at the start of the pandemic.

“I think it’s a pretty sad state of affairs that this is the mayor’s idea of help,” he said. 

“I see panhandling as a mode of survival.”

Not to be deterred, the mayor (or perhaps the city’s Public Infrastructure department on its own, if we are to believe Chief of Staff Mello), came up with a new way to install the Belgian blocks to thwart the mendicants. 

The new design comes just as the mayor is closing the downtown police station in favor of the new Public Safety Center in the South End. At the same time, the new police chief and deputy chief had been out at the post office and bus station last week engaging with the street folks who hang out there. Their appearance was part of a police initiative to bring teams of homeless, addiction and mental health professionals to service the people who need help, according to the police spokesman.

Scottie says someone from the state — he believes Attorney General Maura Healey’s New Bedford office — has also gotten involved, sending someone to tell him not to get any ideas about walking along the smooth part of the traffic island that the state owns. A previous citation from the city for disorderly conduct for working the intersection resulted in his being summonsed to court to pay a $100 fee, he said. He’s trying to get the Massachusetts ACLU to take his case.

Problem solved?

Some of the city councilors have been up in arms this summer about the growing downtown visibility of the homeless and street people (folks who have someplace to go at night but who hang around public streets during the day). It’s true that New Bedford, like nearly every other city in America, has increasing numbers of people hanging around with seemingly nothing to do.

Courts have generally upheld people’s right to use things like public sidewalks and parks so it’s not always easy to move these folks, unless they are blocking egress to a building or overtly harassing someone. Which, according to the studies, is a very rare occurrence, despite what you may have read or heard on social media or right-wing radio.

While the mayor may have more than a little support for the “Make it dangerous” initiative, it has not gone over greatly with the local folks who work closest with street people.

Rev. David Lima, the chair of the Homeless Services Provider Network, said the bottom line is that this city’s latest initiative is not going to work, just as the last one didn’t. “People are still going to figure out how to be out there and do something,” he said.

There is actually some evidence that panhandling is better addressed through programming than installing cobblestones that are hard to stand on.

Lima said he is not sure what the solution is, but he described the mayor’s action as akin to posturing. “It’s more of a political statement than anything else,” he said of the city’s latest arrangement of the blocks. “It’s to show we’re doing something.”

There is actually some evidence that panhandling is better addressed through programming than installing cobblestones that are hard to stand on. And some of the urban stories about panhandling might actually be untrue.

A 2016-2017 survey of panhandling in Center City Philadelphia found the following:

  • The majority of people panhandling in the downtown lived in the city.
  • The panhandlers treated their activity like a full-time job.
  • They earned a meager amount of money which they use for essentials.
  • People who panhandle would like to be employed but they face significant barriers to employment.
  • The panhandling population faces housing instability.
  • The opioid epidemic has increased panhandling.
  • Panhandling is an individual activity and is routinely censured by authorities. 

“Overall, the data suggests that greater access to housing and low demand employment would serve to reduce the number of individuals engaging in panhandling in Center City,” the study concluded.

A long way back

Scottie B. tells the story of a guy who approached him at the intersection and said he would give him work doing construction for a week. At the end of the week, the guy never picked him up again and he never got paid.

Another guy offered him work and when he tried to explain that he had to get paid every day (because that is the way he lives), the guy paid him and let him go after two days. 

He says he has stayed at the Sister Rose shelter a few times, but he prefers to be on his own. A woman from the nearby Regency Towers bought him a high-quality knapsack, he said, when his own was falling apart. Another woman set aside $75 so he could buy new boots at Carter’s Clothing in the downtown.

Scottie says that before the pandemic, he had all his social programs ready to go and he thought he had a chance to get back working permanently. But it’s really hard getting back to the world of formal employment when you’ve been homeless, he said. Try getting a job or an apartment and explaining why you’ve been on the street, he said. 

“Not once has the mayor, or anybody from the mayor’s office, in the past year come down and asked me if I need help, or what can they do to help the homeless situation in the city of New Bedford,” he said.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.


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