AYER — Is it a problem or not — the state of the homeless in Ayer.
The issue “has been brought up to me on several occasions,” said Selectman Christopher Hillman at the board’s Sept. 11 meeting.
Patrons of Lucia’s Restaurant at 31 Main St. have reported looking out the window and seeing a “gentleman sleeping on a bench,” he said. Hillman also reported a “whole building filled with mattresses” by the train tracks.
“I don’t want to appear insensitive,” said Hillman. But Hillman said those looking to locate their business on Main Street in Ayer would certainly be turned off to see “a man sleeping on a bench downtown at 10 a.m.”
“Are there shelters at all?” asked Hillman. “I’m not trying to pull a Rudy Giuliani and move them to another town.”
In November 1999 when then serving as New York City’s mayor, Giuliani was accused of waging war on that city’s homeless population. Giuliani declared that the homeless had no right to sleep on the streets and that the homeless would be arrested if they refused shelter.
On his former radio show, Giuliani reportedly said “streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there” and that “bedrooms are for sleeping.”
“How big is the problem?” asked Selectman Jim Fay. Fay’s question was countered by another question.
“Do we have a homeless problem?” said Ayer Police Chief William Murray. “First, we have to define the problem. Do we have a problem?”
Then Murray said the follow-up question becomes “Why is that a problem? Because it’s a blemish on the town? There have always been homeless in town.”
“They have free will and rights,” said Murray. Murray asserted that the department is in contact with the homeless. “They don’t want help.”
In August 2009, selectmen were confronted by a homeless advocate who appealed to the board to investigate the Police Department’s dealings with the homeless and to institute a response protocol for the needy. Murray noted that in September 2009, the board announced it had prepared a contact list of local agencies providing food, shelter and other social services.
Murray said the police remain in contact with Pastor Steve Wells at the Apple Valley Baptist Church at 12 Columbia St., which is located a few hundred feet from Ayer Town Hall. The church’s “God’s Kitchen” offers free meals on Mondays and Fridays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Details are available at the church’s website, www.avbc-sbc.org.
Murray said Wells reports the homeless “really don’t want to be bothered by the police.” Furthermore, “(the homeless) are not doing anything wrong,” added Murray.
They get help “when they ask for that help,” said Murray. “Again, they’re not asking for help, and we’re not forcing that help on them.”
In the wintertime, Murray said the police work with agencies to ensure that — for those who want it — “they have a place to stay in winter.”
Are complaints on the rise, asked Fay.
No, said Murray, “other than people see them more.” Complaints that people were sleeping behind buildings led to a finding that some were there with permission of the building’s owner, said Murray.
“One of the things politicians in government love to do is to find a problem and (say) ‘Let’s fix it’ when there is no problem. Live and let live,” stated Selectman Frank Maxant.
“There aren’t vacant store fronts where the man’s sleeping. We see full store fronts. We should let people live in town the way they want to live in town — without having government get involved.”
Maxant and Hillman have sparred in recent months over the condition of privately-owned properties in town. While Hillman has argued the case against alleged aesthetic atrocities, Maxant has maintained that government should not attempt to regulate appearances. The two tangled on the homelessness topic.
“Why is our problem so much more prevalent than other towns?” asked Hillman.
“What problem?” answered Maxant.
“The homeless problem,” volleyed Hillman.
“Who has a problem?” queried Maxant.
“I have a problem,” said Hillman. “I want a solution.”
“For what?” asked Maxant.
“To help these people,” said Hillman.
“What relevance is it to you?” asked Maxant.
Hillman said he’d hate to see anyone “freeze downtown.” Tongue in cheek, Hillman suggested to Maxant that the town could “send them up to your place.”
It was a backhanded reference to Maxant’s home address at 14 Williams St. It’s one of two tenement houses owned by 81-year-old Hugh Ernisse, the other being at 128 Washington St.
The physical condition of the homes remains perpetually on selectmen’s recent meeting agendas. The weekly police logs show frequent police activity at the addresses, with tenants passing through the court system.
Ernisse unapologetically admits he takes in tenants who’d otherwise have difficulty finding housing. Ernisse himself just completed a multi-week summertime incarceration for violating a restraining order obtained against him by one of the occupants of his Washington Street home.
“There’s plenty of room up there,” jibed Hillman.
“The word is out that this is a safe place to be” said Murray. Not so for the homeless in Fitchburg or Worcester. “They also describe (Ayer) as friendly.”
“We addressed this a couple of years ago,” said selectman Gary Luca. “Has anything changed since then?”
“For the most part, no,” said Murray.
Luca said he is often asked, “‘Why is this one sleeping on the bench?’ How do I answer them?”
“Because he wants to,” suggested Murray. “That’s what’s what he is choosing to do.”
Regarding a man who habitually sits on the bench under the shelter across from Town Hall, Murray said, “We have offered help to him. He doesn’t want it.”
“If he’s on private property, yes,” the police can intervene, said Murray. But on public property, it’s a “different issue.”
“Can someone sleep on the street blocking the sidewalk?” asked Luca.
“Obviously they cannot block the sidewalk,” answered Murray.
“Do we have anything called a vagrancy law?” asked Fay.
Anti-loitering bylaws are infrequently used and are increasingly being “deemed unconstitutional” unless another law is being broken, said Murray.
A Littleton native, Hillman said he doesn’t want to “pick them up and move them to Littleton.” Hillman added he couldn’t “imagine what it’s like to sleep on a bench or have to sleep on a bench.”
Maxant pushed back, asking if the topic was being raised “just because you don’t like the looks of them.”
“Tonight’s been a long night,” answered Hillman in bringing the discussion to a conclusion.