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Organizers balance Framingham farmers market needs with those of the homeless population

Posted by John Swinconeck  July 17, 2013 10:57 AM

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John Swinconeck for Your Town
Program Manager at South Middlesex Opportunity Council Moses Mohammed at the Framingham downtown farmers market.

Framingham, Mass. — Organizers of the Tuesday downtown farmers market in Framingham are performing a balancing act.

They want to make the market, which opened for the first time June 4 and is held at the Downtown Common off Concord Street, as welcoming as possible. But the organizers are worried about the effect of homeless people with no other place to go who congregate at the park.

At a July 9 Selectmen’s Meeting, Framingham Town Manager Robert Halpin said “interaction” with those waiting for a free meal service at a nearby Salvation Army branch is making those at the market “feel uncomfortable.”

Halpin said the town has had discussions with Framingham Downtown Renaissance and local social service agencies to figure out a solution to the issue, including finding a better location for people waiting for services.

“We don’t want to paint a picture of conflict,” Halpin said. “We appreciate that social service agencies are trying to help people. We need a strategy where they're not just hanging around downtown in between areas where people are trying to help them. Ignoring them during the day isn’t the answer.”

On Monday, Framingham Downtown Renaissance Executive Director Holli Andrews acknowledged the problem is one common to urban areas.

The Downtown Common is across the street the from the Salvation Army, which has a free meal program. Just down Franklin Street, within easy walking distance, is the Spectrum Health Systems’ methadone clinic.

“When the farmers market is going, it’s a wonderful, lively, beautiful little park. Then other times, it’s not so neutral,” Andrews said. “But we'll keep trying, to make downtown feel safe and welcoming to everybody.”

So Farmers Market organizers, including Andrews, brought in Moses Mohammed, who works as program manager at South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which provides social services in areas of the MetroWest, including homeless and substance abuse services.

“The idea is to engage them,” Mohammed said. A foot patrolman also provides a police presence at the market, but Mohammed said that “when you combine both cops and the community, it’s not as intimidating.”

Most of the homeless stay in nearby shelters at night and many get meals from the Salvation Army, which sits near the park.

Mohammed said part of the problem is that shelters in Framingham where many of his clients spend the night are closed during the day.

Mohammed said he knows most of those that congregate in the park, and they come with a host of problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of job skills.

“They’re not working, so there’s no money for transportation. They come to the park and drink, or wait for the Salvation Army to open. What else can you do? You come to the park.”

What’s needed, he said, is a safe place where the homeless can congregate during the day.

In the meantime, Mohammed is at the park, offering SMOC services.

“The help is there if they need it, but some of them have done this for years,” Mohammed said, adding many don’t want to give up their independence. “It’s all they know.”

Halpin said the new Farmers Market will continue to grow and be successful in the weeks to come.

About a dozen vendors set up at the park on a sweltering Tuesday. While business appeared slow, Elizabeth Hanson seemed to have her hands full making lemonade at the When Life Gives You Lemons stand.

Matt Scranton of Hanson’s Farm said he had no trouble on Tuesday, and said the market “is run very well.”

“It’s very professional,” Scranton said. “It’s great for the community.”

Framingham Farmers Market Manager Jackie Meninno, however, said it’s too soon to say whether the downtown market will be successful enough to return next year.

The downtown market is in addition to one held every Thursday at Centre Common on Edgell Road.

“Framingham is trying to make downtown more inviting,” said Mohammed, “but what do you do with the homeless population that has nothing to do during the day?”

Contact John Swinconeck at johnswinc@gmail.com. Follow @johnswinc on Twitter.

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