Under mounting pressure from the New Bedford City Council, business owners, and the public to do something about the growing problem of vagrancy and all that goes with it in the downtown area, Mayor Jon Mitchell has made his move.

Barry Richard/Townsquare Media
Barry Richard/Townsquare Media

The police and fire departments and the Department of Public Infrastructure were out in force on Thursday, washing and sweeping streets, alleys, and vacant storefronts in the Pleasant Street area frequented by the vagrants who often relieve themselves there.

Barry Richard/Townsquare Media
Barry Richard/Townsquare Media

Police Chief Paul Oliveira held an impromptu meeting with some of the vagrants on the sidewalk across from the bus terminal. Oliveira promised an increased presence of social service workers and police in the coming days. A woman told Oliveira, "I heard that for three days, from three different people," to which he replied, "No, listen, services are going to be coming down. You have my word on it."

Oliveira told me this is just the first step in what will be an ongoing effort.

"We want to clean up the area here. We noticed there was a lot of litter, a lot of debris," he said. "There are people there that need help, whether it's mental health, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, homelessness."

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City Council Public Safety Committee Chair Brian Gomes told me he is willing to give the new approach a chance. But Gomes says social workers already work with the vagrants and seem to have little success. He also chastised the Mitchell Administration for not returning calls seeking a meeting to discuss the vagrancy issue and plans to shutter the downtown police station.

Oliveira said one woman who hangs around the downtown comes from Southborough. He said she was given a bus ticket to New Bedford for a treatment program and can't afford to return home again. Gomes said he's spoken to others who have come from as far away as Boston for treatment and wind up on the streets of New Bedford.

The sad reality is that once the hoses were put away, the street sweeper parked, and the chief returned to his office, the same vagrants were back in their usual hangouts as though nothing had happened.

This is a small first step towards addressing a huge problem. Let's hope there is more to the plan than this.

Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at barry@wbsm.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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