Two initiatives that began in 2015 — the formation of the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative and city council’s introduction of a panhandling bylaw — converged in 2016 to become one of the most controversial issues of the year: panhandling and how to respond to people living on the street.
The issue had Nelson’s city council divided and perplexed.
In the fall of 2015 council introduced, and then backed away from, a bylaw intended to control panhandling.
It came back to council in May where it passed 4-3 at third reading. Then when it came up for final adoption in July it failed, because Councillor Michael Dailly changed his mind and voted against the bylaw.
As a result, council decided to put off the initiative for a year to give the Nelson Street Culture Collaborative time to hire and deploy street outreach workers.
“I want to see their impact first,” Dailly told council. “I would rather have a community that is aware of what the symptoms of what mental health distress are, and I am not sure a bylaw can do that. Aggressive panhandling, I am suggesting, is a mental health issue.”
The collaborative, the brainchild Nelson Community Services executive director Rona Park, was formed early in 2015 and consists of a group of about three dozen people from police, community services, churches, health, mental health, municipal, business, and education — those sectors that come in contact one way or another with “those who rely on the street for survival.”
The bylaw would have prohibited panhandlers from obstructing the passage of pedestrians, touching a person, continuing to approach a person who has given a negative response, approaching in groups of two or more, obstructing traffic, panhandling people in parked vehicles or vehicles at a stop light, and panhandling within five metres of an ATM, pay phone, or public washroom.
And it would have prohibited panhandling within five metres of a financial institution, bus stop, bus shelter, liquor store, movie theatre, sidewalk cafe, or place of worship entrance; panhandling after sunset; impeding access to a business; panhandling from people at a sidewalk cafe; and panhandling for more than one hour in one place within a given four-hour period.
Park said she and the street culture collaborative wanted to avoid assumptions and blanket statements about the street population.
“We need to go through these layers to make sure we know what is going on. It is not necessarily that if you are on the street you have a mental health problem or drug problem. Some of these people are very lonely. There are multiple reasons why people are relying on street culture,” Park told the Star in January.
In March the collaborative came up with a list of the characteristics of the street population, which they said numbers about 20 to 30 people.
“We found that they are a very multi-faceted group of individuals, like any other group,” Park said. “Which means the response needs to be diverse. It’s not a cookie-cutter situation.”
In April, the collaborative came out with eight recommendations, the foremost of which were to offer mental health first aid training and to hire street outreach workers.
The two-day mental health first aid training course was given to 65 municipal employees and social service workers. A shorter version was attended by 17 business people. Selkirk College will be offering it as a continuing education course in Nelson in the new year.
To hire outreach workers for a year, the collaborative raised $100,000 from the federal government and other sources.
In September, three outreach workers — Ryall Giuliano, Jeremy Kelly and Bernadette White — were hired and spent their first month on the job in training.