There was little consensus among members of the public who expressed their opinions, in letters and in person, about Nelson city council’s proposed panhandling bylaw Monday. Many of the letters are attached below.
The draft bylaw was introduced Sept. 16, but at its Oct. 5 meeting, after receiving a lot of feedback, council decided it needed more public input and more time to think about it.
Monday’s meeting was a committee of the whole, a type of monthly meeting at which council hears from the public but doesn’t make decisions.
There were several presentations, and acting mayor Valerie Warmington acknowledged a number of letters council has received.
A letter from the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce states that in the summer the group’s board adopted a resolution in favour of adopting an “aggressive panhandling bylaw that would regulate behaviour and also where panhandling could take place, but not make it illegal.”
The chamber letter said it surveyed an admittedly small sample of 22 businesses and found 81 per cent in favour of a panhandling bylaw. The letter went on to recommend that enforcement of any bylaw use a “best practices” approach.
Council also received six letters from businesses in the Nelson Business Association expressing a range of views. Margaret Stacey of the business association summarized them in writing as follows:
“One merchant says the panhandlers are about 80 per cent young men, some with mental health issues, and another says it’s seasonal, surrounding Shambhala for example. Another merchant says there should be zero tolerance of panhandlers, and from watching them daily, says the money is not used for food or transport, but goes to drugs. Some say they should be regulated as much as buskers. Several recommend street workers or housing or social assistance or addictions services.”
A letter from the Seniors Coordinating Society stated that panhandling is not particularly a seniors issue and that seniors are affected in the same way as everyone else. The letter acknowledges the presence of panhandlers and takes a moderate approach, concluding with “The issue requires clear policy communication from the city and appropriate judgement by the bylaw officers. Generally we do not see panhandling as a priority issue at this time.”
The Senior Citizens Association, on the other hand, supports the draft bylaw.
“We feel the bylaw has covered all the bases and we are happy with it,” the group’s email read.
Warmington told the meeting council has also received a letter from the BC Civil Liberties Association, but it wasn’t available at press time.
Council also heard a presentation from Ann Harvey and Vanessa Alexander of the Nelson Committee on Homelessness.
Harvey said the provincial Safe Streets Act is enough, and that aggressive behaviour by panhandlers is a police issue or a mental health issue.
“Downloading this to bylaw officers is not appropriate,” Harvey said. “Bylaw officers are not equipped do deal with aggression. It is not their job.”
Harvey said the proposed bylaw contributes to the stigmatization and criminalization of poverty. She summarized her points with a quote from a homeless advocate from Vancouver:
“These restrictions blatantly discriminate against the poor, homeless, mentally ill, and addicted people and serve only to marginalize and render invisible an already marginalized population. It is also exceedingly hypocritical and as citizens of a ‘progressive’ city we ought to be ashamed.”
Harvey also warned councillors about the cost of possible legal challenges arising from such a bylaw similar to many such challenges arising across the country, and she cited a California judge who in 2012 declared it unconstitutional to “restrict solicitation merely because it makes people uncomfortable.”
There were several presentations by individual members of the public.
Will Evans moved to Nelson from Chilliwack, where, he said, panhandling was the beginning of the deterioration of the downtown. He said panhandling doesn’t improve a person’s financial situation, and that if begging worked, India would be the most prosperous nation on earth. He asked why panhandlers don’t panhandle in the winter, if their need is so great. In the same way that people move to a different city because there are jobs there, he said, panhandlers move to Nelson because it is the best place to panhandle. Not regulating it will encourage more, he said.
Another speaker, T. Evans, echoed those concerns and said most panhandlers in Nelson are not from Nelson. She said there are better ways to help people than allow them to panhandle. “Letting them beg means we don’t care about them,” she said.
George Chandler said he has tried unsuccessfully to find aggressive panhandlers in Nelson, and making a law that is simply an attempt to control the extreme is not a good process. He wondered about the enforceability of the circles of distance in which panhandling would be banned (such as from outdoor restaurants or bank machines).
Claus Schünke said there is no actual data about panhandling behind the request for a bylaw by the police and bylaw officers, and that the initial decision by city staff to develop it was based on vague assumptions, “fear-mongering,” and no public input.
At a previous meeting, Nelson Becker said bylaw officers aren’t equipped to deal with aggressive people or people with mental illnesses. He said the Safe Streets Act should be enough, that it will cost too much to enforce the bylaw, and that what is needed is a multi-faceted approach to poverty reduction.
Becker also said the proposed bylaw would violate our constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Council has already given two readings to the bylaw but third reading remains in abeyance.