Public response to the proposed panhandling bylaw has been polarized. Council has given itself until April to decide what to do.

Nelson council puts off panhandling decision until April

City council has been getting a polarized response from the public about its proposed panhandling bylaw.

They want to do something. But what?  Nelson city council at its Monday night meeting seemed  genuinely perplexed about how to approach panhandling on city streets and how to respond to the polarized responses it has been getting from the public.

So it put off any decision about its proposed panhandling bylaw until April, hoping to find some clarity in the meantime.

The discussion began with several council members expressing misgivings with the bylaw.

“There is still information coming in,” said councillor Valerie Warmington. “The pressure is off now because there are no panhandlers at the moment, and given the interest this has garnered in the community, it warrants more discussion.”

Warmington said the bylaw is inconsistent because some of its rules seem to deal specifically with aggressive panhandling, while others seem aimed at panhandling in general.

Councillor Anna Purcell also said she wanted more time.

“I am in favour of abandoning it for a set period of time. We have some initiatives working now in the city, we have the Street Culture Collaborative, and we need to look into this to see what the community can come up with to address some of these concerns. We should let some of these initiatives grow strong legs and see what they can come up with.”

Purcell did not give any examples of current community initiatives other than the street culture collaborative, nor did any other council members during the discussion.

Councillor Robin Cherbo wanted to scrap the bylaw entirely.

“It causes more problems than we have now,” he said. “It is crazy to ask people to pay a fine when they can’t afford it — that is why they are out on the street panhandling. There could be a more positive approach when it comes to panhandlers, give them a meal coupon, give them a coffee. This bylaw is a heavy-handed approach to a non-issue.”

Cherbo also suggested community work service as an alternative to a fine, and gave the example of washing dishes. He said aggressive panhandling can be dealt with by the provincial Safe Streets Act.

The Safe Streets Act was passed in BC in 2004, and prohibits aggressive soliciting including obstructing the path of the solicited person; using abusive language; proceeding behind or alongside or ahead of the solicited person; physically approaching, as a member of a group of two or more persons, the solicited person; and continuing to solicit the person.

City manager Kevin Cormack said Nelson’s proposed bylaw is modeled after Nelson’s needs. He said a police officer or bylaw officer can enforce a city bylaw, whereas only a police officer may enforce the Safe Streets Act because it is a provincial law and would have to be enforced through the courts. He said delaying the bylaw means defaulting to the act.

In an Oct. 27 letter to council, police chief Wayne Holland stated the police support the proposed bylaw because the status quo is not working.

“From our perspective,” Holland wrote, “a panhandling bylaw as opposed to engaging the ponderous and expensive criminal justice process and/or the Safe Streets Act would be a more effective and efficient method to deal with aggressive behaviour, profanity, disruptive conduct and various anti-societal attitudes that are displayed, on occasion, by certain individuals.”

Holland’s letter goes on to state that “the bylaw would address behaviour that does not reach the threshold of criminality, but does cross the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.”

All councillors voted in favour of putting the discussion off until April, except councillor Michael Dailly, who said council should make a decision now. Councillor Janice Morrison was absent.

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