City council voted 4-3 Monday night in favour of adopting a bylaw to regulate panhandling.
The vote was the third reading of the bylaw, originally presented in October, and still has to come back at a future meeting for adoption. That vote could go differently, because many councillors seemed torn.
The bylaw contains several provisions that are also in the provincial Safe Streets Act, such as prohibiting 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.
In addition to the provisions of the Safe Streets Act, the bylaw would prohibit 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.
Nelson police Chief Paul Burkart (pictured at left) told council he is in favour of the bylaw because it would give police an alternative to using the Safe Streets Act.
The Safe Streets Act can only be enforced by a police officer, whereas the city bylaw could be enforced by a bylaw officer. Penalties under the Safe Streets Act start at $86 as opposed to $25 under the bylaw. And enforcement under the act involves a criminal prosecution, while the bylaw involves a ticket and a fine, similar to a parking ticket.
Councillors Anna Purcell, Robin Cherbo, and Valerie Warmington voted against the bylaw, while councillors Bob Adams, Michael Dailly, Janice Morrison and Mayor Deb Kozak were in favour.
Purcell said she wants to put the bylaw off for a year to give the Street Culture Collaborative time to do its work.
The collaborative is a group of about 30 people from many sectors who have been meeting for a year and have so far come up with recommendations including mental health first aid training for businesses and other people who come in contact with street culture, a crisis response team, and street outreach workers.
“They have great ideas on how to address the issues from a comprehensive, community based non-punitive response,” Purcell said. “They already have one of their points in place with the mental health first aid training, and they are hiring a co-ordinator to be in place by Sepember. We should give them a chance to have that outreach and change the culture.”
From left, Councillors Purcell, Cherbo, and Dailly
Purcell said the things many members of the public are bothered by involve loitering, not panhandling.
“People hanging out at the amenity area by the CIBC but not asking for money can sit there all day and will be scary to some people. That is not necessarily going to change [with this bylaw].”
Cherbo agreed with Purcell about loitering. He said he doesn’t think bylaw officers are qualified to decide whether someone has a mental illness, and he wants to see outreach workers on the street. He said the city will have to hire more bylaw officers.
Warmington said she is hearing from the public that aggressive panhandlers aren’t the issue, but rather the sheer numbers of them.
“We aren’t alone in that. I just came from a poverty conference in Edmonton and cities across Canada are dealing with this, with rising poverty, rising numbers of people forced on to the streets. But we do have to make the streets comfortable and safe for everyone, and I am encouraged because this move from policing to a bylaw approach is a less heavy handed strategy. The consequences are less punitive than with the Safe Streets Act.”
Warmington said the bylaw won’t reduce the number of people who feel they need to be in the street, but she is concerned it would reduce the number of places they can be and the amount of time they can be there.
Dailly said he wants to reduce the burden on the police. He said if there are rules for buskers there should be rules for panhandlers too. He added before the bylaw is finally adopted he wants to see the enforcement policy, still to be drafted by city staff.
Adams said he wanted to pass third reading and before final adoption ask the police to keep stats.
“I would like to see police and bylaw officers keep really good track of what is going on out there, and give us a report in a month or two months, and if it is needed we would pass it and start giving them tickets.”
Morrison said she wants to pass the bylaw, start slow, and use an educational approach.
“I like the fact that a bylaw officer can enforce this. We don’t need police called out all the time. I am in favour of let’s get this moving, let’s get the Street Culture Collaborative moving, let’s keep getting more information.”
Kozak said the goal should be that we have no panhandlers at all, “not because we are kicking them off the street, but because we don’t have poverty any more.”
She said in the meantime, she’s encouraged by the fact the police are a part of the Street Culture Collaborative and a commmunity-based approach is being developed. She said she wants to move forward in tandem with that group and have the bylaw as an additional tool.
The bylaw is attached below, along with an analysis from city staff, a memo from the Nelson Police Department, an analysis from the BC Civil Liberties Association, and letters to council from a variety of organizations and businesses in Nelson.